11/29/2007

YouTube Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in their first YouTube debate last night and was produced by CNN. (You can read my initial take on the debate here.) This was CNN's second YouTube debate, as the Democrats participated in the first one back in July. This debate revealed a lot about the candidates and the media. More on that later.

Regarding the technical production of the debate, it seems that CNN took a few of my criticisms from the first YouTube debate to heart, as the videos were easier to hear and there were fewer technical problems, save for one man in the audience who accidentally turned off his microphone while addressing the candidates. Having said that, for the members of the audience, it might have been a bit too difficult to see the video questions because all the dead space involved should have been utilized to magnify the size of the videos. The best way I can describe this is to imagine placing a postcard on a regular sheet of paper and then enlarging it. The postcard will certainly fit, but you're also not taking advantage of all the extra functional space on the paper. More video and less graphics and whitespace is something future YouTube debate organizers should consider.

This debate started in a way that was similar to the recent Democratic debate in Las Vegas in which the candidates were introduced one by one and stood at center stage for a few minutes for a photo op. While the members of the press corps were happily snapping away, CNN's political analysts were handicapping the debate. I personally think this photo op is something that should have happened after the debate (as I had written about here), but perhaps CNN followed this protocol in an attempt to be fair to the Republican candidates since this is what they did for the Democrats a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The "honor system" rule regarding response time was also the same, although it rendered moderator Anderson Cooper impotent, especially during the first half of the debate as the candidates frequently interrupted him or ignored his prompts to yield the floor to another candidate.

Before I go any further, I must address the candidacies of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. I've said that they needed to withdraw their candidacies because they are clearly mired at the back of the pack and do not occupy any political niche that isn't already filled by another candidate. However, like Mike Gravel, they have every right to run. And this is where the media become a problem. Neither Tancredo nor Hunter received much talk time at the debate, which brings up the same old criticism. If you're going to invite a candidate to participate in the debate, then you should not be so obvious in the way you marginalize them. I made that exact same criticism about the Democratic debate here. Of course, neither candidate really brought very much to the debate other than their positions on illegal immigration, so perhaps their limited talk time was justified. Having said that, future debate organizers are going to have to be honest with themselves and figure out what to do with these two candidates because the time given to them could have been more effectively used by the other candidates.

As for the selection of questions, I was surprised that there were no questions about Iran and healthcare, both of which have been major stories in the news recently in light of the escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran and the recent veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Rudy Giuliani in particular has criticized the Democrats for not mentioning the words "Islamic terrorism" in their debates, but I curiously noted how none of the Republican candidates mentioned the name "George Bush." It would seem to me that both political parties have a bit of a disconnect in that many voters may feel the Democrats don't take terrorism seriously enough and that a lot of voters may feel the Republicans don't understand just how unpopular Bush really is. Ronald Reagan's name came up more often than Bush's did, as has been the case in every GOP debate thus far, but one of the unintended consequences of praising Ronald Reagan so much is that it reminds Republican voters that George Bush is most certainly not Ronald Reagan. And in a political environment in which voters want "change," is going back to the '80s the right way to address these "change" voters? Hillary Clinton shares this exact same problem with her nostalgia about the '90s.

After the introductions, photo-op, and explanation of the debate format, Anderson Cooper played a few video submissions that did not make the cut. The final video was one that featured a song lampooning the candidates and their weaknesses. It was a bit awkward watching the candidates feign laughter when their name came up to be ridiculed in the song. After all, who wants to laugh when someone is bringing their flaws out into the open before the first question is even asked? But the candidates seemed to do the best with what they had. This video was probably included to get the debate off on a light note, but it was probably unnecessary.

About the issues and exchanges

Illegal immigration is huge. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani spent the first 15 minutes or so of the debate hitting each other hard on this issue. Romney accused Giuliani of being the mayor of a "sanctuary city." Giuliani hit back by accusing Romney of living in a "sanctuary mansion," an obviously prepared line in reference to the illegal aliens that had worked at his house. Romney defended himself by saying the company that hired the illegal aliens to work at his house was responsible for verifying their employees' legal status, and Giuliani defended himself by saying there were only "three exceptions" that allowed illegal aliens to stay in New York. Both of their defenses seem pragmatic enough, but the problem with this back and forth between them is that it reminds Republican voters that both candidates are trying to portray themselves as further to the right on this issue than they were when they were governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York. Like Tom Tancredo said, "they are trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo" on this issue and it makes both candidates look less credible on the issue.

