There’s a reason we sometimes call television an “idiot box.” It is not a medium that particularly promotes thought. Background music and laugh tracks prompt us how to feel and tell us what’s funny, even when it isn’t very funny. The more our politics is taken over by TV values, the more the electorate and the process of deciding whom to support is dumbed down.
A televised debate is really a terrible way to decide whom you should support for high office (except, perhaps, compared to televised political ads). The way the candidates respond to questions from debate moderators, or to the statements of the other candidates, tells us mostly about their strategy of the moment, a little about how their skill at projecting whatever presidential qualities they are trying to project, maybe a touch about their ability to ad lib, and not much about the more important policy questions or even about the personal qualities we think we are looking for in a president.
As the weekend analysts continued to sift through the entrails of last week’s big Republican debate, they remained enamored of the earth-shaking moment when Jeb Bush tried to rebuke Marco Rubio for spending so much time campaigning that he was neglecting his duties as a U.S. senator. Bush has a small point, but I have no trouble believing that this line of attack was designed by his handlers to make him tough. It failed. Bush may be tough, I don’t know. But he doesn’t seem to know how to play a tough guy on camera.
“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio replied. And the earth moved.
Omigod. You would think Lincoln had come back from the grave and written Rubio’s material for him. Or do I mean Shakespeare? I always mix those bearded guys up.
Of course Rubio had prepared for that moment. And he delivered his lines far better than poor Jeb (the smart Bush) had delivered his. Rubio even made a perfectly logical point, that sitting senators who run for president always miss a lot of votes, including some candidates whom Jeb Bush supported in the past. Bush (Rubio reasonably argued) is only bothered by this behavior when someone is missing votes to run against him.
It’s not that I have any problem with how Rubio dealt with the badly delivered Bush attack. I only want to argue that this tells almost nothing valuable about either guy’s fitness to be president. Yet the moment is being discussed as if it speaks volumes about what kind of president one or the other of them would make.
On “Face the Nation,” they discussed it thus:
Moderator John Dickerson: “Peggy, what did you make of the sort of ‘Game of Thrones’ moment during the debate when Jeb Bush went after Marco Rubio, who he has helped — had a 17-year career in Florida, and then Rubio came back at him questioning his motives, right back at him. It’s — everybody’s talking about it. What did you make of that?”
Columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: “Yes. It’s the reason we are talking about Marco Rubio this morning. And I’m sure many people are. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio did have a long relationship. They’d passed each other and dealt with each other a great deal when they were Florida officials, but it was always understood Jeb Bush was the older brother and Marco was the younger brother. They had their exchange in the debate the other night, and Marco did not walk out as junior, you know? Jeb went at him, and Marco swatted him away. And it was — I have a feeling we’ll remember it as one of those big moments of the primary….”
Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine: “You know, it’s a — it’s an interesting — it’s an interesting question about this. Jeb Bush has actual executive experience; Marco Rubio doesn’t. But watching that exchange, which one would you rather see arguing with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in a room? Marco Rubio showed that he can bring an argument strongly; Jeb Bush doesn’t seem — Jeb Bush doesn’t — certainly doesn’t have what Peggy very wisely called ‘a merry aggression necessary’ to enter this kind of combat.”
Peggy Noonan is a gifted wordsmith. Jeffrey Goldberg knows a lot about the Mideast. They both probably know at some level that the ability of the next president to “argue with Putin in a room” is not a real thing.
If you think about the big moments in televised political debates of the past, I hope you will agree that they are all pretty stupid and have little to do with the actual qualities necessary to do the job for which that the men or women involved were running. They were almost all set lines, worked out in the rehearsal. Delivered with more or less acting skill.