The Proper Victorian Gent And The Donald

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s.  As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.

victorian-vest-1I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign.  The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place.  It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire.  Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.

Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention.  On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio.  Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free.  Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage?  In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention.  And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.

Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues.  With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it.  With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety.  This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.

The Kasich Lane

In the most recent Republican presidential debate in Iowa, Ohio Governor John Kasich commented that the path to nomination had an establishment lane, an anti-establishment lane, and the “Kasich lane.”  It was a bold statement from a candidate who is but a blip in the Iowa polls, and Kasich was immediately mocked in some quarters with tweets about the “Kasich lane” that featured vehicles on fire and overturned cars.

plymouth-town-hall-9-360x276Kasich’s quest for the presidency is a quixotic one, and he’s not been afraid to follow his own, unique approach to trying to win the nomination.  This past weekend, while all of his fellow Republican candidates were in Iowa, the Ohio governor was in New Hampshire, holding still more town hall events.   He’s clearly staking his campaign on a good showing in the Granite State.  And where other Republicans treat the New York Times like an abhorrent, unclean thing, he was happy to get that newspaper’s Republican endorsement — even if the endorsement first castigated the other candidates for the Republican nomination and then described Governor Kasich as “the only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race.”

During the campaign, Governor Kasich hasn’t been afraid to say things that are, well, different from what you normally hear during Republican primaries, where candidates typically want to present themselves as tough and resolute.  He’s described himself as the “Prince of Light and Hope.”  He admitted recently that, in his hotel room, he thought about the endorsements he has received and cried, because “It’s amazing to come from where I came from and have these wonderful things said about me.”

In the Republican debates, he’s been the guy at one far end of the stage, not getting a lot of air time and giving answers that always seem to refer to his production of a balanced budget when he was chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee.  Unlike other candidates, his debate answers seem to be completely unscripted — so much so that some people have joked that when he gets a question, it’s time to take a bathroom break.

It’s impossible to know at this point how Governor Kasich will fare with New Hampshire voters, but you have to give him props for charting, and sticking to, his own course — whether you call it the “Kasich lane” or not.  It’s a pretty unconventional approach to winning the nomination of a party that usually seems to relish the conventional.

Graham Scram

Lindsay Graham has announced that he is suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016.

It’s kind of a sad thing, when you think about it.  Graham has been a Senator for years, and he was somebody who seemed to have a nose for getting his face in the press.  He was featured regularly on the morning news shows and Sunday morning shows, and he tried to stake out a niche in the crowded Republican field as the guy who was tough on terrorism and hawkish on foreign policy but also willing to be bipartisan at times.

lindsey-graham2Unfortunately for Graham, his pitch just didn’t work.  He never made it to the stage with the big boy frontrunners in the Republican debates — although some observers said he won some of those undercard debates that almost nobody watched — and he never really registered as more than a blip in the polls.  Now his campaign is on the scrap heap, along with those of Rick Perry and Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

You could poke fun at Lindsay Graham, I suppose, and question his ego, and wonder why he ever thought he could possibly be elected President in the first place.  But sometimes politicians have an itch that they just need to scratch.  Graham obviously thought that his particular combination of message and personality and positions might strike a chord with the country as a whole.  He was wrong.

So let’s not make too much fun of Senator Graham.  Somebody’s got to want to be President, or our system wouldn’t work.  He took a stab at it, at least, and he fell short.  Now somebody else will be the nominee.

A few more departures of candidates, and we’ll be able to fit all of the Republican candidates on one stage, just in time for the first caucuses and primaries that are scheduled for the first months of 2016.

Batten down the hatches, folks — the campaign is about to start in earnest.

The Republican Campaign Rolls Into The Buckeye State

On March 6, the Ohio Republican primary will be held.  Today, when I was driving to and from Cleveland — more on that later — I heard the first radio ads of the primary season, which means that the vote cannot be far away.

Today a Rasmussen poll reported that Rick Santorum has a big edge over Mitt Romney among Ohio voters.  I don’t question the mechanics of the poll, but I suspect it means very little.  Santorum was the Senator from neighboring Pennsylvania for years, but I think very few people know much else about him.  Those who say they currently support him, I would wager, are expressing support that is probably not much more than skin deep and largely a reflection of their lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney.

I’ve not heard anyone in Ohio talking about the Republican candidates in any kind of significant way.  There have been jokes about the peccadilloes and blunders of candidates who have since withdrawn, and some water cooler chatter about the seemingly endless debates, but very little discussion about the candidates’ respective substantive positions or other attributes.