Mike Huckabee also drew fire from Mitt Romney on illegal immigration and how special benefits had been offered to the children of illegal immigrants while he was governor of Arkansas. To Huckabee's credit, he addressed this issue without using the shrill tones and demonizing language that turns off more moderate voters. He also explained the scholarship program by showing how it reflected conservative Republican values (he emphasized that the recipients had to be drug free, honor students, in the process of applying for citizenship, etc.). Huckabee also reminded voters of his humble roots when he attacked Romney for his emotionally sterile attitude and perceived disdain for helping out those who are less fortunate. His pragmatism and his delivery provide a perfect example of why I believe Huckabee has such a wide appeal. Romney came out on the losing end of this exchange because it showed him to be a bit too perfect or a bit too removed from average people's lives.

Democrats would be wise to develop a coherent policy proposal regarding illegal immigration because it is clearly a much larger issue that could potentially blow up in their faces in the general election. It is that galvanizing. Even though the "driver's license" question was tough for Hillary Clinton, it should be considered a godsend for Democratic politicians everywhere who had up until then been content with sitting on the sidelines while the Republicans blasted each other over border security, amnesty, deportation, and guest worker programs. This issue is a very big deal.

John McCain seemed a bit more presidential than Romney and Giuliani. However, it often took him a long time to warm up in his responses, which led to lots of inspirational language, but not a lot of solutions. It's nice to know that "he came to the Senate not to do the easy things, but to do the hard things," but was it really necessary for him to drone on and on about what currently ails this nation? He also soberly reminded everyone that the Republicans failed when it came to spending and Hurricane Katrina, for example. The problem is that while everybody knows what the problems are, nobody wants to provide any meaningful solutions. McCain did cite eliminating pork barrel spending as a way to achieve fiscal responsibility, but that alone will not solve the issue. McCain clearly had his openings tonight, but did not take full advantage of them because of how much time he spent saying things that everybody already knew. But despite that, I do believe he turned in a stronger performance than Giuliani and Romney simply because he didn't seem snippy, petty, or shrill.

Romney and McCain got into a spat over waterboarding. Obviously, as a former prisoner of war, McCain is uniquely qualified to talk about this issue. And he totally dismantled Romney when Romney said "it would not be prudent to disclose which interrogation methods we use because our enemies would know what to expect." The problem with Romney's remarks is that, while they may be popular with the GOP base, they could easily be countered in a way that catches these politicians in a contradiction. For example, if someone were to ask if it were okay for American interrogators to cut off the fingers or arms of captured terrorism suspects, surely all of these candidates would say that should never be condoned. So if it's okay to come down hard against one form of torture, why is it okay to be evasive or tight-lipped about another form of torture? Romney should develop a follow-up response to this line of questioning because trying to avoid the issue by saying it would aid the terrorists might not be enough to placate his critics.

This spat shows a major rift among Republicans. One wing of the party believes everything should be on the table when it comes to national security. Another wing is a bit more pragmatic and warns about the slippery slope of allowing torture. Avoiding discussing the issue like Romney did (and the way Bush does today) seems to be a way to straddle the fence, but it really opens you up for attack from all sides.

Fiscal conservatives are probably not too happy with any of the candidates. When a question came up about national debt reduction, the strategies proposed were "spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan did, eliminating pork, fundamental change in the way Washington works, entitlement reform, and using technology to improve efficiency." The problem here is that these are all generalities that any average person can come up with. Had a candidate gotten a bit more specific and conveyed a reasonable grasp of the potential consequences of these proposals, that candidate would have won major plaudits. The moderator gave Fred Thompson a chance to do this and tried to pin him down on his strategies towards fiscal responsibility (especially after he said "he had specific plans"), but he wouldn't elaborate. That was likely another disappointment for Republican voters who wonder if there is any "there" there with Thompson. (Read more of my criticisms about our superficial level of political discourse here.)

