With tonight's vox-pop-driven Democratic debate just hours away, it seemed like a good moment to ask a fundamental question: does our electoral system reward the most agile fudging, evasion, and outright fibbing? At the Milken Conference back in April, moderator Roger Ailes posed the question in somewhat different terms. "Can a presidential candidate advance serious and even unconventional ideas," he asked, "while unyieldingly telling the truth--and win the presidency?" In the video below, panelists Arianna Huffington and Ken Mehlman answer at length. Even more impressively, the high-profile progressive and the former RNC chairman come to similar conclusions about the role of honesty on the stump.
If nothing else, last night's Republican presidential debate will certainly narrow the field. Those who have no shot: Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore, Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo. They represent the fringe of the fringe. Mitt Romney will probably last until The Final Three, but only because he's such great television.
Let's get more specific. Gilmore said nothing memorable the entire evening. Brownback made it clear that he would pardon Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Thompson, venturing into some private Twilight Zone, promised to employ George W. Bush as a "youth ambassador," sending him out "to lecture about honesty and integrity." And Hunter brought some unwelcome levity to his discussion of the Secure Fence Act: "If they get across my fence, we sign 'em up for the Olympics! Immediately!" In a heated segment on immigration reform, the punch line was perfectly timed, but nobody laughed. I think we were all a little unsure about whether or not we were supposed to. And that pretty much sums up the overall tone of the debate. All night the candidates lobbed soft ones, and nobody was there to catch them.
Tancredo's blooper was a little more complicated. During the discussion of English as America's "official language," he said: "We're testing whether or not we will actually survive as a nation. Whether we can actually hold together--and hold onto something called the English language. We are becoming a bilingual nation and that is not good." I can't decide if I'm more afraid because he's a segregationist, or because he's unaware that we are a nation of many languages, not just two.
As a Democratic observer of last night's debate, I find myself at much more of a loss than I could have imagined. There was some humor in the discussion, but there was also horror. Specifically: when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the ten candidates whether they would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran, only one--Ron Paul--said no.
We're in the middle of a war that few Americans like or want to continue, and these guys can't take a drink of water without talking about getting us into another one. And a nuclear war at that! Think about what supporting one of these candidates would mean: you're pulling the lever for vaporization. Is that a viable choice?
Honestly, if I was a Republican, I'd vote for John McCain. You can't fake sincerity like his. And the senator from Arizona had a good night, even if his heart doesn't seem to be in it anymore, and even if he was browbeaten for his bipartisan immigration bill. To his credit, he rallied and came away with the most emotionally powerful moment of the evening. Regarding Spanish--my native language, and one much maligned by Rep. Tancredo--McCain said: "[This is] a language which has enriched my state. My friends, I want you, the next time you're down in Washington DC, to go to the Vietnam War Memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names. If you go to Iraq today you'll see a lot of folks with Hispanic names. These are people who love this country so much they're willing to sacrifice for it. Let's, from time to time, remember that these are God's children."
There's an interesting story in today's Washington Post (submitted to Netscape by TechnologyExpert), in which various pundits and GOP operatives wring their hands over the Republican Party's alleged inability to compete with Democratic candidates on the internet. An excerpt:
No Republican comes close to matching the popularity of another Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, the social-networking triumvirate. The Democrats are ahead in the online money race. The top three Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama and Edwards, amassed more than $14 million over the Internet in the first three months of 2007; in contrast, the top three Republicans, Giuliani, McCain and Romney, collected less than half of that, $6 million.
As that excerpt makes clear, the Post's Jose Antonio Vargas chose to focus on the early front runners in both parties, and in doing so, he makes a fatal error by exclusion. The story fails to mention Ron Paul, whose official YouTube channel has a good 2,000 more subscribers than Barack Obama's channel and almost three times as many subscribers as John Edwards'. The Republican underdog is also clearly on the mind of bloggers; his name has been the number one search term on Technorati for several weeks.
I called Ron Paul's Austin-based campaign headquarters to get their take on the Washington Post story. Jesse Benton, Paul's communications director, told me that the Paul campaign was not contacted by the Post in connection with the story. "It is a little ironic that the strongest Republican candidate on the Internet was excluded from a story about Republicans on the Internet. I think that has been a little typical of our treatment in the mainstream media. I also think that is changing--the mainstream media is paying a little more attention to us every day."
All the more ironic is the fact that the Paul campaign has specifically sought to use the Web as a tool to reach voters in absence of that coveted MSM attention. "The internet is a major part of our strategy," Benton says. "We think it's a powerful force in leveling the playing field and allowing non-Establishment candidates, without nationwide name-recognition at this early point in the campaign, to be able to stand up on the same platform with self-anointed--or mainstream media-anointed--front runners." Benton attributes Paul's online success in no small part to his message. "He is the leading advocate for Internet freedom in Congress: he has never voted to tax the Internet or regulate it in any way. People who have a presence on the Internet realize that he is their strongest champion."
So why exclude the Paul camp from the story? I've contacted Vargas and will update this blog post when I get a response.