That probably makes Ohio fertile ground for aggressive TV and radio campaigns and the kind of “negative advertising” that everyone bemoans — but that has been proven, repeatedly, to be effective.  In Ohio, the Republican candidates largely remain blank sheets of paper.  What will that paper look like when March 6 finally comes?  Over the next few weeks, I’ll report on what I see and hear in that regard.

The Race Rolls On, And The Big Issues Linger

The Republican presidential primaries, already seemingly endless, roll on.  With Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina, the race is in disarray.  Gingrich is on the rise, Mitt Romney’s shield of inevitability has been dented, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are hanging on.

The focus now moves to Florida.  As has come to be the pattern, that means another debate tonight (No!!!!!!), lots more negative ads, and probably some new revelations before Florida goes to the polls on January 31.  We’ll hear lots of buzz words and scripted retorts and talking points, but what we probably won’t hear is much substantive talk about exactly how the remaining contenders are going to tackle the budget deficit.

You can argue about how we select a President in our country, and whether beginning with states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina makes any sense.  The early primary voters never seem to share my perspective on the big issues of the day, but perhaps that is just a reminder that ours is a large and diverse land where people have many different views.  In Iowa, social issues always seem to take center stage.  In South Carolina, the votes for Gingrich seemed to be motivated, at least in part, by anger — anger at the news media, and anger at President Obama — and a desire to select a candidate who, the voters believe, will cut the President to ribbons in debates.

Social issues just aren’t on my radar screen, I’m not mad at the news media, and scoring debating points with glib jabs at the President isn’t important to me.  Instead, I just want to hear how specifics about the candidates will cut our spending, balance our budget, resolve our debt issues, and get our economy growing again.  Those are the issues that are most important to me and, I think, most important to our country.  Maybe — just maybe — some Floridians share that view.

Newtered

Today South Carolina Republicans vote in their state’s presidential primary.  Polls indicate it is a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich apparently has been given a boost by the most recent Republican candidates debate.  Gingrich was asked about the recent comments of his ex-wife, who said he asked that she agree to an “open marriage” in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.  In response, Gingrich lashed out at the questioner and the media, generally, for focusing on irrelevancies and making the first question in a presidential debate one about his long-ago personal affairs.  The audience of Republicans, who apparently hate the media with every fiber of their beings, ate it up and gave Gingrich a standing ovation.

I don’t care about Gingrich’s past personal behavior — but I also don’t see why his set-piece smackdown of a question about it is such a great thing.  Some rock-ribbed conservatives seem to despise the media and love to see them publicly criticized for any reason; I don’t share that view.

To me, the little diatribe was an obvious, planned bit of political theater, and the fact that Gingrich palled around with the questioner after the debate just confirms it.  Gingrich has deep roots and connections in the Washington social milieu of politicians, lobbyists, reporters, and consultants.  When he gave his little angry performance, his inside-the-Beltway buddies no doubt leaned back, nodded to each other, and agreed that Gingrich was just doing the necessary political thing, knowing the rubes would eat it up — and they did.

Gingrich’s debate diatribe may well win South Carolina for him, but I think his performance really exposes him as just another calculated politician.

Huntsman Off The Trail

Today, Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for President and endorsed Mitt Romney.  It’s not exactly an earth-shaking development.

Huntsman was remarkable mostly because he was the only Republican in the field who really never had his moment in the limelight.  In a year when many Republicans seem to be looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney, no one really ever looked Huntsman’s way.  He never made an impact in the debates, he never caught fire in the opinion polls, and he therefore never had the chance to crash and burn like other candidates in the field.  After spending lots of time and money in New Hampshire, he finished a limp third.  No wonder he decided to toss in the towel.

I doubt if Huntman’s endorsement of Mitt Romney will influence many voters.  The main impact of Huntsman’s departure will be to eliminate another podium and another suit from the stage during those interminable Republican debates.  For that, at least, American voters can be grateful.

Eye Of Newt

There’s a new flavor of the month among the Republican presidential candidates — at least, according to the polls.  Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and intellectual gadfly, apparently has become the frontrunner.

The Republican campaign, if you can call these tedious months of “debates,” fund-raising, straw polls, and polling a campaign, seems like an exercise in Fortune’s Wheel.  Every so often the wheel is spun, the candidates at the bottom move to the top, and the former front runners tumble to the bottom.  Right now, it’s Gingrich’s turn at the top of the wheel.

It’s not surprising that Gingrich should get traction.  He’s glib, has performed well in the debates compared to the stumbling performances of other candidates, and has a track record as Speaker of the House that features balanced budgets.  Of course, his record as Speaker includes other, less positive actions and ethics claims, he’s had some personal issues over his lifetime, and his activities during the years after his tenure as Speaker have yet to be fully explored.  We know he shopped at Tiffany’s, wrote books, was involved in some kind of work for Freddie Mac, and was part of the stew of consulting firms, advocacy organizations, tax-exempt groups, commissions, and task forces that are found everywhere in Washington, D.C., but that’s about it.

