On Brain Freezes and the Value of Debates

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This year's Republican primary debates have had a more obvious carnival/WWE aspect than in some previous years. A reader argues that this should be seen not as some guilty pleasure but instead as essential to their civic value, even as illustrated by the unfortunate Perry brain-freeze episode two days ago:

This Perry "oops" moment happened just as I'm coincidentally in the middle of reading a sociology/poli-sci book called The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, whose central thesis (that it is the gaze of the People rather than the voice of the People that matters most in contemporary progressive democratic politics) coincidentally relates strongly to this question.  I'll quote a bit from it so you can see what I mean. [JF note: this excerpt really should be translated into English from its native Academese but is still worth making your way through.]
"What are the criteria that separate an empowered form of looking from a disempowered one?  What is the difference between the People's genuine surveillance of its leaders and the mere ability to see them?  [...]
[P]lebiscitory democracy's ocular paradigm of popular empowerment [!!!??!!] understands the critical ideal to be candor--by which I mean not primarily the individual norm that leaders be sincere, but rather the institutional requirement that leaders not be in control of the conditions of their publicity.[JF emphasis added]  Leaders are candid to the extent their public appearances are neither rehearsed, preplanned, nor managed from above, but rather contain all the risk and uncertainty of spontaneous public events. [...]

[W]ith unprecedented technological and organizational resources, leaders and their political machines can control public appearances to the point that they are prepackaged, scripted, and even micromanaged to the smallest detail, including the angle of the camera shot, the background scenery, and, increasingly, the reactions of an allegedly independent assembled audience."

A sobering observation indeed.  But author Green points to key elements of true "surveillance" that still exist and which must be preserved if we are to maintain true "plebiscitory democracy":
"Examples of candor within contemporary mass democracy include rare instances of extemporaneous cross-examination by candidates of one another in presidential debates..."

Other examples given include: press conferences with unusually persistent or "heckling" journalists; town hall meetings where the attendees (including questioners) are not picked by the candidates; and the granting to non-sympathetic journalists of interviews or access to behind-the-scenes coverage of the inner workings of a campaign.  But it strikes me that it is already fairly easy for candidates to dispense with all those, and the expectation that they at least attend debates might well be the last bastion of defense against total scripted control of a candidate's image.  Hence, if in the future a well-funded, good looking "name" candidate who can start the race at the top of the polls sees the example of Perry as a cautionary tale and a reason to skip debates altogether, and the voters let him or her get away with it, that just might be when all is lost and democracy truly becomes a sham.

I've written a ton of articles and items about debates over the years but hadn't cast the point in exactly this way: the value of debates as one of the rare times we can see candidates in circumstances they don't totally control. Now, a few more reader comments about Perry himself. First, from someone in Pennsylvania:

Throughout high school I did morning the announcements starting with the Pledge of Allegiance. One day my brain froze and I couldn't remember the rest of the pledge. 

A young girl was singing the national anthem at an NBA game and part way through, forgot the words. Mo Cheeks (then coach) walked up next to her and continued the song in a memorable moment of compassion. It made the national news. 

A brain freeze is why public speaking petrifies so many people regardless of how well they understand a given subject. [JF note: right, but these people don't usually run for president.]

I'm not a Perry promoter but this was a brain freeze. Texan politicians have years of frustration with the Department of Energy. What we should be talking about is the rationale for why he'd cut Commerce and Energy. Both oversee interstate commerce, and both engage treaties/agreements with foreign nations. Since the Constitution enumerates those powers specifically to the federal government, it's strange to consider eliminating THOSE two departments. That's the kind of thing we should be talking about.

Another:

Isn't it telling that Perry could have named essentially any federal agency and been on good primary electoral ground? Yet, he froze.

More after the jump.

_____
From a reader in New Jersey:

It is not particularly insightful to observe that Mr. Perry has been rehearsing what his advisers believe to be zingers in debate practice, then fumbling in the moment of delivery during the actual debates.

His sad performances may be the result of many things, but one possibility that has not been emphasized is that he may have little conviction for the ideas he's putting forward; they are perhaps just lines to memorize that are meant to excite an ill-informed and increasingly radicalized Republican base.

Unlike some of the other GOP hopefuls, Mr. Perry may be sincere in his pursuit of the presidency -- but only out of some vague sense of ambition. If he really cared about the positions he's taking, he'd hardly need to rehearse and he'd probably not fail so miserably in his attempts to articulate his views.

Similarly:

I believe you and the other observers who have commented on perry's oops moment have missed the point. perry could not recall the third agency because he lacked a substantive case for why each of them should be demolished. those of us of any age who have a memory lapse usually can compensate quickly by dredging through the synapses that connect the lost item with related ones and can readily move along with the thought being discussed.

however, in this case, it appears that there was little, any, conceptual framework behind the "i will abolish three agencies" claim -- that is, a view of the proper role of government in the economy and society, what agencies fulfilled that role, and what n = 3 did not. if perry had such an intellectual foundation, he would have readily come up with a surrogate. however, it's clear he just had a superficial talking point and forgot the third bullet on the slide.

And:

How likely is it a candidate will freeze like that on a policy proposal he really cares about, one that he's thought extensively about?

What it shows I think is that talk of eliminating federal agencies has remained just a gimmick for Perry, no matter how many times he repeated it on campaign. If Perry was unlucky, it's because it wasn't one of his rivals stumbling this way over one of their own gimmicks...which practically litter the whole field.

Similarly, with a partisan angle:

I don't recall either Clinton having this problem, nor Obama, nor any Democratic Presidential, Senatorial, Congressional, Governorship, Assemblyman, Mayoral, School Board candidate in my lifetime. The Republican party does not take governance seriously, everything is a sound-bite for them. That is why Rick Perry stumbles. In every debate so far none of them has ever said anything more substantive than Cut Taxes.

For variety, another hypothesis:

While we didn't watch the debate last night, we watched clips today on the PBS Newshour. It seemed that all the candidates they showed clips of struggled to find words; though nobody blanked like Perry.

My husband made an astute observation -- that the air quality in the room may have been bad. I know we both get tongue-tied like that stuffy rooms.

On what I called "transient name-aphasia":

First of all thanks for giving me a name for that, so aging along with inflicting me with Turtle Metabolism Syndrome--TMS, has also plagued me with Transient Name Aphasia--TNA (ah aging when one's TMS has its TNA altered) a phenomenon that I found quite embarrasing in my final years as an college English instructor.  Retired, as most of my communications of substance go on on line, I have google, which I regularly use to cover up lapses.

One thing I see is that Mitt Romney in that debate was at first off the duration of his marriage  by oh 17 years, in some ways every bit as egregious an error, as a 42 year long marriage is not a political strategy to be stated about a cabinet department almost no one in the entire country knows much about, albeit he corrected himself.  Perry's problem is that the big critique about the guy was already he was both chocolate and malt shy of a chocolate malt.  But W. made gaffe after gaffe and it did not seem to matter; it was taken as his folksiness.  With Perry, there's something else, not quite there, hard to put one's finger on, but MIA to the point of LOL.

The "how long have I been married?" comparison underscore a point. Mitt Romney temporarily got a detail wrong, but no one thought for a second he didn't know the larger point he was trying to make. And he corrected himself immediately. The problem with Perry's lapse is that his fumbling for the detail apparently betrayed a lack of understanding of the larger point.

Back to "had he thought about this at all?":

Many Republican/Tea Party/Libertarian "types" just mouth support for such ideas as lowering taxes and reducing the size of government because, sadly, they have learned that in certain pockets of America the voters are too lazy to care about the ability of nationally elected officials to actually deliver and what the consequences would be.  I have learned that there is often an almost bizarre legacy and attachment to provincialism in these pockets.  (there's an Atlantic Magazine subject worth investigating:  how much factual information do voters in different parts of the country actually possess about the dozen or so major issues confronting our nationally, not local or state, elected officials?)
 
Does Perry even know that a large part of the USDOE budget is related to national security and nuclear safety (weapons and commercial related) monitoring and that is directly tied to keeping these materials out of the hands of terrorists?  Or that such programs as setting NATIONAL Energy Star ratings for large appliances, like refrigerators, (imperfect as they are) have a very real and direct impact on lowering our nation's overall energy consumption, which improves our economic resiliency and reduces our exposure to foreign oil price and supply shenanigans?
 
Like it or not, such issues as education, energy, and commerce require the country to project and cultivate National standards, policies, and initiatives both internally across state boundaries and externally in our relations with other nation states and the global economy.  A country's "infrastructure" isn't just a physical phenomenon.

And finally, from California:

I didn't and don't feel bad for Perry, because I don't think this is a one-off gaffe that stands out from an otherwise reasoned (if boring) series of debates on the issues.

I think instead it's just the most extreme example (for now) of the anti-intellectual, anti-intelligent, and anti-fact Farrelly brothers comedy that American politics has become.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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