You gotta hand it to Fox News: these guys know how to put on a show.
The panel of “reporters” at last night’s Republican presidential debate, particularly Chris Wallace, hurled one tough question after another at the eight candidates on the stage (for two hours – two hours!) in Ames, Iowa while the bellows, boos and howls of the live audience made it sound like a WWE steel cage match. None of that wimpy “please hold your applause” stuff for Roger Ailes.
In the end, however, all the excitement boiled down to little more than most of the candidates shouting “pay attention to me” while cynically pushing every right-wing hot button they could summon.
Of the eight wannabes on the stage, only front-runner Mitt (“corporations are people, too”) Romney and the embattled Newt Gingrich remotely resembled a national leader, someone with enough bearing, stature and chops to imagine (however terrifyingly) them becoming a major party nominee.
Romney was the winner of the evening, simply because none of the others laid a glove on him (Tim Pawlenty’s limp slaps aside), and he was glib and adept, if sometimes patronizing, in bashing President Obama as “over his head” in dealing with the economy, while ticking off crisp talking points about his own free market ideas to fix everything in a jiffy. He did have the strangest line of the night, however, when he said he won’t eat Barack Obama’s dog food. Huh?
Gingrich shone largely because expectations for him were so low, after his campaign imploded a few months ago and he reported being $1 million in debt in his latest filing. His sharp attack on the media, in the person of Wallace, was great theater, his rant about the “super congress” budget committee was terrific and his world-weary tone of a veteran big leaguer contrasted with the white-rat-on-speed squeals and yapping of his second-tier rivals.
Our personal favorite performer was Texas congressman Ron Paul, whose isolationist ravings about the war-mongering idiocy of our foreign policy made a shocking amount of sense, despite his endless harping on the need to return to the gold standard, and his uncanny resemblance to crazy Uncle Bob telling everyone in a too-loud voice at Thanksgiving dinner that they need to apply DMSO to whatever ache, pain or life-threatening illness that’s bothering them.
Michele Bachmann — whose brief disappearance from the stage left us wondering if she had to a) take an aspirin b) powder her nose or c) grab some lines from Ed Rollins — all but promised that she would nuke Iran to keep them for becoming a nuclear power but handled the question of whether she’d be submissive to her husband with a certain amount of poise. Her attacks on Tim Pawlenty were sharp and nasty, which was fun, but when he said she’d never accomplished anything in Congress her only direct response was to tout her pushing a bill for freedom of choice in light bulbs. Pro-choice on light bulbs. Really?
Pawlenty (who offered to cook us dinner and cut our grass) and Jon Huntsman were feckless washouts, while Rick Santorum — who had to bite and scratch to get any attention at all — looked and sounded like a back-bench legislator (surprise!). He did get in one nice if oblique shot at Bachmann when he noted that of course the debt ceiling had to be raised to keep the U.S. from becoming a deadbeat nation — leadership not showmanship, he said. Herman Cain is just plain screwy.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to enter the race this weekend during the Iowa Straw Poll in which he’s not participating, appeared only in a question from the reporters and none of the actual contenders were willing to brush him back, save one sideways mention by Huntsman that the GOP needs all the prayers it can get.
The actual content on the candidates’ remarks, in the end, doesn’t mean as much as whether they impress viewers as someone they could imagine being Leader of the Free World. Which is why Romney — no matter his conflicted stand on the 10th Amendment — came away the winner.
Those seeking a play-by-play replay of the evening are advised to check out Gawker’s live blog. Not that any of this matters much since the Ames straw poll (for which Thursday night’s debate was a precursor) and, for that matter, the Iowa caucuses themselves, have little to do with a) who gets nominated and b) who becomes president. But it keeps our brothers and sisters in the news media busy spinning crapchurn for months on company expense accounts.
Note to Fox: Lose the annoying game-show warning dinger.
Press Clips: This week’s Little Pulitzer for Investigative Punditry goes to the inestimable Timm Herdt, for his hiding-in-plain sight perceptual scoop highlighting the absurdity of California’s Leviathan-sized legislative districts.
The point, of course, was made first and ably by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, but kinda’ got buried in the big picture coverage of their “California Crackup”opus. But Herdt, who properly credits the dynamic duo, is right on the money with his timing, as what-about-me cries of anguish about the new legislative maps produced in the zero-sum redistricting process pierce the skies of California. For good measure, Herdt’s fine- writing-done-cheap piece provides just-right small, telling details to describe the nuttiness of the out-of-scale sprawl that shapes the current system:
The size of the Legislature — 80 Assembly members, 40 senators — was established in 1879. At the time, there were fewer than 1 million people living here.
Today, there are 37.3 million. That means that an Assembly district must contain about 465,000 people and each Senate district about 931,000…
How big is a Senate district? Five of the 50 states have fewer people. The districts are 10 times larger than the national average, three times bigger than those in the second-place state, Texas.
The big story: The mighty roar of hemming, hawing and harrumphing that arose from D.C. precincts populated by Beltway Media Wizards this week came in response to an unusual, 3,000 word, pop psych op-ed in the Sunday NYT by a lefty egghead who proclaimed the end of his mad crush on Obama because the president doesn’t tell good bedtime stories.
Drew Westen, a psych professor at Emory and a disillusioned Obamabot, triggered a new narrative among the journalistic pack – Lefties turn on Obama! – with an unrequited love tale of how The Great Man broke the hearts of his supporters and brought the world economy to the brink of disaster by failing to, well, trigger a new narrative:
The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.
Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”
When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.
In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety.
You get the idea.
We’ve not been shy about bashing the issue framing, political strategies and communications operations of the White House, but Professor Chrome Dome seems to be living in a dream world where presidents get to make all the rules, people actually play attention to the pronouncements of politicians and Republicans actually want the government to work.
Amid all the breast-beating about the Westen piece on the left, and the huzzahs sounding in the studios of Fox News, some insightful members of the Pajamahadeen did nice work in tearing apart the guy’s argument with some Actual Facts, most notably xpostfactoid:
Westen is a good storyteller. There is real force to many of his charges. But modeling what he says Obama should have done, he tells a simplified morality tale — highly selective, with a clear villain, and in some points demonstrably false. He makes copious use of political cliches about messaging that fail to take into account the degree to which economic conditions shape audience reception of a politician’s message. Founded on the alleged timidity of the 2009 stimulus, his story fails to engage the question of whether Obama could have got a larger stimulus through Congress. And in the end, it devolves into an ad hominem attack with recourse to cheap psychologizing (notwithstanding Westen’s protestations of scientific detachment) and unfounded impugning of motive.
Calbuzz sez check it out.
ICYMI: The rumors are true: Mitt Romney really did say that corporations are people.