Now that Gingrich is at the top, his record as Speaker and his activities since then will get lots of attention — and we’ll see if the scrutiny causes another turn of Fortune’s Wheel.

Citizen Cain, Again

Today Herman Cain announced that he is “suspending” his campaign for the Republican nomination for president.  Cain said he was dropping out of the race because the continuing allegations about affairs and sexual harassment were a distraction and were hurting his family.

I have no doubt that Cain’s decision was motivated, at least in part, by the claims about his personal life and his desire to avoid the pain they were causing for his wife and family.  I suspect, however, that his decision also involved cold-blooded evaluation of the political reality.  Cain had a brief boom of popularity and attracted lots of attention with his 9-9-9 tax plan, but by the time of the most recent claims about his personal conduct the bloom already was off the Cain rose.  He’d had debates where he had nothing much to say about anything other than his 9-9-9 plan and his campaign website, as well as other incidents that fed into a growing perception that he simply lacked the broad base of knowledge that you would prefer to have in a president.  My guess is that Cain and his advisers realized that he wasn’t going to overcome those issues, and that he should get out while the getting was good.

With Cain’s departure, the Republican field narrows and the remaining candidate debates will become more manageable — and more comfortable to watch.  In the meantime, Herman Cain has raised his profile, has increased his opportunities for speaking engagements to the faithful, and probably has sold a few books, besides.

Rick Perry And The King’s Speech

We watched the Republican presidential candidate debate last night while we were waiting to go pick up Richard.  Every time we saw Rick Perry try to express his thoughts on the question presented we cringed.  It was painful — like the witnessing the struggles of stuttering King George VI to address the crowd at the All-England games.

Perry obviously has been a very successful governor of one of our largest states.  How, then, can he be so awful in debates?  He just can’t seem to frame a coherent thought and express it clearly.  It’s as if all of the buzz phrases and coaching points and planned gestures are dammed up in his head, pent up, and ready to tumble out in a rush if they could just find an outlet.  You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy — and I’m not sure that pity is the kind of emotion you want to generate if you are running for President.

Kish and I loved The King’s Speech, but we’re not ready to see it played out in miniature every time the Republican presidential candidates have a debate.

Surveying The Republican Field

Last week Kish and I turned on CNN at 9 to watch the news and watched, instead, the second half of the Republican candidates debate.  Here are my observations based solely on that limited exposure, moving left to right on the stage.

Rick Santorum:  Desperate for attention.  Consciously staking out the most conservative position on every issue.  (Seriously, the defense budget can’t be cut at all?)  His boast that he was best suited to beat President Obama because he had been elected in a “swing state,” without noting that he got hammered in his bid for reelection, was an eye-roller.

Ron Paul:  Looks like an elf.  Every rational point — like questioning some of our defense spending — was undercut by a nutty statement that makes you wonder what he would do if he actually became President.  It’s a scary proposition.

Hermann Cain:  Not ready for prime time.  Wants to reform the tax code — who doesn’t? — but seems to lack knowledge of foreign policy and other areas of domestic policy.  Repeated himself when he didn’t have anything new to say.  Business experience is great, but political experience is important, too, and Cain doesn’t have it.

Mitt Romney:  Glib, polished, well-prepared.  Calculated, too.  One of the most comfortable candidates on stage.  Gives the impression that there isn’t a question you could ask him that he wouldn’t be able to handle reasonably well.  Acts like he is leading the pack, and he is.

Rick Perry:  Awkward, tongue-tied, and uncomfortable.  Struggled to get out coherent sentences.  Is he  over-prepared or under-prepared, tired, or just not suited to the debate format?  It’s hard to imagine him in a one-on-one meeting with a foreign leader.

Newt Gingrich:  Smart and well-spoken.  His answer describing the silly danger of making automatic cuts if an arbitrary deficit-cutting goal isn’t met was as good an answer as you will hear in an unrehearsed setting.  Capably steered the discussion back to President Obama’s performance, where the Republicans should want it to be.  The most impressive candidate on stage.

Michele Bachmann:  An afterthought.  The answer in which she launched into a naked appeal to women who are worried about losing their homes seemed programmed and over the top.   Trying hard to look like she belongs on the stage.

The part of the debate we watched actually was somewhat interesting.  I might watch the next debate, now that we are getting ever closer to 2012.