This is one reason why I believe Ron Paul turned in a stronger debate performance than most of the other candidates. Rather than making vague statements (we have to fix Social Security, we're winning in Iraq, we must secure our borders, etc.) and attacking low hanging fruit (pork spending, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Hillary Clinton, etc.), Ron Paul actually listed specifics. He proposed cutting the Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security, for example, to cut down on spending because they were failing and bloated bureaucracies. The political establishment may view his remarks as burning your bridges with the electorate, but I get the sense that a lot more voters are viewing his frankness as a refreshing blast of political courage. John McCain also tried to display similar courage in terms of reforming the tax code. However, his delivery reeked of the same superficial rhetoric that I believe voters are fed up with:

"If Congress can't fix the tax code, then give me the job. I will fix it."
When he said this, the camera panned to a woman in the audience who rolled her eyes. Perhaps she is one of those fed up voters who wants real substance, rather than rhetoric.

McCain also made one other more damaging mistake. He went after Ron Paul on foreign policy and military intervention, but his attack blew up in his face. McCain said that "Ron Paul's isolationism caused World War II" and that "we allowed Hitler to come to power." Why McCain invoked Hitler is unknown, but that seemed a bit over the top. Ron Paul then hit back in a way that undermined McCain's grasp of foreign affairs. McCain accused Ron Paul of being an "isolationist," but Paul is really a "noninterventionist." There is a big difference between the two terms that a lot of average voters might not have known about until Ron Paul spelled it out for them last night. (For the record, a noninterventionist is open to communicating and trading with the rest of the world. An isolationist, however, has limited or no such contact with the rest of the world at all. Think about the differences between Sweden and North Korea, for example.) This exchange made Ron Paul appear more knowledgeable about foreign policy than military veteran McCain did--and at McCain's expense.

One of the biggest missed opportunities of the debate concerned the issue of Chinese product safety. When this question came up, it was inexplicably only given to Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter! I am sure there were a lot of women with children in particular who would have loved to hear what Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Thompson had to say about this issue. What a lousy decision on the part of Anderson Cooper!

Voters did, however, hear Giuliani's position on gun rights, and I don't think conservatives liked what they heard. In addition to talking around the question he was asked (about having to pass a written test to be able to purchase a firearm), Giuliani said that "the government can impose reasonable regulations" and cited things like background checks and mental health checks. This would appeal to moderates, but conservatives most certainly don't want to hear anything about adding new government regulations. I believe this could potentially divide Giuliani's base. Are national security voters and Second Amendment voters one and the same? If they are, Giuliani is in trouble.

On the question of who owns a gun, Mitt Romney should have kept his mouth shut:
"I have two guns in my home. They're owned by my son Josh."
For a Republican candidate whose love for guns has long been suspect, Romney would have been better off staying quiet. Instead, he reminded voters that the caricature of Romney being a panderer had some validity. This remark reeked of "me too-ishness."

Gun voters aren't the only ones who likely left the debate dissatisfied. Black voters were also probably shaking their heads. There were two questions about Black issues--one on Black-on-Black crime and one on why Blacks don't vote Republican. Romney showed that he had very little understanding of the issue of Black-on-Black crime by taking the Sam Brownback approach and saying "having a mom and dad" is the best way to save inner city communities. Is he serious? Of course, for the millions of Blacks living in single-parent homes in the inner city, "having a mom and dad" isn't going to do a single thing about the fact that these people need help now.

Rudy Giuliani also totally flubbed a question about why Blacks don't vote Republican. He lamely said that "we don't do a good enough job of conveying that our party is a good fit for Blacks and Hispanics" before pivoting to welfare reform. For any readers out there who are wondering how politicians can make inroads with Black voters, you can start by acknowledging the utter failure of the government at all levels to take care of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Rudy Giuliani could have mentioned how the New York City Police Department mishandled situations like the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant in his own doorway. Issues of police brutality, racial profiling, taking money out of failing inner city public schools and putting it into (White) suburban private schools, not commenting on hot-button issues like the Jena Six case, and not bothering with reaching out to Blacks because "they'll never vote for a Republican anyway" would be good places for a Republican to start!

