TCS Daily

Debating the Meaning of the Debate

By Michael Rosen - May 7, 2007 12:00 AM

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA, CALIF. - It's hard to imagine a better setting to watch the first GOP presidential debate than here—other than, perhaps, the Reagan Library itself.

Out the window, the ocean laps gently against the shore underneath a typically gorgeous Southern Californian sunset.

But on TV, things were a bit more feisty. While President Reagan famously enjoined fellow Republicans not to attack one another, his closest ally—Mrs. Thatcher—also once said "I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job."

Somehow, the first debate—co-sponsored by MSNBC and, for the first time, the upstart—embodied both of these principles. Contrary to press accounts, the debate was highly spirited, even entertaining. But at the same time, there were clear contrasts between the contestants.

The early conventional wisdom properly has it that Governor Mitt Romney outperformed the other top-shelf candidates, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain. [For the record, I haven't yet personally selected a favorite candidate.] Romney appeared at once presidentially poised and refreshingly combative, especially in the face of pointed questions from chief moderator Chris Matthews.

Giuliani seemed defensive and a bit off his game. While his initial remarks about Reaganite optimism played to his strengths, most of the questions he fielded played to his weaknesses, like abortion policy. He also over-invoked his turnaround of New York City.

Politico's Roger Simon correctly noted that Rudy typically speaks extemporaneously and rarely prepares his speeches, while a debate demands rigorous preparation and pre-thought-out, set-piece responses. The mayor's operatives will surely have him well-prepared for the next episode.

McCain was forceful and energetic and took pains to note that President Bush mismanaged the war. He finessed the tax-cut issue fairly well by focusing on cutting spending. But like Giuliani, he repeated his lines too often. And after vowing to follow Osama bin Laden to "the gates of Hell," he grinned/grimaced awkwardly, jowls a-flailing.

The other candidates, whom most Americans probably had never laid eyes on before last night, didn't especially distinguish themselves, although Sen. Sam Brownback, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke with eloquence and passion.

Some moments were a bit surprising:

* Romney loudly praised his Massachusetts health-care plan ("I love it! It's a fabulous program.") despite criticism from many conservatives of certain of its big-government aspects. (On other occasions, Romney and others have described the plan as the best he could get, given the heavily Democratic statehouse in Boston.)

* Giuliani stated that it would be "okay" if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but that it would also be "okay" if it didn't. He later emphasized that he "hates abortion."

* Huckabee backed away from an implicit rebuke of Romney on matters of faith in response to a quotation that Matthews appeared to take out of context. Huckabee justifiably grew testy, stressing that someone who claims that their faith doesn't influence their decisions either is dishonest or lacks self-awareness.

Other moments were entertaining—intended or not:

* Hunter, responding to a request to name one thing the federal government does really well, said "[Dropping] precision munitions on Mr. Zarqawi's safe house." Securing our borders? Not so much.

* Romney answered Matthews's question about whether he would look forward to a return of the Clintons to the White House with a "You have got to be kidding me."

* And Politico's Jim Vandehei seemed to be having the best time of anyone, relaying often-bizarre and hostile online questions from viewers to the candidates. (What about the plight of jailed female felons, Governor Gilmore? Rep. Tancredo, how will you solve the donated organ shortage? Will you work to protect women's reproductive rights? How many casualties have we sustained in Iraq?)

Predictably, there have already been a number of flawed analyses. Some observers noted that nobody wrapped themselves in President Bush's mantle.

In fact, Giuliani rightly said: "I believe we had a president who made the right decision at the right time on September 20th, 2001, to put us on offense against terrorists. I think history will remember him for that." Romney averred: "I respect the president's character, his passion, his love for this country. I believe everything he does in this war against terror flows from a desire to protect the American people and to make our future secure."

Of course, there's no question that the candidates differentiated themselves from the president, afraid that his sagging ratings might weigh them down. Much easier to embrace the iconic Reagan than the controversial Bush.

But not even popular lame-ducks like Bill Clinton are the stuff of emulation on the campaign trail. Clinton's own running-mate distanced himself during the 2000 race. Even George H. W. Bush, with his "kinder, gentler" language, tried to differentiate himself from the Gipper (and although Poppy won handily, this approach ultimately proved devastating).

Peggy Noonan, with Fred Thompson on the mind, waxed skeptical about the current field. Indeed, each candidate has his flaws. But I'd take this bunch—warts and all—over the other side's any day of the week. And as we learn more about each candidate and his prospects over the coming months, I think voters will agree.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property Columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.



It's hard to imagine a political candidate who wouldn't want to rush to hitch their wagon to a sitting president whose approval ratings are soaring into the high twenties-- 27 and 28 percent, respectively, according to the two latest polls.

Why do you suppose they're not embracing Bush?

