CNN anchor John King’s relentless badgering of Republican presidential hopefuls to keep their answers between 20 and 30 seconds in the New Hampshire “debate” Monday night exemplified just what is wrong with these cattle shows. Complicated issues take some time to be explained and discussed. You don’t just run down a lineup and demand 30 seconds from each participant. To make matters worse, many of the questions were answered with stock propaganda replies, long since memorized — many not at all germane to the questions being asked.
An ailing economy, changes in entitlements (especially Medicare), and job growth dominated the discussion, but one of the biggest issues of all, the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran, was never mentioned by anyone. Yet, in the long run, nuclear proliferation may have more impact on our lives than anything discussed Monday night.
Newt Gingrich was the only candidate to suggest that Republicans should be imploring the American people to elect not only a Republican president but a Republican U.S. Senate. That should have been a Republican war cry ever since they won the House: “Give us the Senate, too!” Instead of pleading for party hegemony, the candidates mostly pumped themselves. The frontrunner, Mitt Romney, started slow and a little weak but picked up steam in the later stages of the show. Unfortunately, rather than directly answering questions, he mostly spouted memorized propaganda. You couldn’t help but wonder how Governor Chris Christie would have done with the same questions, had he been there. Michele Bachmann made a good showing, as did Pawlenty, but perhaps not good enough to nudge the polls.
Most of the debaters tried to have it both ways on Medicare: they would support the Paul Ryan plan in general, but would somehow save Medicare, too. No one had the sense to recommend that Social Security be taken out of the federal budget and operated separately, while also finding out exactly how much in IOUs Congress owes the Social Security and disability funds from decades of pilfering. On Medicare, specifics were elusive. For example, no one suggested extending COBRA accounts from 18 months to five years. Monthly payments would be higher than payments for Medicare and its supplements, but many might prefer their familiar and usually excellent employee health insurance to that of Medicare, even if they have to pay more. That would take many to age 70 without costing Medicare anything. Medical savings accounts, insurance availability across state lines, and offering other alternatives to Medicare (while keeping it for all those who wanted it) could also lower costs. Pawlenty seemed to have the best ideas in this area.
Everyone on stage agreed that massive tax and regulatory cuts are the answer to a moribund economy, but that may not work this time. President Bush’s tax cuts pulled us out of the recession he inherited from Clinton (who had been on a dot-com roll for several years prior), but job growth was slow all through his presidency. The situation is more complex than when presidents Kennedy and Reagan revved up slow economies with tax cuts. China, Russia, India and Brazil were not the big competitors in the global capitalist market then that they are today.
The debate was held nearly a year and a half before the presidential election on a day when Barack Obama was clearly and openly campaigning for reelection. Contrast this with 1911, when the question of whether Teddy Roosevelt would break his word and run for a third term, opposing his own hand-picked successor, President William Howard Taft, was the hot issue of the day. T.R. didn’t announce his intentions until February of the election year, 1912. There were no debates in 1911. Of course, those were the days when the conventions decided the nominees, not the primaries — and certainly not a caucus in Iowa.
The truth is that it is much too early for these debates. We should take a page from Teddy Roosevelt and wait until next year.
James Delmont is a widely published journalist and college teacher with a PhD in history. He has recently finished a book, The Great Liberal Death Wish.