Palin Says No, Thanks

Sarah Palin announced today that she won’t be running for President in 2012.  Palin said that her family comes first and added that, by not being a candidate, she would be “unshackled” and could be “even more active.”  I’m not surprised by her decision.  She makes a lot of money and has a lot of freedom in her current role as Fox News contributor, author, and conservative gadfly.  Why give that up?

I imagine that every Republican candidate for President breathed a sigh of relief, too.  Palin is probably the most polarizing American political figure that has existed during my lifetime; I don’t think anyone else even comes close.  People either love her and view her as the modern savior of traditional American values, or hate her with a deadly passion and consider her to be a mean-spirited, blithering idiot.  I’m sure the other Republicans think that the last thing they need is Sarah Palin saying provocative things during debates and campaign experiences and energizing the Democrats and independents who might otherwise vote against President Obama or just stay home.  (Of course, the eventual Republican nominee will be perfectly happy to accept any fundraising help that Palin can provide during the campaign.)

With Palin’s announcement, and Chris Christie’s recent reaffirmation that he will not be a candidate, the gym doors seem to be closed and the sock hop lineup is set.  Republicans will now take a closer look at the field as they try to decide who they want for a dance partner.

The Sock Hop Lineup Gets Set

Last night New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rejected the musings and suggestions of anonymous sources and insiders and made clear that he is not going to join the 2012 race for President.  We’ll hear some longing sighs and expressions of regret, but then we’ll move on.

In some ways, our presidential selection process is like that awkward 8th-grade “sock hop” that your Mom made you attend.  As your classmates arrived, you spent much of the time looking at the gymnasium door.  A guy might wonder if that cute girl from algebra class was going to come, and a girl might hope that the dreamy guy who sat two rows behind her in home room would show up.  At some point, though, the gym doors would close, the music would start, and the assembled crowd would focus on who was actually there and ready to dance.

I’m sorry Christie isn’t running because I think his ability to articulate the issues and merits of his positions would add something to the race.  But he’s not coming to the dance, and with state filing deadlines rapidly approaching the gym doors soon will be closed.  In the meantime, we’ll start to give the current Republican lineup closer scrutiny.  We’ll see whether any of them look like good candidates for the presidential foxtrot — or whether we decide not to dance after all.

Will Anyone Watch, And Does Anyone Care?

Tonight the eight declared Republican candidates for President will debate in Iowa.  The debate is nationally televised on Fox News.  Will anyone watch, and does anyone care?

The lead-up to the debate is filled with the kind of phony urgency that sets my teeth on edge.  The Reuters story, for example, notes that the debate is two days “before an Iowa straw poll that will test the strength of their campaigns” and breathlessly adds:  “With less than six months remaining before Iowa holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012, time is running short for candidates to begin making up ground.”  So, let me get this straight:  the debate may affect the outcome of a non-binding “straw poll” being taken six months before delegates will be selected?  Could someone explain again why this debate is so crucial?

The constant, creeping advancement of the campaign season is always ludicrous, but this year it is offensive.  Our economy is in the dumper.  Our national credit rating just got cut.  We’re fighting in ill-defined conflicts across the globe.  Millions of Americans are out of work.  Our budget deficit is out of control.  In short, we’ve got lots of important stuff to worry about — much more important than whether Michele Bachmann’s showing makes her the presumed Iowa front-runner or whether Rick Santorum should throw in the towel.  At this point, I couldn’t care less.

What If They Gave A Debate, And Nobody Came?

Tonight there was a debate in New Hampshire among declared Republican presidential candidates.  So we got to see Mitt, and Newt, and Tim, and Rick, and Ron, and Michele, and Herman duke it out — more than a year before next year’s election, and six months before the actual New Hampshire primary.  I didn’t watch it.  Did anyone, who wasn’t paid to do so?

Why do Republicans do this to themselves?  Why have a debate at this point, long before the actual issues on which the election will turn have crystallized?  With the economy struggling and the pathetic thrashings of Anthony Weiner dominating the news, why would Republicans want to do anything to change the national discourse?  Why take the chance that one of the announced candidates, who may never have more than fringe appeal, will say or do something stupid that the media can seize upon as the new story of the day?

When things are going badly for the Democrats — as they are — why intrude?  The Republicans should shut up for a while and let the issues play out, without having a bunch of not-ready-for-prime-time-players talking about matters that probably aren’t going to make much difference come election day in November 2012.  We would all be better served if the “debates” were deferred until we were within a month or two of an actual election that had real consequences.  If the Republicans won’t do the decent thing and keep their yaps shut for a few more months, then the American public should just agree that no one should pay any attention to the blatherings and posturings of the would-be candidates until after the leaves turn and the first snow falls.