In a futile ratings-chase, CNN decided to emulate Fox News’s tabloid style of broadcasting by engaging in a really dumb stunt it called: “This or That.” The stunt obviously was intended to bring some levity to the proceedings, and consisted of nothing more than moderator John King singling out one of the game show contestants and asking – for example – “Leno or Conan?” “Elvis or Johnny Cash?” Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain inevitably was asked “Deep Dish or Thin Crust?” Poor Ron Paul got asked “Blackberry or iPhone?” and his long pause before answering clearly signaled that the poor old guy almost certainly doesn’t know what those things are.
Now, there will be some that accuse me of overreacting to what is intended to be a little bit of harmless fun, but this kind of stunt by our political media really does piss me off. Despite the fact it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, John King began each “This or That” segment by solemnly telling the viewers that these dumb-ass questions were being asked “in an effort to learn more about the candidates” – as if a candidate’s personal choice in reality TeeVee shows or his preference for spicy chicken wings tells us anything about what kind of president that candidate would be.
And it is not just that this is dumb. A great part of the American electorate simply does not understand the immense power to change our lives that we grant politicians every time we hold an election. Indeed, as detailed in this classic article by Chris Hayes, they do not even understand that many of the things that most concern them – their ability to find a job, obtain higher wages, afford health care – are political issues at all. This is “the undecided electorate,” those Americans who do not particularly follow politics and do not consider themselves part of either the Republican or the Democratic camp, which means these are the people who very often decide elections.
CNN’s “This or That” stunt only serves to reinforce for these people that selecting a President is something that comes down to – that should come down to – whether you want to have a beer with that guy. Whether he or she likes the same TeeVee you do, or truly appreciates the importance of a really good spicy chicken wing. Needless to say, this is a terrible way to pick those people to whom we would hand power.
(Although I have to admit that asking Pawlenty “Coke or Pepsi?” is a great metaphor for a lot that is wrong with modern Republican politics. Coke and Pepsi are essentially the same thing: carbonated water mixed with caramelized syrup. Everybody knows what they taste like, and they are frequently substituted for each other in restaurants that don’t serve both. The main difference between the two soft drinks is in their branding – that is, in the millions and millions of dollars they both spend every year trying to distinguish themselves from each other. By and large, when you choose between Coke and Pepsi you are really only choosing between marketing images. For a party that believes the American people can be convinced to buy anything – even the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare – if it is only marketed in a compelling way, asking the limpest of the candidates to pick between nearly identical products neatly encapsulates what we saw on the stage last night.)
And now, in no particular order, let’s look at the Seven Dwarfs themselves:
Fakey – Mitt Romney tried to keep the focus on the economy and jobs, despite the fact (i) his tenure as a businessman consisted of his destroying jobs and (ii) his tenure as a governor put Massachusetts 47th worst in job creation. He kept to Republican platitudes, telling the audience America can achieve energy independence by exploiting its own fossil fuels (more oil drilling, total exploitation of natural gas, and “clean coal”), the debt ceiling should not be raised without massive spending cuts (no mention of how that would affect unemployment), and by arguing – all evidence to the contrary -- that the bailout of the American automotive industry was a failure. But by committing no major gaffes and keeping to a moderate tone he reinforced his image as an animatronic President, and given the weak field he faces this will be sufficient for him to maintain his status as “frontrunner.”
Doughy – New Gingrich argued, despite all evidence to the contrary, that President Obama is “anti-jobs and anti-business.” He made clear that he would repeal the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act as well as Sarbanes-Oxley, which was enacted ten years ago in the immediate wake of the Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Arthur Anderson accounting debacles. He recommitted himself to “totally supporting” the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare. He comes out in favor of McCarthyism if it means subjecting Muslims to loyalty oaths (“We did it with the Nazis, we did it with the Communists,” and he apparently considers American Muslims to be Nazi/Communists). He demonstrated his ability to generate Big Ideas™ by suggesting that if America had only decentralized its space program years ago we would have “moon bases” by now. He did not explain why that would be a good thing. He argued for deployment of the National Guard to the Mexican border, apparently on a permanent basis. On the whole, he failed to say anything out-of-bounds for a Republican primary (except for that groovy “moon base” thing) and did nothing to alleviate the impression that his campaign is already effectively over.
Crazy – Michele Bachmann came across as surprisingly coherent and well-briefed, though if you looked in her eyes you could still see the little woman behind them screaming “Helter-Skelter! Helter-Skelter!” She vowed to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, and said she would not vote for raising the debt ceiling; instead, she proposed that Treasury keep paying off its interest obligations so that the US does not default on its financial obligations, and then “cut spending elsewhere.” I am almost sure she does not mean for this to include her own salary. She surprised everyone by coming out against the death penalty when she asserted that our Creator endowed us with the right to life, and that the government cannot take away that right. Claimed the Tea Party consists of disaffected Democrats, vowed to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency entirely, and said Obama was a wuss for insisting that our NATO allies take the lead in bombing Libya. But she wasn’t frothing at the mouth, and therefore will probably see a bump in support.
Pixie – Ron Paul is rapidly shaping up to be this year’s Rudy Giuliani, except that Paul will be known as “a noun, a verb, and ‘the Fed.’” Looking very much like the Keebler Elf’s granddad, Paul claimed that if America fixed its monetary policy by getting rid of the Fed we could see 10% or 15% growth and not have to worry about inflation. Paul’s Free Market runs on pixie dust, and gets better the louder you clap. Fielding a question from the NH Union Leader’s John Distaso (who himself looked a little like Paul McCartney’s homelier brother) Paul argued that government assistance of any kind to private enterprise is “not legal,” “not in the constitution,” and “immoral” – Paul would happily have let Detroit die off. Paul suggested that America end its military adventures and rein in the military-industrial complex. Unlike Doughy, Pixie really is in this in order to help get his ideas about the Fed before the public and, like Doughy, Pixie has no chance to win.
