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Politics As Entertainment, Endless GOP Debates Edition

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

We live in an entertainment culture. The lives of many in this country revolve around the consumption of media and entertainment. Sports is almost an object of worship to some, and events such as the BCS Championship and the Super Bowl are virtually national holidays, surrounded by endless attention in the news/sports media and other popular culture outlets. Given that media consumption is now so ubiquitous, with flat-screen digital TVs, smartphones, satellite TV, streaming video, iPads and other multimedia sources, is it any wonder that politics has now taken on a similar flavor? 2012 is an election year and along with it, politics as entertainment has come to the fore. Even Entertainment Weekly has a “Politics As Entertainment” page! But the biggest proof point for this is the seemingly endless series of debates between GOP candidates. This may make for good entertainment, but does it make for good politics?

We could see this coming long before the primary season began. As Politico noted on Sunday, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus made an attempt to put some controls around the debate schedule.

In words that were one part prescient, one part naive, Priebus in April warned at a media breakfast: “The idea of twenty different forums and twenty different groups is a little much. We need to have some order in our debate process.”

Priebus’s effort to have a Republican National Committee commission take control of the process quickly got answers from presidential campaigns and sponsoring news organizations: nice try. And fat chance.

I believe there are two key reasons that the campaigns and the news organizations have fed this debate overload. First, the campaigns, specifically of the lower-tiered candidates, saw debates as a means to get exposure for their (wo)man. Candidates such as Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman would likely have never had the slightest chance of success without the debates to give them a hearing. But the debates have only delayed what most would consider to be the inevitable end to the lower-tiered campaigns. From the Politico:

The dynamic has shaped the GOP race at every turn. Candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich went, at least briefly, from the margins to center stage based on debate performances. Candidates who looked formidable by traditional yard sticks, like Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty, crashed based on lackluster debate skills. Meanwhile, keeping candidates like Michigan Rep. Thad McCotter and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson off stage so deprived them of oxygen that it contributed to their departures from the GOP race.

“If they keep you out of the debates, you are out of the conversation, and you can’t run,” McCotter told The Detroit News when he dropped out in September. “It was sort of death by media.”

Romney solidified his standing as national front-runner with strong early performances in the debates. But his advisers, leery about exposing their candidate to so many tests, maneuvered behind the scenes to control the process.

“Second-tier candidates will take every debate they can take,” said Tom Rath, a top Romney adviser in New Hampshire. “The people who are in the upper tier don’t want to run the risk of being arrogant to the people in the second tier, so they show up. So it becomes a who’s going to blink first?”

However, the support from the news outlets is more intriguing. This second motivation for more debates stems from the “reality TV” aspects of presidential debates. It gives the media outlets free content, much like an episode of “Cops” or “America’s Funniest Home Videos”.

This weekend produced the unprecedented attraction of two nationally televised debates separated by just twelve hours, with a Saturday evening debate at St. Anselm College in Goffstown on ABC News and another one Sunday morning on NBC News as part of a special edition of “Meet the Press.”

The weekend highlighted an intriguing paradox of this year’s contest. One of the rare beliefs that Republicans have in common with President Barack Obama is disdain for the 24-hour mainstream media culture, with its emphasis on process and tendency to view politics through the prisms of entertainment and sports. Yet a media-wary party this year is in the midst of a nominating contest in which media — most especially cable news networks — have had more power than the national party, early-state activists or anyone else in setting the agenda.

Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), who laments how debates have “nationalized the race,” hopes both parties get control next time. He thinks voters ask better questions than debate moderators.

If they can use debates to make the news themselves, why would the media be motivated to limit the number of debates? Virtually every major media outlet: CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Bloomberg, C-SPAN – have all sponsored and/or co-sponsored a GOP debate this season. And with each has come over-dramatized commentary, play-by-play, live blogging (like here at Redstate), “post-game analysis” and endless TV and print news stories and blog postings in response. Political junkies watch these events as if they were the Sunday afternoon NFL Game of the Week. If there was a baseball-style scorecard to keep, we’d be keeping it. We count the number of gaffes, one-liners and figurative body blows as if we were tracking a pitcher’s ERA or a goaltender’s GAA.

But is this a good thing?

As RS co-contributor Aaron Gardner points out in his diary, “Unfortunately, it appears we have decided that we can forgive bad policy records easier than we can forgive poor debate performances.” The “stats” from the debates have become the issue, rather than the issues themselves. The consistently poor debate moderation has not helped matters. Almost universally, left-leaning news mavens have “moderated” these debates and have been more like shark fishermen chumming bait and waiting for the water to fill with blood, rather than acting as moderators facilitating the interactions between candidates. This week, George Stephanopoulos was widely panned for his hyperpartisan performance as “moderator” in the New Hampshire debate. According to the Daily Caller,

ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos directed pointed, hard-edged questions to Republican presidential candidates during Saturday night’s New Hampshire debate, often attacking without providing evidence to justify his broadsides.

