I’m not sure which is the more troubling—that I searched for Tuesday’s 132nd televised GOP debate on something called “The Bloomberg Channel” or that I found myself distracted en route by a rerun of Cheers. The episode proved somewhat apropos: a newly engaged Sam and Diane so relentlessly hector an acclaimed British marriage counselor (played by John Cleese) that Cleese finally blurts out, “I’ve grown to hate them.” Which of course brings to mind what many voters may be starting to think of this year’s crop of GOP candidates. Why else would the only person with any momentum in the race be the one voters know the least? Maybe President Obama has an election strategy after all: let the other guys keep talking.
What have those of us who have endured the endless televised GOP debates over the past several months gathered about the men (and woman) seeking the highest office in the land? Michele Bachmann has 135 foster children ... Ron Paul has an issue with volume control ... Newt Gingrich bought his wife some pretty nice jewelry ... Mitt Romney says things like “gee whiz” and “golly” ... and Rick Perry needs to sleep longer before engaging in forensic exercises. This week, the Bloomberg TV people sought to shake things up by giving the candidates a chance to talk to one another (a revolutionary concept). The trouble is, they have nothing useful to say.
Each of these self-proclaimed conservatives supposedly believes that governments, and therefore presidents, do not create jobs. Yet they simultaneously take credit for being some of the greatest job creators in history. No one asks them how this can be. Almost no one puts forward a step-by-step action plan that wanders close to the controversial or practical. Herman Cain deserves tremendous credit for at least offering something people can actually discuss and debate—his 9-9-9 plan (a 9 percent tax on income, a 9 percent tax on corporations, and a 9 percent national sales tax). Cain has not explained how such a sweeping, ambitious, and massive overhaul of our entire system of taxation will be passed in a closely divided Congress. Nor has he explained how long it would take to implement. Nor has he discussed what his Plan B is in the (likely) event that Congress, lobbyists, the press, and special-interest groups bring his program to a halt. (A 10-10-10 plan, anyone?) Leave it to Michele Bachmann (who else) to make the most memorable critique: that the Cain plan when turned upside down is the “mark of the beast.”
None of the truly difficult questions were asked in Tuesday’s debate, of course, because none of the candidates really takes Cain seriously. Nor for that matter do most of them take the voters seriously. And, one can ask, why should they? America has the campaign and the candidates we deserve.
Consider: if any candidate dares to offer a proposal or idea that departs from orthodoxy, the media and their opponents quickly pounce. Governor Perry, for example, once noted that the nearly bankrupt Social Security program is a Ponzi scheme, language used by any number of people, including leading Democrats. Yet he was lashed for his impolitic gaffe. Newt Gingrich’s entire campaign was mortally wounded when he challenged the feasibility of the Paul Ryan budget plan (which, by the way, has been all but abandoned by the GOP leadership anyway). Mitt Romney will never be totally forgiven for his health-care proposal as governor of Massachusetts. But Romney, the perfect politician for a superficial era, continues to get away with a nonposition, neither fully embracing his own plan nor completely repudiating it.
Witness Tuesday night: Rick Perry tried to question Romney on his health-care proposal, noting that one of Romney’s own supporters said it was identical to Obamacare. Romney responded with several self-congratulatory sentences while totally avoiding Perry’s original query. This was considered the perfect answer; no reporter pressed Romney on substance—nor did any other candidate. The entire discussion of health care in these debates is limited to what platitudes a candidate can utter in under two minutes. But why pick on only Romney? Has any candidate explained what exactly he or she would do to pass economic legislation through a divided Congress? Or explained why they will get things accomplished more effectively than Presidents Bush or Obama, who both promised to change the tone in our nation’s capital and “get things done”? The candidates have learned the perils of independent thinking. They are on the lookout for “gaffes.” What more can one say about the status of our political system when a candidate can say “It’s time for America to be America again” as if it were high-minded discourse.
And therein lies Obama’s opportunity—at this point, maybe his only one. The president has already talked the country to death with endless “major speeches” and a multitude of “major press conferences”—now it’s the Republicans’ turn. Let the country take a long, hard look at the bland, überpolitical talking heads pretending to be contenders for the most important office in the land. Let the other side issue its canned talking points, its unimaginative, simplistic policy positions (“create jobs,” “cut taxes,” “help our kids”), and its “gotcha” attacks on every cable channel in America. Then maybe a bored-out-of their-minds electorate will take a look at President Obama and realize he ain’t that much worse. Come to think of it: if the White House can manage it, they ought to sponsor the next GOP debate themselves.