The PJ Tatler

On the Inadequacies of the Debates

After yet another debate in which mainstream media figures got to ask gotcha questions of Republican presidential candidates — Karen Tumulty dishonestly trying to pin Solyndra on Rick Perry, and Charlie Rose wagging his crooked finger while trying to use Ronald Reagan against…Rick Perry — we’re being asked to ponder a question: Is Rick Perry finished? The question begins with Byron York, hops over to Big Government and Hot Air, and lives on the political breeze.

It’s a strange question, and far too early given the calendar and Perry’s own history of waging comebacks. The debates prove nothing at all about principle or leadership or how any of the candidates would behave in office. They emphasize glibness, even sophistry. And they give the media moderators far too much power. Rick Santorum simply hasn’t earned relevance to the discussion equal to any of the candidates ahead of him, but he tends to get as much if not more air time. Gov. Perry’s answers, particularly on the Reagan trap and on the worth of the principles a president takes to the office regardless of his campaign plans and bromides, were perfectly fine, but haven’t generated post-debate chatter. The latter, in fact, should be the test by which we evaluate the candidates — not whatever plans they put out in campaign papers, which we all know won’t survive contact with Congress, but by what they have done with their power. What are their records? With whom do they surround themselves? Who are they, really? And how will they wage a campaign?

The debates have shown us that Herman Cain in intriguing, and infuriating to the left’s race industry. The former Democrat (he switched parties in 1986) would be more than a handful for the rigidly ideological and mostly incompetent Barack Obama. But we didn’t really need the debates to tell us this. Cain’s competence and principles are self-evident. Spend five minutes with him and you can’t help hoping he does well.

Likewise, Gov. Rick Perry’s long record is evidence enough that he thinks clearly, governs from principle and knows how to lead. We didn’t need the debates to tell us this. On paper, he is the closest analog to Reagan in this race: Successful governor of a large state, Democrat who switched to the GOP out of sincere conviction, a core conservative who can campaign skillfully and defeat whatever Democrats come his way because he knows what makes them tick. He can raise money, lots of it, and he can wield social networks like few others. Spend a few minutes with him and he can inspire you to appreciate your liberty. The debates, if anything, have shown that not everyone is equally good at everything. Jon Hunstman is arguably the better debater, but would anyone argue that he’s a better governor or a stronger leader? Other than Huntsman himself?

And so we turn to Gov. Romney. After five straight years of campaigning and untold number of debates, the campaign remains Romney vs. everyone else. The sheer number of candidates to his right helps him, as they divide the conservative spoils. In a true three-way race, he might well fall into third behind both Perry and Cain. But it’s not a three-way race, and the debates have served to show that Romney, ever the Cylon, has a plan and will ruthlessly stick to it. He says he is a conservative but his record says otherwise, with advisers who crafted RomneyCare moving on to craft ObamaCare, and other advisers who went on from stints working for him, to stints running the Obama EPA’s mad drive to strangle the energy sector. What are Mitt Romney’s governing principles? I honestly have no idea. And that’s troubling.

The debates haven’t told us what his principles are. He has managed to float above real scrutiny. The media moderators haven’t asked the right questions, or paid attention to the right things. They don’t have the basic knowledge to know how to get at conservative first principles. They play gotcha, and we Republicans let them, and form our opinions based on their antics. The Democrats would never be so stupid.