Congress is not polling much better.

RCP Average 04/09 - 05/01 38.0% 52.6% -14.6%

Debating "debates"
Newt Gingrich, and I am sure many others have suggested the same, has suggested the "debates" are a significant waste of time.

No candidate has an opportunity to discuss any serious issue at length.

A CSPAN like sit down, one on one, responding to questions for at least an hour each, on specific, serious issues would be very instuctive.

CSPAN-like attention span
The only hitch in your plan is that there's no such thing as an America with the attention span to follow any kind of debate that would provide the candidates an opportunity to develop a well-reasoned, logically coherent thought.

Any candidate who strings together more than three logical relationships in the space of making one point is in danger of losing his audience to a hunger pain, an itch, or a wayward thought. That's why political speech is soundbite-driven: Simple, declarative statements that manage to capture a position on an issue without requiring much conscious cognitive processing. For example, my favorite political soundbite is, "I've never gotten a job from a poor person."

Americans have a three-minute attention span...
Crisp debates are able to summarize for the voter just what each candidate thinks about himself, and how his emotions operate under pressure.

Benign pressure at that. Not like the world is coming to an end in the next 40 minutes if he gets it wrong.

We do vote for someone we want to enjoy (and someone we must trust) as President. We are the consumers of the government's services. It is entirely appropriate that the candidate should be sold to us utilizing the same mechanisms we have been carefully trained to engage regarding any "branded" product among all the choices on the market.

This is the beauty pageant part of that marketing process. The party needs to see if a "star is born" who might be developed into a winner. How else can they reasonably uncover any such opportunity, at this point?

Remember that Barack Obama, himself, suddenly broke out of Chicago obscurity in July, 2004 by giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. That was less than three years ago.

The Republicans must dig down and see if they have a competitive player sitting idle on the bench. These debates are a great vehicle for that part of the process.

In the end, we the voters don't get to chose from among the entire field. Not really. Our democracy does not quite operate that way, does it?

Great minds...
Think alike. We posted almost the same argument simultaneously. You so smart!

Interesting poll results
Realclearpolitics is very enlightening on the issue.

Wow! Only 25 percent of us think this country is going in the right direction now? That might be an all time low since political polls have been conducted.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton's all time low was coincidentally also during his sixth year in office-- and when impeachment hearings were at their height. Plus, of course, there was the Monica thing.

All that combined to drop his numbers down into the high sixties. Imagine that!

Clinton gave the longest speach at the '88 Democratic convention. He droned on and on and on earning him spont on Leno.

CSPAN repeats and people can watch at their schedule.

I would suggest few candidates would participate because they would then have a public record which they might have trouble weasling out of.

Ah the good old days when there was no terrorist threat.
All everyone was worried about was a stain on a blue dress.

Selective amnesia
No terrorist threat? There was very definitely a terrorist threat throughout the Clinton years. As there was during the Bush years before him, and the Reagan years before him, and the Carter years before him. You were born yesterday?

Remember the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympics team? That was back in 1972. We have been obsessed with terrorists for quite some time.

Who cared?
Clinton did not.

Look at how he "left no stone unturned" in the Al Kobar attack.

Freeh had to ask GHW Bush for help.

The weasles...
If our motivation for any of this is to put our leaders into a position that they cannot thereafter "tap dance" out of then we are really kidding ourselves.

They all lie about what they think and about what they think they might do "if elected". We know it and they know we know it.

Our political suiters are on their best behavior while we are being courted. We give them a honeymoon after we say "I do". And then we have to sleep with them until "the next election do we part". Unless they do something truly irreconcilable and we divorce (impeach) them.

We want to fall in love with our candidates. We want to be in love with our President.

In China this same political process involves an arranged marriage.

We get the government we deserve
A recent paper I found suggests that politicians generally don't have ideas of their own but reflect the voters to get elected.
( I posted a link somewhere recently on TCS.)

We really have no one to blame but ourselves.

Which is why I believe sites like this and any other information source can have significant impact. Maybe this is why the left wants to shut down Rush and Fox?

The problem with democracy
" In the usual public choice view, the problem with democracy is that the voters are right, but ignored. In the Mises-Bastiat view, the problem with democracy is that the voters are wrong, but heeded."

