GOP Presidential Debates
by Tom Donelson on November 1, 2011 at 2:05 PM
It would seem that someplace, somewhere there are two or maybe seven or eight Republicans debating. The major complaint is that there are too many debates. Maybe the critics are right, but these debates have proven a valuable asset for many of the Republican candidates. Dick Morris observed a few months ago that this will be the Fox nomination process where Fox News may determine the nominee. This may be an exaggeration but not by much as cable debates have shaped the race. The debates have replaced local campaigning and allowed candidates like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum to survive and thrive. Could you imagine what would have happened to Gingrich’s campaign or Cain's campaign if these series of debates had not occurred? The answer is simple, Newt would be back working at Fox, working off his debt, and Herman Cain would be on a book tour, but not as a Presidential campaigner.
These debates have allowed voters to see these candidates under pressure and how they can defend their positions. The voters got to see Herman Cain as a likable fellow, Newt Gingrich as the smartest guy in the room and saw Rick Perry as man not ready for primetime. Romney has strengthened his lead with his coolness under pressure, but he has yet to close the deal as there is still doubt about Romney. Think of it this way, no matter how many ads Rick Perry has run from this point, if he can’t defend his position in a debate, he will lose. Debates have replaced campaigning and neutralized TV ads as a means of communicating candidates’ ideas, and it has forced candidates to think about their position; sometimes they had to refine their position.
Cain's 9-9-9 has already gone through evaluation and changes as Herman Cain has modified his tax plan to ensure that he can better sell his proposal and reduce criticism that it would hurt the poor and lower income workers. Cain now has offered an empowerment zone and a 9-0-9 plan, showing a campaign that can adjust on the fly in the primary season. It is better to adjust and deal with shortcomings of a plan now as opposed to next October when it will be too late. The debates forced Rick Perry to propose his tax reform plan and talk about how he would govern. Newt Gingrich has benefited the most as he has shown that he has the knowledge and just maybe he can overcome his own personal baggage among some voters who see a man who can be President. Gingrich may not have the charisma of Herman Cain, but he has been able to overcome the meanness reputation as he has failed to join in the food fight that occasionally has popped up. While Perry went after Romney, Gingrich went after Obama. This has allowed Gingrich to show off his knowledge and break away from the pack.
Even when Cain floundered at a debate, his personality and charisma allowed him to continue forward. Even in a bad debate performance, Cain can come up with those one or two comments that allows him to stay in the game, and while some may not like this about the debate, the debates have shown some candidates to be likeable and others not as likeable. The debates have exposed some candidates, Perry have come off as a lightweight, unable to defend his position and at times looked lost. A few weeks ago, Perry was the savior and counterweight to Romney, but after five debates, the flaws came through. While some may not choose a President for his ability to be verbally gifted, many Republicans want a candidate who can go toe to toe with Obama and defend their position. In an election where ideas matter, it does matter if the candidate can defend those ideas. Another aspect of these debates showed a weakness in staffs. The problem of Perry's performance in the debates showed a campaign that could neither adapt to the new campaign of 2012 and weakness of prep work. As for the Cain campaign, there have been times as well when Cain looked unprepared as well and does reflect on the campaign. The biggest difference is that Cain's business acumen has allowed him to design plans and then refine them on the fly; which has shown that Cain is flexible; something a chief executive will need when dealing with Congress when he can’t get all that he wants but at least push his agenda forward.
Often candidates and political parties fight the last campaign and a candidate that sees which way the wind is blowing is the candidate that will go far; maybe all the way to the White House. 2012 is not 2008 or 2010. 2012 is a campaign driven by ideas in uncertain times and the winner will determine the politics of a generation. In the early going, it is the power of ideas that is driving the primaries and the debates have shown those candidates with ideas and those still playing retail politics. Michele Bachman has been replaced by Herman Cain simply because Bachmann is playing by 2008 rules and Cain is playing by 2012 rules. Bachmann is playing retail politics, but Cain is playing with ideas. Can anyone describe Bachmann's economic plan or for that matter Rick Santorum's? Everyone knows Cain's ideas and describes them simply 9-9-9. Which is why Cain is now flying, and Gingrich is still in the race while Bachmann is falling behind. For Perry, he has now discovered the power of ideas, but he had to wait after five debates to decide to turn this into a campaign of ideas instead of relying on his past record as governor. Debates have become a campaign vehicle for candidates to turn this into a campaign of ideas and those candidates who expressed ideas have done better than those who have simply tried to score points.