If You Had Watched Tonight's GOP Debate ...

By James Fallows

Here is what you would know:

- Herman Cain is a likeable figure (IMHO), but he did a very bad job of defending his 9-9-9 plan against an entirely foreseeable all-hands attack in the first part of the debate. All he could say was that comparing it with other taxes was "apples and oranges." About ten times.

- Mitt Romney is not a likeable figure (IMO), but he knows what he is doing in a debate and has gotten steadily better at it. He can use logic (more of a distinguishing trait in this field than you would think); he can control his emotions; he can make others lose control of their emotions -- especially Perry, who looked like he wanted to land a big haymaker upside Mitt's head; and he can even use body language. He reached across to put his hand on Perry's shoulder in an unusual and no doubt infuriating "now, now, little man" gesture.

- Imagining Obama on the stage with any of these other people is.. difficult to imagine. But he would be crazy not to prepare very carefully for Romney.

- Rick Santorum was angrier than in previous sessions. To me this was not a plus.

- Rick Perry seemed to have tried harder than before in prep for this debate but still let himself get flustered and baited.

- Substance point: Michele Bachmann's little pitch about the pain and helplessness of a family losing its house resembled Rick Perry's costly (for the hard-liners) empathy in the first debate for illegal-immigrants' children. In both cases, a glimmer of imagination that sometimes life is unfair, that "deserving" people can have bad luck, that there should be some provision of collective (gasp!) support for people on whom the market has turned thumbs down. Striking how much at odds those moments are with the tone of everything else. Ie, these are conceived of as minor exceptions to the otherwise perfect fairness of people's condition in life.

- I don't think the GOP's projected share of the Latino vote went up very much after this debate, with constant reference to "magnets" to draw illegals northward and the varying merits of electrified and non-electric fences to keep them out.

- In case you missed it: Romney is good at this. Pay attention.

- Oh, yes, and by the way the cheesyness of the CNN production values, from the Survivor-style intro onward, is some kind of marker on the arc of national decline.

That is all. How many more of these can there be?  (I am posting this before the debate is actually over because I could not keep watching. If I missed something big, I have faith that it will be pointed out to me.)

UPDATES: A friend in Tokyo, Eamonn Fingleton, reminds me of the rare time in the debate when Romney overplayed his hand. During one of the tenser parts of his exchanges with Perry, Romney said, "You've had a tough couple of debates, Rick. You're going to get testy." My immediate reaction  (and I have proof!) was: that is something you think, and let the audience think, but do not say. Minus points for clumsiness.

And from a reader in Montana, on the question of why the best-by-a-mile debater, Romney, still has troubles on the EQ front:

An Obama v. Romney election: No matter what voters think may be the weaknesses of the Obama's presidency, voters personally like him; no matter what Romney's perceived leadership strength, voters don't like him. Huckabee had it right about Romney: "He looks like the man who fired you." He comes across as a bloodless technocrat.

And, in much-sought bipartisan spirit, from a reader in Louisiana:

The word that for me sums up the behavior you describe, and that comes to my mind whenever I watch Mitt Romney, is "condescending", and it is something we do not need in a president. I cannot imagine his attitude of self-superiority working with any Congress, no matter which party is in control of it....

Not that President Obama is any better in regard to being condescending. I can't stand it when he lectures us with his chin noticeably elevated, something he seems to do all too often when speaking in public.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/if-you-had-watched-tonights-gop-debate/246949/