Since last Wednesday’s Republican Debate, the news networks and late night chat shows have been getting much mileage out of Rick Perry’s 53 forgetful seconds, when he failed to recall the name of all three government departments he had previously stated he would eliminate as President. The coverage from all corners was unanimous in one viewpoint – that this was too big of a stumble, and would end Perry’s campaign. While it may have been one of the worst missteps in debate history, the analysis of it should have focused on the content of what the Governor of Texas was advocating.
Should he win the race for the White House, Rick Perry wants to eliminate the Departments of Education, Energy and Commerce. Not being able to name them may be embarrassing, but the bigger faux pas is that a candidate for President would want to abolish agencies that: promote job creation, and create an infrastructure for technological advancements, economic growth and sustainable development; ensures access to education for all children, no matter what their family’s income; and deals with energy policy, at a time when everyone, no matter what their political viewpoint, agrees that the United States need to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Under the purview of these agencies is also: the Bureau of the Census; National Weather Service; Patent and Trademark Office (all Commerce); the Office of Environment Management; and the National Nuclear Security Administration (both energy), which ensures the safety of the nuclear arsenal of the United States.
While the political philosophy of the modern Republican Party may desire the elimination of many parts of the Department of Commerce (the belief being that any regulation ruins the free market), the magnitude of abolishing it in its entirety, as well as Energy and Education is short-sighted. It is designed to be a soundbite to gain the support of voters who believe that any decrease in government, no matter what form it takes, is inherently a good thing. Now that everyone will remember Perry’s forgetfulness, rather than his policies, the question of who, under his administration, would warn people about potential hurricane landfalls, or provide patents to small business owners who want to protect their products, or ensure that all children are able to gain an education, go unanswered.
Herman Cain can consider himself lucky that so much attention from that debate went to Perry’s gaffe. At a time when his treatment of some women has been brought into question, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza chose to refer to Nancy Pelosi – who, as former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is the top ranking female politician in the history of the United States – as “Princess Nancy”. While this objectionable name calling may actually gain him support in his party, it shows a complete lack of respect from Cain that should bring into question his suitability to be the leader of a fast-food chain, let alone President of the United States.
While some candidates are benefiting from this focus on style rather than content, others continue to be overlooked no matter what they say. In Saturday’s debate – at least the hour that CBS deigned to put on television – on the question of how America should deal with Pakistan, the two people who gave the most reasonable answers were Rick Santorum and Michele Bachman, two people who are getting so little coverage that I just had to double-check I had Santorum’s first name right. While I disagree with virtually everything the Congresswoman from Minnesota and the former Senator from Pennsylvania have to say, in this instance they were the only two asked about Pakistan who responded with a logical, practical answer (that the country would have to be engaged to ensure they remained an ally of the United States), as opposed to the bravado and hawkishness of the other candidates’ (Cain & Romney) replies.
Neither Santorum nor Bachman is likely to have gained support from voters, because the debates are designed to promote those who are already the front-runners. Those who are ahead in the polls get the majority of the questions and time, as well as a prominent position at one of the middle podiums. Romney has been in the centre of the stage all along, and back in September was joined by newcomer to the race Rick Perry – until his inability to debate led to him being pushed aside for Herman Cain, who previously had been in the wings. Now that he is second in the polls, Newt Gingrich has been promoted from the fringes and has the opportunity to give arrogant, dismissive answers to more questions – continuing this cycle. So far the only constants have been: Mitt Romney, who is an unprincipled diplomat and knows what answers will protect his share of the vote, no more, no less, and without regard to previous responses he has given; and Ron Paul – who sticks to his libertarian beliefs when they are popular with Republican voters (for example, reducing the size of government), as well as when they are not (e.g criticising President Reagan or drastically reducing Defense spending). Even when John Huntsman informed Romney that, despite his claim, he would not be able to report China to the World Trade Organization for currency fixing, it got no coverage.
Nobody gains any ground from their policy initiatives or the content of what they are saying in this race – it is only perception and style that matters. Thus far, we have seen with Cain, Bachmann and Perry, candidates surge ahead in the polls, until they face increased scrutiny and more questions in the debate, then they are shown to have no depth or suspect pasts – whether it be sexual harassment cases against them, or the name of the ranch they go hunting at in Texas – and they drop back down, leaving Mitt Romney in the driving seat. Romney is a middle of the road candidate who does not make any mistakes, nobody particularly likes him but, as yet, he has not seen his campaign take any serious hit.
The real winner all of this is President Obama. He has spent three years failing to fulfill the hope of his campaign, nor deliver the change we had forced him to promise. All through his term, he has been compromising with the Republicans rather than opposing them and pushing his own agenda. In 2008, Obama was the first non-incumbent candidate since Kennedy to gain the support of so many people who were excited to vote for him, rather than those who considered him the lesser of two evils. (That’s Robert Kennedy by the way, until his assassination in June 1968, President Kennedy enjoyed popularity with young voters, but still only obtained 0.1% more of the popular vote than his opponent, (at the time Vice-President) Richard Nixon.) In 2012, it appears that the President will have to run a more negative campaign, passing off his own failings as the limits placed on him by a Republican majority in the House and use of filibuster in the Senate. The Audacity of Hoping the Second Term is Better.