GOP Debate Proves Politics Has Gone From Dumb to Dumber

Posted May 7, 2007 at 4:11pm

One debate. Three moderators. Ten candidates. Two hours and 75 questions. What did last week’s Republican presidential debate add up to? Probably not much. Certainly not enough. [IMGCAP(1)]

This first Republican debate should have been an opportunity for candidates to talk to voters about their hopes and dreams for America; what they want to achieve and how. Instead, it turned into a bizarre game of gotcha with MSNBC moderator Chris Matthews playing the role of Grand Inquisitor. It was torture, no doubt about it.

The candidates struggled valiantly to interject some substance into the discussion during the few rare moments when Matthews paused for a breath. With the exception of questions about Iraq, he seemed obsessed with social issues — abortion, gay marriage, religion and evolution along with an endless parade of random questions that had little to do with what most Americans wanted the candidates to discuss: How will your election affect my country, my community, my family and me?

With only limited time and 10 candidates, one might have expected a focus on the issues that matter most to people — the war, terrorism, health care, education and retirement. Although Matthews did ask a few questions on Iraq, more often than not the candidates were cut off mid-sentence in a rapid-fire format that gave them no time to talk in-depth about the few issues of complexity and nuance that did come up.

It wasn’t the challenges facing our educational system in an increasingly competitive economic environment that got center stage; it was evolution. To pardon or not to pardon Scooter Libby took up precious time while retirement security was ignored. The Terri Schiavo incident and the nation’s organ transplant shortage rated questions but not the rising costs of health care and the uninsured.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney was asked about the health care program he enacted in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t the substance of the plan or how it might cure what ails the Bay State’s health care system that was at the heart of the question. What was at issue was whether the plan, which has been criticized by some conservatives, had become a political albatross in the context of a Republican primary battle.

But the absurdity of the interrogation didn’t stop there. What better question to ask a potential president of the United States than “What do you like least about America?” Or the one posed to former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who was asked whether he would keep Karl Rove in the White House as his chief political operative. That would have been a little like asking Ronald Reagan if he intended to keep Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter Chris Matthews as his wordmeister.

One viewer wanted to know, by e-mail, if Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) had seen former Vice President Al Gore’s environmental documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Then there were the questions designed to do nothing more than trip up the candidates: How many soldiers have been killed or injured in Iraq, and what is the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim?

But the piece de resistance had to be Matthews’ truly absurd question to Romney: “Seriously, would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?”

A couple of years ago I complained about what I saw as the trivializing of our political system, the dumbing down of American politics. If those days were dumb, then last week’s debate was dumber.

It was clear Matthews and company were looking for a hipper format. Speed, not substance, was the name the game. Ten candidates on a stage does pose real problems in terms of conducting an in-depth discussion, but it can be done by putting an emphasis on the quality, not the quantity, of the questions.

How about simply asking the candidates why they want to be president, a question that once cost Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) the presidency. Or this one: “You’ve just finished eight years of your presidency and as you board Air Force One for the last time, your spouse turns to you and says, ‘So, what did you accomplish? How did you make a difference?’ What would you want your answer to be?”

Or, “Have the traditional diplomatic models of the past 50 years stopped working and, if so, what should 21st-century diplomacy look like?”

“Is it still the role of the United States to encourage and protect democracy in the world?”

“As president, how would you balance the rights of privacy with the needs of national security?”

“Do you believe health care is a right that should be guaranteed by government?”

There will be many more debates in the coming months, and, if we were going to have a bad one, perhaps it was good to get it over with early when fewer people are paying attention. Those who tuned in got a little better sense of the 10 men seeking the Republican nomination, but all in all it was a squandered opportunity.

There was no clear winner in Thursday’s debate. But there was a loser — every American voter who thinks ideas matter.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.