Dreary – Tim Pawlenty probably fared worst in this meeting. Already known for being unbearably dull, John King offered him the opportunity to sling his new “Obamneycare” portmanteau at the Republican frontrunner, but Pawlenty refused. Then John King essentially called him a wuss on national television. Given that Republicans like bullies (see Chris Christie), that is gonna hurt him. Pawlenty went on to stress the fact that he grew up working class and belonged to a union, and then argued that unions should be eliminated by introducing so-called “Right to Work” laws into now-unionized states. He argued that the First Amendment is to protect “people of faith” from the government, but not the government from “people of faith.” I assume atheists and agnostics are shit out of luck. Pawlenty claimed to be the most pro-life candidate based on his record, and that if elected he would prevent 30 million Americans from being killed in a terrorist attack (which is coming as soon as the terrorists develop multiple ICBM technology). Pawlenty opposes “birthright citizenship,” which he claimed was caused by liberal judges legislating from the bench when America adopted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Since even this craziness wasn’t enough to keep the audience from yawning, Pawlenty will remain at the bottom of the pack.
Frothy – Rick Santorum argued that he “accomplished a lot” as a Senator, particularly his helping to end programs like welfare and food stamps, which will surely be something to think about now that 10% of the workforce can't find a job. Santorum fully supports the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare. He directly disputed Pawlenty’s claim to be “the most pro-life” by asserting that his top priority as president will be the pro-life abortion issue. Thankfully, he didn’t describe how his commitment to “life” persuaded him to bring home his wife’s miscarried fetus in a jar and show it to his actual children. Santorum is in favor of maintaining America’s worldwide system of military bases so that we can hit back whenever we are attacked; he doesn’t care that most people want to attack us because we maintain a worldwide system of military bases. Frothy was much less angry in this appearance than he was before the Birchers; that may be a conscious decision to broaden his limited appeal or it might just be because last month Frothy knew who his audience was. In any event, nothing was said last night that will lift Frothy out of his place at the bottom of the pack.
Dopey – I just cannot understand the so-called appeal of Herman Cain. His routine answer when asked what he would do about any complicated problem is to assert: “First, you make sure you’re working on the right problem. Then, you make sure you’re doing the right thing to fix it. Then you implement the solution.” Uhhhmmmmm . . . thanks for that insight? Seriously, he said the same thing over and over again last month and it was the first thing I heard him say last night. When asked about whether he supported our bombing programs in Libya and Yemen I started jotting down his answer before he gave it in order to save time. As for substance, Cain said he was opposed to birthright citizenship, which I suppose means if he is elected we are in for a battle to amend the Constitution, and that the states should be empowered to deal with illegal immigrants, which I suppose means Iowa will start deportation proceedings. Like Doughy, Dopey is in favor of loyalty tests for Muslims. Despite his previous “appeal,” Cain is another flash-in-the-pan. His failure last night to say anything significant only underscores that fact.
Sarah Palin – I’ve argued for a while that Sister Sarah is planning on running this year. Not because I think she wants to win, but because she wants to keep being a celebrity. Don’t misunderstand me. If someone were to offer Sister Sarah the job, she’d take it in a heartbeat. But if asked to choose between being the next President of the United States or the next Oprah Winfrey, she’d go Oprah without hesitating.
But Palin can’t do what Doughy Newt Gingrich did: crank out a couple of books, get paid speaking gigs as a “public intellectual,” and appear regularly on the Sunday Shows. Palin has proven time and again that she hasn’t an idea in her silly head, so nobody is going to take her seriously if she were to publish anything other than another self-congratulatory biography. And she certainly can’t be seen fielding “gotcha” questions like “what newspapers do you read?” or “what did you take away from what you saw today?”
But Palin’s reality show flopped and Roger Ailes doesn’t seem interested in putting her back on the TeeVee. Which means that if Palin wants to continue raking in $$ as a semi-celebrity she has to persuade people that she is still a threat to enter the race. Because Newt could keep himself in the public eye it was easy to persuade people he was always a threat to enter and so he never had to; Palin can’t do that, so she will almost have to run.
But Bachmann’s surprisingly lucid performance last night might quickly derail any such plans, if only because Bachmann seems capable of sewing up both the Tea Party vote and the Rich Lowry MILF-loving starburst vote. My prediction: Sarah Palin has until the end of this month to announce she is running. Later than that, it won’t make a difference.
Rick Perry – there has been recent speculation about Texas Governor Rick Perry getting into this thing too, but I would guess after last night that is a long-shot. Perry is cultivating the Jeebus-crowd, but through her Tea Party connections Michele Bachmann pretty much has that one locked up. Her surprising decision to not start speaking in tongues last night will persuade a lot of people she is a more viable contender than originally thought. My guess is that unless something significantly unexpected happens, Perry ultimately will not want to contest Bachmann for the anti-Romney Religious Right faction.
Rudy Giuliani – there also has been recent speculation that Giuliani will throw his hat into the ring sometime soon, but I can’t see why. Rudy is mostly known for running one of the worst presidential campaigns in modern history, and the only asset he brings to the race is his ability to get Bill Kristol all hot ‘n bothered. Known primarily (and inexplicably) for being strong on foreign policy and anti-terrorism issues, so far the 2012 election seems to be focusing on domestic issues. Besides, Rudy looks too much like Count Orlock to really be a viable contender: