In the Arena

The Republicans

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Here’s my gimmick: I listened to the debate on radio. Not that I wanted to…but I was on a forced march, driving north. I did this fully aware that Nixon “won” the famous debate with JFK among radio listeners as he was losing the presidency on TV. But I was curious, nonetheless, about how this would work out.

First impression: They were indistinguishable. There were so many of them. On radio, the time division seemed acute: The moderators, especially Chris Mathews, dominated. The generally fatuous and vacant answers made them even more indistinguishable. Here’s what it sounded like: God God God God God God God Reagan Reagan Reagan Reagan Reagan Reagan God…and, oh by the way, Reagan.

Second Impression: Mitt Romney is Reagan Reincarnate. People forget how damn smooth Reagan was, that caramel voice, that you-can’t-ever-ruffle-me demeanor. Romney had that on the radio…especially the aw-shucks ease of answer. I could imagine him doing the Reagan nice-guy, slightly-boggled head twitch, especially when he was asked the question of the night: What do you dislike most about America?

Romney’s answer: I love America. Great. Good. Great Great. Creative. People. The American People. Love. Great….

Now, you might reasonably ask: Couldn’t he come up with some Republican talking point, like “taxes are too high” or “Abortion is legal” ? That’s what a Democrat would do: “47 million people don’t have health care coverage.” In fact, Democrats have traditionally made the mistake of not cloaking their make-us-better prescriptions in a formulation like, “Look, this is the greatest country in the history of everything, but…” This is a basic DNA difference between the parties. Republicans see the American people as perfect; the American government as an alien import from France. You put America and Flawed in the same sentence, and any Republican will go all (faux) De Toqueville–great good great good etc.

But I digress. I thought McCain sounded reasonable, existing somewhere in the Great American Political Ballpark, after his first two nervous Gate of Hell answers. Giuliani was all abortion, all the time–on radio, his scratchy voice and slight New York accent render him too weird for the Republican Party, which tends to like candidates who might pass as televangelists.

Like Mickey Kaus, I expected Tom Tacredo to score some points with his immigration ranting, but he didn’t. Mike Huckabee was fun, as usual, but his reference to generals with “blood on their boots” was more colorful than accurate. Generals are more likely to come equipped with power point presentations than blood these days.

Finally, this is my ninth Presidential campaign and it’s sometimes the case–especially in party change years–that one party sounds out-to-lunch and the other far more acute and closer to the mood of the country: the Republicans sounded that way in 1980, the Democrats in 1992.

The Democrats sound that way now. Listening to the Republicans, you’d never guess that this was a country 70% of the public thinks is heading in the wrong direction.

Update, from TV-advantaged reader Ama:

I can appreciate your assessment, based solely on sound (and yeah, it did get rather GODLY), but I think if you had seen McCain in action, you’d change your mind. He kept blinking his eyes excessively, and he seemed as if he were trying too hard. I thought he came off rather pathetic. He knew he had to appear energetic, but his attempt seemed extraordinarily contrived.

Several other readers have seconded the motion–which recalls the reason why Nixon won the 1960 debate on radio: nobody could see his sweaty upper lip.