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Political InQueery: Messages & Omissions in the Early Campaign

New Hampshire GOP debate stage and participantsInformation on the power of American workers' wages show stark losses in their portion of the money pie, unemployment figures took a hit in May that required explanation, and for all of the "recession is over" talk in Washington, people don't feel optimistic about their own economic outlook. In rolls the second GOP debate of the 2012 campaign. Did they capitalize on the country's bad mood? Well, kind of.

So many candidates took to the stage that to get any shot of all of them at once put them at "crushing your head" distance, and the stage props seemed straight out of Jeopardy!, the effect of which made the presidency seem like one of Bravo's occupation-based contest shows. If so, is Michelle Bachmann the new Tabitha?

As predicted, there was a lot of ribbing of the current President, even though Tim Pawlenty had referred to last year's health care reform as "Obamneycare" just the night before, a reference that includes Mitt Romney's health care plan for Massachusetts. He backed down while on stage with Romney, however, giving more fuel to opponents that he's weak-minded.

chart of US workers earnings 2011At the start of the debate, instead of answering a question directed at her, Michelle Bachmann led with a big announcement. I immediately thought, "she's found the cure for cancer!" No, she was announcing that she'd filed her paperwork so she is now officially in the running for America's Next Top Executive. It was a surprise move for a woman who is a veteran in politics and who is probably sick of being compared to Sarah Palin. And then, the children and grandchildren counting aside, we were off to the races.

Thirty seconds for each candidate to answer questions was a very small box for exploring any given issue, although seven people in one debate is going to be a bit of a mess, like seeing 16 horses out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby. It didn't help that many of the questions were insipid or totally unrelated to politics, as Jon Stewart lambasted on The Daily Show. Each candidate stayed pretty true to their persona: Herman Cain was laid-back and polished, Newt Gingrich frowned a lot and everything he said sounded like a complaint, Rick Santorum was um, still considering a new surname, and Mitt Romney smiles even when he's clearly irritated. I try to picture that in the Situation Room and it doesn't work for me.

There are a lot of issues out there that the GOP feels it can pick on, job creation being one of them. John King, the moderator, put a little pressure on the debaters in the early going, asking why they favor more tax cuts if the Bush Administration's tax cuts didn't keep us from entering a recession at the end of his term. There were no answers to that question.

This is the point in a campaign where the big ideas that each party is thinking about using get tested. Which themes or messages will find traction? Usually there is something of a toolkit of election messages that will have some fact-checking infrastructure, and congressional candidates will pull from this set, per party, as they launch their campaigns, also inserting local issues into the mix of talking and platform points. But this debate seemed bereft of those big ideas, as they simply weren't taken up, or actually uh, debated among the field. Those big issues, exacerbating the 30-second constriction, were also only talked about via a small-lens question, like asking the candidates if they would hire a Muslim on their staff, which is a reference to a comment from Mr. Cain about the "Muslims who would kill us" versus the other ones who aren't hell-bent on our destruction. But reference points aside, what is this question supposed to address, other than their willingness to publicly admit they would discriminate against someone?

Still, Gingrich took the bait and went straight to the would-be Times Square bomber, as if this person would somehow be equivalent to any candidate for a West Wing work badge.

Other questions were just as slivered up on the issues, or could be described as "gotcha" questions: Would you let a 5-year-old illegal immigrant [sic] receive emergency medical care? What do you think about right-to-work legislation? Is the President wrong on Libya? Sure, it's the primary field, but at some point specifics need to be presented, and in this debate, they had a tough time finding any air. No, gutting the Environment Protection Agency is not a specific platform position, except for Ms. Bachmann. More common were the potshots taken at the Obama Administration, which seemed to be marked most often as a "failure," but Rick Santorum also colored it, as he had last week, as "dangerous." He is the only candidate willing to go quite that far on the rhetoric dial.

In the light of day after the debate, there was, unsurprisingly, little agreement on which individual "won" the event, with some saying Mr. Romney, Ms. Bachmann, and Mr. Paul. Most politicos agreed Tim Pawlenty was the biggest loser, in the weakest link sense of the term.

With much posturing and little substance, the June 13 New Hampshire debate did little to answer voters' questions about the candidates, but it did provide an early exercise in what tone may resonate with the electorate. So far, the anger and frowning is carefully aimed only at Barack Obama, but it can only be a matter of time before all of those would-be Muslim bombers and bleeding 5-year-old immigrants feel the heat of invective. By then, Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Perry may have joined the GOP field.

Meanwhile, the President was in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, practicing his Spanish. This may be the election of voting blocs.

Previously: Lying Liars and the Lies They Think They Can Get Away With, The Danger of Conscientiousness

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Comments

2 comments have been made. Post a comment.

What is most painful about

What is most painful about this is that, in the end, I don't think it will matter if any of them has a real platform or any coherent statement on real issues. As long as the nominee can give a good show, he/she has a good chance of winning the election, largely by talking about how much of a failure the Democrats are and how lower taxes and smaller government are the only right way.

I try not to be cynical, but it usually doesn't work.

I agree that specific

I agree that specific messages, well presented or that catch fire because of a mood, can garner a lot of votes at the polls. Anti-same-sex marriage sentiment, communicated mostly at the grassroots level, helped bring conservative voters out in 2004, when Kerry was running against Bush, for example. I think President Obama needs to get away from this "long hard road" rhetoric—that was fine the night of the election in 2008, because he was trying to prepare us for the economic nightmare we were about to face, but it doesn't "energize" voters. Certainly he also can't take the tack of hope again, so I suspect he has to show what progress has been made. It's not an easy sell, given how most folks feel about their situations.

However, I agree with the political thinkers who say people will be hard pressed to vote against him in 2012 when they voted for him in 2008. It's most likely that he'll be re-elected.