Alpha Test

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Debate #2: Four quick points about the second debate …

1) Pollster’s Veto: One reason Obama has trouble sketching his vision of a second term is that key parts of his ideology are almost unmentionable because he’s been told they won’t win him any votes. For example: a) Global warming Climate change–why are we pursuing all these alternative energy sources anyway, at such great expense Gee, I dunno! b) Obamacare: Obama defends select provisions of his greatest achievement–like the coverage for contraceptives and preexisting conditions–but apparently doesn’t dare talk much about its core, namely the health care exchanges where people will be able to get affordable coverage regardless of their employment situation. c) Immigration amnesty: I understand that Obama wouldn’t want to use the word “amnesty.” But what about the more anodyne-sounding “path to citizenship” for the 11 million or so illegals living “in the shadows”? He’s talked about that before.  But last night he only dared to mention it for “DREAM Act” kids who were brought here by their parents.  For the 11 million, the closest he came  was “comprehensive” reform, whatever that means (see #3 below).

2) It’s Portman’s fault! Yes, Candy Crowley was out of line during the Libya exchange. She blotted her copybook, screwed the pooch, wrote her epitaph. If I were her CNN boss, Mark Whitaker, I’d recommend a groveling, s–t-eating apology. (That usually works.) But Obama’s line of Libyan defense–that he’d  “stood in the Rose Garden [on Sept. 12 and] told the American people … that this was an act of terror,” shouldn’t have been a surprise to Romney. The Obama team had been pointing to that Rose Garden transcript for weeks. Why wasn’t Romney ready for it?  Did his Obama stand-in, Sen. Rob Portman, fail to do his homework? And if you’re going to bait Obama with the ‘you-went-to-Vegas’ card, shouldn’t you be prepared when he responds with some stagey ‘have-you-no-shame’ outrage? Was that not in Portman’s repertoire either? A better-prepped Romney might have responded with equal force–“Yes, Mr. President, you downplayed the attack because you want to pretend that your Libyan intervention was a great success … etc.” If you can’t make large, unproven accusations in a crucial national debate, where can you? Start a nuclear exchange and you better be prepared with a second strike.

3)  Who you calling “excitable”? Mark Krikorian notes something about the debate’s immigration exchange:

In response to the president’s complaints that he was stymied in getting immigration reformed “in a smart way and a comprehensive way,” Romney said “I’ll get it done. I’ll get it done. First year . . .” Some of the more excitable immigration hawks see this as a sellout in the making, that Romney will push something like the McCain-Kennedy amnesty once he’s safely in the White House. I doubt it, but what this does suggest is that we could see a miniature “comprehensive immigration reform, along these lines: A narrower version of the DREAM Act in exchange for universal E-Verify, plus green cards for top foreign STEM graduates in exchange for ending the visa lottery. That’s actually a deal that could make sense.

I wish I shared Krikorian’s confidence. (Note that he implicitly rejects another interpretation of Romney’s remark, which is that Romney was just mocking Obama’s “first year” promise rather than making a promise himself.)  One troubling clue: Earlier in the immigration section, after initially hanging tough, Romney chastised Obama for not proposing a bill that seems a lot broader than Krikorian’s sensible “miniature” compromise:

Why did he fail to even promote legislation that would have provided an answer for those that want to come here legally and for those that are here illegally today? [E.A.]

I suppose you could argue that Krikorian’s mini-bill does provide an answer–the answer is “You’re still illegal!” Romney may have been playing on the vagueness of “comprehensive”–see point 1, above–to make the slippery suggestion to Latinos that his unknown bill would do something it wouldn’t. Or maybe he’s thinking of something sweeping but time-delayed– a path to legalization only after a multi-year waiting period during which we make sure enforcement works. That might not be such bad idea. But it’s also possible he has in mind some sort of Gillespie-esque offer of immediate non-citizenship legal status.  Certainly the pro-legalization side won’t be happy with any delay, or with second-class status–and if you promise to do a bill in a year, you give them a lot of leverage. Why do that?

4) A female friend emails:

this is not a forum to listen to both sides, it’s two guys trying to show whose dick is bigger to the US.  it’s not thoughtful. it’s aggressive and weird.  kinda like practicing law against an over aggressive jackass. …   i now see why obama was lackluster last time.  glad it’s not in his nature to do this nonsense.

She’s got the essence of the contest pegged, no? It was pretty much pure Alpha Male Theater, with each candidate trying to rule the roost and bully his rival–or at least the moderator–to demonstrate his primacy. What’s more, we naturally accept this criteria when judging the winners. That’s certainly true when we say Romney lost the Libya exchange. When you read the transcript, it seems like an intriguing back-and-forth discussion. It was in fact a semi-brutal emasculating smackdown.

ABC’s Amy Walter judged the entire debate on these macho critera–Obama “commanded the stage,” etc. Marc Ambinder judged the debate on these criteria.  I judged the debate on these criteria. It seems only natural. Something in our Darwinian makeup leads us to not only expect leaders to be Alpha Males but to assume they will prove it at all times, or at least on designated occasions.

Is that a rational way to pick presidents? I’m not sure. California voters elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor in large part because of his highly effective Alpha performance in one debate. They wound up being disappointed with his performance in office (though I suspect he’ll look much better in retrospect). Sure, you don’t want to elect pushovers. Leaders are leaders because they can bend others to their will. But macho one-upmanship is not always the best way to do that–and in an international crisis it can be downright dangerous. Like the near-universal tendency to favor people who are “comfortable in their own skin,” favoring conspicuous Alphaness may be an evolutionary legacy that has outlived its utility. (Think of all the great things that were done by people who were uncomfortable in their own skin.)

Mickey Kaus