Scripted Zingers and the Great Debate

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Carl Cannon's piece for RealClearPolitics expresses frustration at the quality of the presidential campaigns, and I agree with nearly everything he says. The country should be having a Great Debate, but it isn't -- despite both candidates' claims to the contrary. Big things are at stake, all right, but the campaigns couldn't be smaller if they tried.

How much government involvement in daily life does the Constitution allow for? How much do Americans want? How much they are willing to pay for? These are the cosmic questions everyday Americans are arguing about, along with the associated question of which major political party is best suited to arbitrate these issues.

Instead, U.S. voters have been subjected to a nine-month barrage of witless blather -- often in the form of negative TV ads or ad hominem personal attacks -- about Mitt Romney's taxes and religion, Ann Romney's horse, the Romney family dog, whether young Barack Obama ate dogs, about grown-up Barack Obama's accent, whether Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is part Cherokee, whether her opponent Scott Brown and other Republicans are waging a "war on women," and whether Democrats are waging a "war on faith."

Yep. Cannon wonders whether voters want or are prepared for an honest discussion about entitlement reform, taxes and other issues. Obviously, the campaigns assume they aren't, and their experts on this subject presumably know what they're talking about. But I'd still like to see that unthinkable course of action -- talking to voters as if they were intelligent adults -- given a try. It might be an electoral disaster, though I doubt it. I think voters would be shocked into admiration. At least it would be an honorable way to lose, if that counts for something. (It doesn't, I know.)

One small point. Carl is fair as always in his analysis of both sides, and I don't want to seem to be defending Romney, whose campaign has been pitiful, but I wondered whether it was right to call his remark on self-deportation "the most frivolous treatment of a serious issue this entire campaign season." That's such a high bar.

Agreed, to talk about illegal immigrants deporting themselves was characteristically clumsy--in that respect, pure Romney. And Carl's right of course that immigration is a key issue on which Romney is advancing no coherent policy (and where pandering to his party's base has made it impossible to get one). But the point that Romney was trying to make wasn't as idiotic as he made it sound. Illegal immigrants come to the US to work. If they can't work because employers are made to check documents rigorously, most of them would go home. If one of my visa renewals had been turned down, leaving me unable to make a living here, I would have self-deported. Though I doubt that's the way I'd have put it.

Romney has a Biden-class knack for sounding stupid, which is a serious drawback in a presidential candidate. But expressing yourself in ways that invite ridicule isn't the same as being frivolous.

As for tonight, the Times tells us:

Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August.

I read that with a thrill of horror. Scripted zingers, practiced until the candidate has forgotten what the words mean, for delivery in the relaxed confident style we've come to expect. Good plan.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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