What poor person hired you?
"It is extraordinary, then, that Mises freely compares the politician's dependence on the public with the businessman's dependence on consumers. What is his rationale? To use modern terms: the median voter model. Voters have preferences, and prefer politicians who support those preferences. Since politicians want to win, they have a clear incentive to conform: "No matter what the constitution of the country, governments always have to pursue that policy which is deemed right and beneficial by public opinion. Were they to attempt to stand up against the prevailing doctrines they would very soon lose their positions to men willing to conform to the demands of the man in the street." (1998b, p.xii) "

Why is there no mention of Ron Paul, the real hero of the GOP debate? He was the only one on the stage who had taken an unwavering stance against the war since day one. Very few people have the maturity and the wisdom to understand that war is truly a last resort, and if we must engage in war, then it must be quick and expedient--not lingering. There is no reason for US forces to be in Iraq now. And, what's the worst that could happen if (God forbid) we pull out prematurely? I've heard some people say that there is a risk of "disaster," or "chaos" could break out, or the problems could "come back to haunt us." I have never heard such vague and irrational rambling in my whole life. Beware of anyone who uses those words, for they are serving the Bush administration by instilling an irrational fear in the American people. They have one agenda, and that is to oppose the withdrawal of US forces in the Middle East. Meanwhile, as seen with the tornado disaster in Kansas, our resources are spread out so thin that there is not enough to respond to domestic emergencies. The administration shouldn't be meddling with someone's civil war when it can't even handle domestic environmental problems.

The folks are smart ...
But the average American mind is not well-trained and even resists following a claim to its logical end. I believe this results from stubbornly embracing the comfort of habitual assumptions that serve one well in life but betray accurate abstract thought, which must always proof its conclusions against every assumption, rule and term along their path. This in turn requires constantly questioning one's habits of thought, one's beliefs, and the facts one is fed, thereby relinquishing the comfort of certainty while acknowledging the infinite and uncertain region of one's own ignorance.

Most folks have the capacity but not the desire to rebel against the Tyranny of Comfort. Politicians pander to this prevailing sensibility by offering complex arguments packaged in simple soundbites. Such are these times.

Leadership, virtue and law
Consider this passage from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

"Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one."

Should a political leader attempt to direct his people away from bad habits, or should he only seek to award them legitimacy in return for political power? What happens to your answer if a people, who have come to understand that they are mired in bad habits and suffering as a consequence, award political power to a man they don't like but respect, thus considering him a strong enough leader to break them of their bad habits and lead them back to good ones?

This very scenario happened France just two days ago, when the majority of Frenchmen, who have come to despise themselves, elected a man who promised to whip them into shape.

How do you suppose Mises would respond to such events?

domestic emergencies
We have grown dependant on the National Guard to respond in domestic emergencies. The truth is that their primary job is to back fill the military. They where never designed to be used for domestic emergencies. I spent a few years in the Guard and never had any training in this; I did however have lots of training in war fighting. The States have gotten use to having this manpower pool to dip into anytime something happens and have used it to justify not spending the time and money developing the first responders that they truly need.
Now I have no problems using the Guard, and even the Active Military, on civilian project. In fact I would use them more, WITH the stipulation that their primary duties come first. The Corp of Engineers has done marvels in this country and provided themselves with lots of training in their fields.
If the States truly wanted to help in times of domestic emergencies, they would develop a Civil Relief Corp to handle these type of emergencies. This Corp could be setup along the lines of the NG with a full time core of workers and the majority of the people working 1-2 weekends a month on training or local projects. Not only would this be a better focused group to deal with emergencies; it would provide some new jobs and would also allow “national service” possibilities for people that do not wish to be in the military.

Exactly what Mises predicted
The people wanted change and elected a politician who agreed with them.

The French don't want to be whipped into shape, they want the government to get out of the way and let them work. So many French have left the country to work abroad because they can't in France.

Same logic
The USA should not have done anything to inhibit Japan's conquest of Asia nor should it have done anything to prevent Germany from conquering Europe.

After all, it was our fault Japan attacked us. The USA was trying to stop Japan's take over of half of the world.

And Iran is developing nuclear weapons for self defense from its neighbors?

Our republic...
The government of the United States has an established culture of behavior all its own. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party happily share their mutual control of our government and the security of their own perpetuity. Again, these political entities each enjoy a life of its own.

Any significant (emotional) issue that could result in the creation and development of a third party threatening to replace either one of the two major parties in our "two party republic" is carefully divided between the Democrats and the Republicans with the appropriate extreme positions embraced sincerely. This effectively undercuts the raison d'etre regarding any such political movement and marginalizes the third party back into the fringes.

For example, Communism seems to be a dirty word. However, insofar as anyone wants to be a socialist, here in America, there must be a place for him to wave his arms and to feel his angst within one of the two established political parties. Or the other.

It happens that the socialist agenda falls to the Democrats. But this division of philosophy is really rather arbitrary if you go back and look at both parties historically.

The Right to Choose versus the Right to Life split regarding abortion was completely counter-intuitive and more based on feminists as a victimized minority and struggling for their civil rights alongside the racial minorities.

Actually, women are in the majority and it is their babies who are being victimized as a helpless minority. The babies themselves should be represented by the Democrats...but it did not break that way.