How can Republicans be so passionate in their rhetoric about fighting terrorists in Iraq and getting rid of illegal aliens coming from Mexico, but have so little to say when it comes to issues affecting millions of Blacks living within America's own borders? Do you remember the ignorance Fred Thompson displayed when asked about the Jena 6 case? It's a shame that Anderson Cooper did not ask everyone this question. The only person who displayed any sense of competency on this issue was Mike Huckabee, who mentioned some of the medical issues that commonly affect Blacks, such as AIDS, hypertension, and diabetes. Should he be the nominee, I expect him to attract a lot of Black votes. He seemed to be the only candidate on the stage last night who actually "gets it," just like Ron Paul "gets it" when it comes to how Iraq is draining our treasury:
"We're using our taxes to blow up buildings and bridges overseas, but we don't use that money to actually build buildings and bridges in the US! We need to get government off our back and out of our wallets!"
Romney's answer on the question of the Bible will come back to haunt him. His Mormonism is obviously a big deal in this primary and when he was asked if he believed "every word of the Bible," his answer was painful to listen to. For evangelical Christians, there is no tolerance for equivocating on such an issue. And Romney, unfortunately, took three big steps back when he answered the question "I may interpret the Bible differently than you do, but I believe the Bible is the word of God." (No answer on whether he believes "every word" of it though.) His answer wasn't really bad, but it was not good enough for evangelical Christians. Huckabee did a much better job of answering this question, but it was probably a bit unfair that he got to answer such an easy question, given the fact that he's a Baptist minister. Romney has been trying hard to lay the questions about his religion to rest, but I think he may have created more questions than he answered.

One of the questions that perhaps no Republican wanted to field was the question about how long the US military should stay in Iraq. The question came from a staunch Iraq War supporter who wants the US to maintain a long-term presence there. None of the candidates who answered that question hinted that they would advocate staying in Iraq for 5 or 10 more years. Instead, they answered the question with the common generality "We'll stay in Iraq until the mission is finished." Anderson Cooper could have made things a bit more interesting by asking what "the mission" is, but he missed the opening.

Perhaps the biggest surprise involved a question towards the end of the debate about what the Confederate flag meant. Mitt Romney took a pretty firm stand against the flag by saying "I don't recognize that flag. There are not two Americas. There is only one. We need to get beyond that stuff." This likely pleased moderates and any Blacks who were paying attention until turned them off again by saying "the Democrats are dividing America." And on top of that, his remarks probably doomed him in the early primary state of South Carolina. Politicos remember how John McCain was fatally wounded by his stance on the Confederate flag in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary against George Bush. The reason why this is a big deal for Mitt Romney is because he had been trying to make the sale to Southern conservatives that he is "one of them" despite being from Massachusetts, being a Mormon, and once being on the wrong side of abortion and gay marriage. Coming down hard against the Confederate flag is one step below coming down hard against the Bible in South Carolina, where the flag still flies in front of the statehouse and in front of private residences throughout the rural areas of the state. It's common to see vehicles here with Confederate flag decals and vanity plates, so these (likely Republican) voters were probably offended by Romney's remarks. These remarks alone moved Romney out of the "conservative" category and into the "liberal" one as far as South Carolinians are concerned. This is irrevocable.

Fred Thompson offered a more nuanced position on the flag:
"Not everyone who flies the flag is a racist, but some people who fly it are. It should not be flown in public places."
Again, Southern conservatives were likely not pleased by these remarks. And South Carolinians are probably going to ask him about the flag flying in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. After being disappointed by Mitt Romney's remarks, these voters were probably waiting for "the great conservative hope" to say the flag meant "standing up for states' rights," which can mean many things including a code word for racism. I once compared Fred Thompson to Barack Obama prior to his late entry in the race because of the enthusiasm surrounding his campaign. However, it now seems like his candidacy has fallen to the ground with an unceremonious thud. If Thompson can't keep White Southern conservative males in his tent, then he has no base left.

Disaffected Democrats watching this debate probably were not converted last night. Aside from Huckabee, Paul, and maybe McCain, none of the Republican candidates gave any reasons why they should be President. Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson were all too busy trying to cut each other down. And when they weren't doing that, they were busy avoiding giving straight answers. (Consider Romney's backing away from the question about looking forward to the day when gays can openly serve in the military.) I can't help but wonder if Republicans feel the same way about their frontrunner candidates as the Democrats do about theirs because it seems like the candidates who should be getting all the attention are the ones further in the back of the pack. Huckabee, Paul, and McCain seem much better qualified for the presidency than Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani. The same holds true for Richardson, Biden, and Dodd for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, even though she wasn't on stage last night, Hillary Clinton still managed to find a way to get involved in negative politics. One of the men who asked a question at the debate was a member of Clinton's steering committee. In addition to making CNN look biased, it reminded voters of the scandal that characterized the Clinton years. That should motivate Republicans and depress Democrats, thus feeding into the notion that she is the most beatable Democrat. The question was about letting gays serve in the military. It was a good question, especially since gays are being discharged even though they may be proficient Arabic speakers who are invaluable given the War on Terror. However, the scandalous side of the story threatens to overpower the actual issue, and that is unfortunate.

It is worth noting that the man who posed this question was a gay 43-year Army veteran and a retired one-star general. When he challenged why gays should be discharged for their sexual orientation, the audience actually booed him. I thought that was in terribly bad form, especially from voters who commonly criticize Democrats for not "supporting the troops." Some pundits criticized the media for even including this question in a Republican debate because "it's not an issue that matters to Republican voters," but I disagree. If the GOP is serious about moving beyond straight White Christian males with shotguns, then it's going to have to be serious about addressing these issues.

All in all, the main questions that I think will emerge from this debate are the following:

1. Will Huckabee replace Romney as the Christian conservative alternative to Giuliani?

2. Is Fred Thompson relevant?

3. At what point will conservatives refuse to further compromise their values by supporting Giuliani?

4. Will New Hampshire independents support Obama or McCain?

5. Can Romney recover?

6 Comments:

Nikki said...

Boy you do go in depth!!! I love it!! I really do think debates are all about performance, pandering and who can get the most applause. I did want to point out just for the sake of argument that I don't remember a debate that "W" ever won. He is a TERRIBLE debater. And we see that he won 2 elections. I guess the first one is debatable, but you know what I mean. Al should have won decisively. I think the Bush disconnect is too bad. I am a Bush supporter STILL and probably support him more than the party.
As for the Mitt Mormon comment on the Bible.....our 8th article of faith states that "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" I think he was about to quote it but hesitated. I suppose it would be honest for me to say Mike Huckabee does to me what a Mormon Mitt does to evangelicals........cringe.
great post. People are going to think I am such a butt kisser, but I do enjoy your analysis. I am far to ADD to sit and put so much thought into it. I shoot from the hip far to often!! keep it up.
Nikki

ryanshaunkelly said...

HDNet Dec 1 DNC debate (Sat 7:30pm ET).
- all eight -

gravel kucinich paul nader

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Nikki.

I don't mean to write so much. Actually, I'd like to cut the length of these posts down to make them a bit more readable.

As for 2000 debates, Al Gore was clearly the superior candidate (in my mind). But he did not come across well on TV. I think Gore would be the president now if these debates had taken place over the radio, rather than TV.

Bush supporters seem to be few and far between these days. I'm curious to know why your support for him remains so strong.

One thing I haven't heard many people talk about from that last debate is the fact that that Bible question even came up. That seems to be in violation with the "no religious test" part of the Constitution. The candidates answered it, but I don't think it was a good question to ask because it is not related to the responsibilities a president must understake.

Schenck said...

Hey Palmer... don't shorten your posts!

I'd like to see a poll with Ron Paul versus the Democratic front-runners. I bet he would take the cake for independent voters.

On an unrelated note, have you seen this article from the Iowa Independent?

oso diablo said...

1. Yes

2. No

3. Already happening in Iowa. Will solidify once Huck wins Iowa.

4. Obama

5. Yes he can, but he won't.

Silence Dogood said...

Anthony, as always thanks for doing such a thorough job of giving your thoughts on the debate (I always learn a thing or two reading your pieces). The unquestioned reverence that Reagan gets at the GOP debates might no be mirrored in the general elecctions but dems are ALWAYS too weak to speak the truth and call out Republicans on anything, but consider:

"When a question came up about national debt reduction, the strategies proposed were 'spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan did, eliminating pork, fundamental change in the way Washington works, entitlement reform, and using technology to improve efficiency.'"

I know i can't be the only person who realized that national debt did it's fastest growing EVER under President Reagan - UNTIL George W. Bush came along. Now while a Republican might not hit another Rep. square in the eyes on a gaffe like that, I am curious if a Democrat might be willing to do that if the same circumstance arose in the general election?