When questioning former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Stephanopoulos, a former senior advisor in the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton, premised some inquiries on the assertion — offered without supporting facts — that Romney’s job-creation statistics were inaccurate.

“Now, there have been questions about that calculation of 100,000 jobs. So if you could explain it a little more,” Stephanopoulos asked Romney of the former governor’s claims about jobs created by companies he has helmed. “I’ve read some analysts who look at it and say that you’re counting the jobs that were created but not counting the jobs that were taken away. Is that accurate?”

“No, it’s not accurate,” Romney bluntly responded. “It includes the net of both. I’m a good enough numbers guy to make sure I got both sides of that.”

Stephanopoulos did not cite any analysts by name.

This was not the first occurrence of this media-figure-turned-leftist-talking-point-o-matic syndrome. A similarly biased moderation effort came from Brian Williams back in September and from Diane Sawyer in December. Perhaps this can be written off as poor grades in Speech 101, but given the left-wing bias in the mainstream media, I would place my bets on an intentional effort to poison the GOP candidate field. As some here at Redstate have pointed out, we appear to have allowed the media to select our candidates for us via their debate skills, rather than we Republicans/conservatives assessing their policy positions and their ability to be the President of the United States.

The debates are not all bad. There is obviously value in demonstrating the ability for a candidate to respond to adversaries in a stress-filled environment. As the Politico article points out,

The ability to project a strong, crisp message under the glare of TV lights and a national audience is not necessarily the worst way to test presidential readiness — any more than the ability to make a good impression while shaking hands at a Des Moines, Iowa, or Manchester diner.

Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said he welcomed having a large number of debates, several of which were in Iowa. He noted that the televised encounters gave a platform to underfunded candidates, like Rick Santorum, to command attention. “Any question that you’re going to get asked in a primary debate better prepare you for a general election debate,” Strawn said. “They make the nominee a stronger general election candidate.”

However, there is a limit to the usefulness of this format, especially given the conditions fostered by hostile “moderators” and the grueling schedule that the dozens of debates add to the “normal” grind of a campaign.

What can be done about this? The news outlets are free to hold whatever events they so choose, and the candidates are free to participate in any event they so choose. Can the parties do anything about this? Should they? Some here at Redstate derisively speak of “the establishment” picking our candidates. In a way, the debates have circumvented that.

Former Iowa GOP Chairman Steve Grubbs, who ran Cain’s Iowa campaign this year, thinks it’s good for voters to hear a diversity of views — not just ones vetted by insiders.

“Whatever was powerful before — parties, machine politics or simply years of building a national organization — has been almost completely usurped by the power of the political debate,” said Grubbs. “And I think that’s a good thing.”

But where does it end? At what point do the debates become an almost nightly event, akin to endless reruns of “M*A*S*H”? How do we prevent the mainstream press from selecting our candidate, rather than some nebulous “party machine?” Karl Rove wrote about this in a WSJ op-ed back in December:

For the most part, the debates have been helpful. Before them, the “generic Republican” never led President Barack Obama in any Gallup survey. Since early July, the generic GOPer has often been leading Mr. Obama. The debates likely contributed to this shift.

Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Debates have nearly crippled campaigns, chewing into the precious time each candidate has to organize, raise money, set themes, roll out policy and campaign.

Each debate kills at least three days: one day (and sometimes two) to prepare, the day of the debate, and the day after, spent dealing with the fallout from the night before. This late in the process—there are 19 days until Iowa and 26 days until New Hampshire, with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays eliminating crucial campaign days—many candidates might want to chart their own schedules and set their own message priorities. But the debates won’t allow for that.

This also needs to be said: What we’re watching are not really debates. They are seven- or eight-person news conferences. Their choppy nature makes cogent argument difficult and thoughtful policy discussion almost nonexistent. There’s a premium placed on memorable sound bites and snappy comebacks. Those are the clips that are endlessly replayed.

Debates transfer power to the media, draining it from the campaigns. Moderators and their news organizations—through questions they frame or select—have more impact than candidates on what’s covered and discussed. Because each debate is a lavish feast of comments and confrontations, the media also decide what aspects are most worthy of post-debate coverage.

Rove’s last point (highlighted) is key: we have allowed a transfer of power to the media. And given the political leanings of the media in this country, that is a very bad thing.

But hey, this is a boon to the revenues of the media outlets! But it is far worse for our political process and our culture. Again, from Neil Postman:

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

In some ways, the endless stream of debates have reduced politics to “a form of baby-talk” where policy is secondary and sound bites and slams are the goal.

The concern this election season is not the death of culture, it’s the death of our nation. Permitting an overdose of entertainment-drenched debates media events to determine the course of the election is, in some odd ways useful in candidate vetting, but in others, it is unwise and dangerous.

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