Lincoln freed the slaves and he was a Republican. But it was the government itself that freed the slaves at that appropriate moment in history. And a Republican just happened to be in the White House.

Similarly, the New Deal with its social agenda was necessary during the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt happened to be President. Therefore, the Democrats seemed to be leaning toward socialism.

Further, Vietnam was an affair of the government with a Democrat in the White House. We like to blame Nixon and the Republicans for the mess in Vietnam. But Nixon actually ended the war and took the blame onto his own shoulders. Americans seem to forget about LBJ, in this regard.

Anyhow. You get my point. It is the government that rules this sovereign entity. And it is the two political parties that manage the government. Individuals find roles within these cultures of group behavior. But it is the group entities themselves (with genuine behaviors all their own) rather than the politicians who work there, that define the tasks.

Those tasks change only when the government thinks it is time to evolve. Public opinion is carefully crafted to accept such progress. This is done so well (through the media) that the voters imagine they thought this stuff up themselves. Right.

Doesn't the market whip people into shape?
In other words, don't competition and the day-in-day-out demand to provide value for money whip people into shape? We're saying the same thing here - Sarko will whip France into shape by allowing the market to go to work on it. But he must pull the rug out from under the slackards' feet to succeed.

In contrast, Sego offered to continue reward failure with comfort and punish success with exploitation. So why did the French reject comfort and exploitation for a chance to succeed or fail? Isn't comfort good and failure bad? And isn't it better to forgo success if it leads to inequality? Why did France reject this apportionment of good and bad for its inverse? In other words, why did the people want change?

Assuming that a leader must be one who holds political power leads to the mistake you and Mises made. I forget, what elected office did MLK hold?

"why did the people want change"

High taxes?

No work?

"So why did the French reject comfort and exploitation for a chance to succeed or fail? "

Who in France was comforatable? Those who wanted more left the country and those who were left had no work since companies won't hire lifetime employees.

"Assuming that a leader must be one who holds political power leads to the mistake you and Mises made. I forget, what elected office did MLK hold?"

What's your point here? What mistake?

"If you hear that Lieberman and Hagel are getting together to hash out a common position on Iraq – not an easy thing to achieve, to be sure – then you know something is up.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the independents. There’s where the action is, and will be."

Simply put...
Most people want an easy life.

But you said it so much better.

What's the debate about?
"Riots? High taxes? No work?"

Paris slums burn while prosperous Haute-Savoie sleeps peacefully. Taxes are way too high but relatively low compared to Sweden and tax planning a la Hallyday is very possible. About 75% of the French people who can work do. Three-quarters of people working can't be called "no work".

"Who in France was comforatable?"

Everyone getting paid by the state not to work, and most of the people who worked. Do you mean to say that the French have a low standard of living, like say the Mexicans?

"Those who wanted more left the country and those who were left had no work since companies won't hire lifetime employees."

My dad (American) is on his third career and 25th job, but he's quite comfortable. So what does having a lifetime job have to do with being comfortable or having more? This makes no sense. Besides, only the people who have money or well-developed marketable skills leave France. Those who don't stay put to enjoy the lifestyle.

"What's your point here? What mistake?"

Sometimes leaders must tell people what they don't want to hear, but need to hear. If he's a politician, this may cost him votes. But even if he's not a politician, like MLK or Gandhi (before he became president), he may still be more powerful than a politician because his message brings people to change voluntarily.

So, your mistake was to assume that political power is the only kind, and that politicians are bound to use only political power at all times, both before and after elected. Sarko offered the French a change before he was elected, which message was consistent with his entire political career. Perhaps his message changed voters' minds before they voted. That's where the most vital power lies, in truth, which never requires, indeed often abhors, the political arena.

People know when they are sick and will hire a doctor
"Most voters who backed Sarkozy expect a different sort of state, one that is more capable of providing physical security against violence and less capable of complicating their lives in economic and fiscal terms. This France endorses Sarkozy with enthusiasm; others view him as the unpleasant but necessary medicine France needs to cure its malaise."

The only leader is recent history that did not change his philosophy to the latest poll was Reagan.

Clinton gave people what they wanted to hear.

Power is in the persuasion, not in coercion. Which is why the left wants to shut down people like Rush and O'Rielly.

Fallwell also demonstrated he could lead a significant voting block. His mistake was assuming he could force faith.

We are in complete agreement, then
I agree. The state can't force faith, so the source of its power must be a specie of faith, that is, the belief in the state's legitimacy. A widespread belief in the state's legitimacy via the process of its constitution is what democracy provides. But that belief in legitimacy only proceeds to the state's right to do what it does and not the rightness of what it does. It follows that giving the people what they want won't please them. Rather, you've got to give them what they believe is right whether they want it or not.

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