Some Political Science Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

2 March 2012, 0301 EST

So it looks like the GOP debating season is over. Wow. I don’t study American politics, but I can’t remember a marathon run of debates like that ever before. (Can anyone speak to that point, btw? This is something very new, right?) I think there will be much discussion in both parties about whether or not to run this sort of marathon schedule again in 4 years. Like most people I watched bits and pieces of them, and I concur that they should probably come with a drinking game like the State of the Union does. I zoned out a lot when it got (often) insider-y about who voted for which earmarks, but there were some good insights. On foreign policy, ironically the best insight is how little it interests Americans as measured by how how little it was discussed.

So here are some other political science-y thoughts after 6 months of these things:

1. The debates were good, because they forced the candidates to function in unscripted environments. I worked for a congressman and volunteered on some campaigns back in the 90s, and my strong impression was that candidates love TV buys and friendly, highly-scripted forums (the Rove formula, I suppose). No one likes to go door-to-door, and no one likes to explain themselves. By contrast, I thought the debates really pushed the candidates. It forced them to get out there in (relatively) unscripted environments and answer off-the-cuff. This is when the most useful gaffes (ie, honesty break-throughs) happen, which tell you a lot about what candidates really think (Romney’s 10k bet, Perry’s ‘oops’ meltdown, Gingrich’s ‘the Palestinians don’t exist’). Gaffes and other slips are often the most revealing information about candidates who are otherwise ‘constructed’ by consultants and media groups (Romney’s robo-slipperiness being the most obvious example in this cycle). So the more the candidates are forced to be themselves and answer without a script, the more you learn their real beliefs and prejudices. That in itself is valuable in the Rovian world of stage-managed everything.

2. So many debates were bad, because they egged on the candidates to take more and more extreme positions to satisfy the audience. It was a like a domestic politics version of the ‘audience costs’ problem behind deterrence and the domino theory in IR; i.e., credibility concerns before an audience pulled the candidates into more and more extreme positions they didn’t really want to take. The downside of so much audience participation was that otherwise decent candidates were forced to competitively outflank/’out-hawk’ each other more and more to the right, saying sillier and more extreme stuff they almost certainly don’t believe. Perry’s ‘I’ll support waterboarding till the day I die’ strikes me as the most obvious example of this. Perry seems like a fairly congenial guy, who was not a bad guv but then got way out of his depth. He didn’t really know what he was doing and so found himself backed into saying ever more absurd things, like closing down this or that department with no forethought, or waterboarding forever. Romney too clearly doesn’t believe Tea Party ideology, which is why he keeps gaffing; he’s not a movement conservative, no matter how hard he pretends. I am sure Ron Paul believes in the gold standard, and Bachmann that the ACLU runs the CIA, but a lot of these guys have been in this business long enough to know how much Tea Party ideology (climate change and darwinism as liberal academic conspiracies, eg) is bunk. The most depressing thing is that no one will take a stand against it. Instead of trying to pull the GOP back to reality (at the very least so that it will be competitive this fall), the candidates are pandering their way toward 1964-style unelectability. It’s not good for a biparty democracy when one of its just two parties implodes into fringe paranoia like this.

3. If you want democracy to be more democratic and participative, then the frontrunner’s dislike of the debates is too bad. I was disappointed to hear of Romney’s rejection of the next two debates, but not surprised. The debates give the also-rans a chance to fight back. This is one reason I liked them. For as frightening as Santorum and Bachmann are, at least they believe what they say. Its nice to see passionate underdogs push back against Organization Man’s money and TV. The debates and the circulating roster of challengers have really forced Romney to work, although his response has, sadly, been to just pander rather than distinguish himself. One of the big problems of mass democracy is that you never really get to know elected officials. You see them on TV, you seem some campaign literature. I think this is why so many action movies (Air Force One, National Treasure, ID4) show the president as a regular guy who can be an action hero. We desperately want to identify with him. Well the debates give you a little more access and make the process a little more participative and less distant. That’s good in itself.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.