Green Room

How John King lost the GOP debate

posted at 9:38 am on June 14, 2011 by

First of all, to get the important housekeeping out of the way, I am a flip flopper. There’s just no defense I can mount. By the time I finished watching the debacle that was the June 14th CNN Republican primary debate, I declared on Twitter that I was too disgusted to even bother writing a column on it. And yet, like a moth drawn to a flame, here I am, typing away. Or, in this case, perhaps the better analogy would be more like a fly drawn to a cow pie.

While I will force myself to play the pointless game of picking “winners and losers” among the candidates in a game which can not be conclusively scored, I should start by pointing out the real losers in last night’s affair… John King and CNN. In their eagerness to prove that they are in touch with the cool kids and social media they cranked out a debate format which was heavy on technical razzle dazzle but restricted the candidates to clipped, canned sound bites which mostly wouldn’t be long enough for a quick attack ad during campaign season. This format should be abandoned immediately and never rear its ugly head again.

As to the big show itself, what held the promise of a lot of potential sizzle wound up never rising above a slow simmer. (Again, this is mostly – though not entirely – CNN’s fault, not the candidates themselves.) A group of challengers badly in need of a huge boost in name recognition finally had a chance to take a shot at perceived frontrunner Mitt Romney. But up and down the line they seemed to have no stomach for the fight.

The worst offender, and possibly the biggest loser of the night, was Tim Pawlenty. In one of the few areas where I would give some credit to the moderator, King started off the evening throwing some confrontational, challenging questions at T-paw and looked like he was trying to set up a scuffle between him and Mitt. The big opening came when he referenced Pawlenty’s comments from the previous day about “Obamneycare.” It was a clever shot across the bow at both Romney and the president which had gotten the media wondering if the Minnesota governor had stoked up some fire in the belly and was ready to put some high voltage in his campaign.

When King tossed that ultimate softball at T-paw I was reaching over to grab my wife’s arm saying, “Watch this.. here we go!” But rather than hitting it out of the park, Pawlenty took a complete pass on it, falling back on criticism of the president’s health care plan. The moderator even gave him a second chance – rare in this stunted format – challenging him as to why he wouldn’t talk about “Obamneycare” now that he was standing next to Mitt. King offered Pawlenty his own Teddy Roosevelt moment, positioning him at the base of San Juan Hill with troops at the ready. But rather than leading the charge, T-Paw chose to load everybody into a beige minivan and drive around the hill instead.

Pawlenty has been unable to break out of single digits in most polls and he badly needed to frame himself as the viable alternative to Romney, who currently looks like the stereotypical “who’s next” Republican nominee. But in my opinion he let that opportunity slip away and I don’t know how much time he’s going to have left to seize the moment. It’s not that he got any of the questions “wrong” last night. He just didn’t light the kind of fire that he’s going to need for the long war to come.

Herman Cain was, I think, hurt most by the format and the moderator’s mishandling of the event. It seemed to me that Cain, along with Michele Bachmann, were cut off at the thirty second mark on most questions much faster and more aggressively than the rest of them. It also felt – at least anecdotally – like Cain didn’t get as many questions as the rest of the candidates, nor as many follow-ups. (Hopefully somebody counted them all. I know I didn’t.) On the few occasions when John King did go straight at Cain he seemed to pick out the items which were most likely to pin the candidate’s ears back with the many moderate and independent voters who will get to cast ballots in the New Hampshire primary. (The biggest example there being on the “litmus – loyalty test” for any Muslims in a Cain administration, a question which Herman bobbled badly as I viewed it.) This debate didn’t do much to help Cain, but mostly because he really was never given a chance to shine and mix it up.

The surprise entry for the evening was Michele Bachmann, who at least generated a bit of early evening buzz by announcing her formal entry into the race. (Or, more correctly, announced the upcoming announcement of it.) She also probably did herself the most good of any candidate on the stage, which obviously came as a huge disappointment to yours truly. I don’t know if somebody shot her with a dart full of Thorazine and lithium on the way in or if the new staffers she hired have been browbeating her, but there was absolutely no sign on the Crazy Michele Bachmann I’ve come to expect. I believe line two of the Twitter Debate Drinking Game last night was to do a shot every time Michele said the word, “socialist.” We were expecting mass hospitalizations from acute alcohol poisoning, but a lot of people went to bed sober instead. She was on point for most of the evening, and aside from a lack of direct attacks on Romney, there was very little to criticize in her performance.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were pretty much non-players in the show as I viewed it. Santorum never really got any good openings tossed to him. Newt needed something huge to overcome his recent setbacks, and I can’t think of one moment where he grabbed the brass ring and made that happen.

Ron Paul was… well, once again Ron Paul was Ron Paul. There just isn’t much more to say about the man at this point. He did what he always does and was consistent with all of his previous positions.

All in all, the poorly handled format hobbled most of the candidates and didn’t make for a very pretty picture. Santorum and Pawlenty came off looking like they were auditioning to be Mitt’s VP. Bachmann and Cain both seemed hungry for a shot at the nomination but never got enough at bats or good pitches to drive in any runs. Newt just seemed confused as to why he’d bothered showing up.

And Mitt Romney? He spent the evening smiling and relaxed as if he was busy writing his acceptance speech for the GOP convention. Everyone needed to be piling on Mitt last night, but as near as I could tell, nobody landed a glove on him. All in all, you’d probably have been better off watching the hockey game.

UPDATE: I forgot to add what may be the most important point. I had been considering tossing my support to Herman Cain after the first debate, but I have to completely abandon him after he answered the key question of the evening by saying he endorses Chicago style deep dish pizza over the New York, thin crust variety. Too bad, Herman. You were looking pretty good up until then.

UPDATE 2: Over at Outside the Beltway, Doug Mataconis seems to have registered roughly the same level of disdain for CNN’s performance as many of the rest of us. He does go one step further on Tim Pawlenty though, thinking that this may have been a death blow to his POTUS aspirations.

I’ll go even further. This may have been a fatal blow to Pawlenty’s campaign. He’s been languishing in the single digits from the beginning of his campaign, looking for a way to breakthrough into the top tier without success. Contrasting himself strongly with Romney would have gone a long way toward doing that. Instead, after going on the attack on Sunday, he backed away last night, and that makes him look weak. Contrasted with a candidate like Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty looks like weak tea, and I think that’s going to hurt him in the long run. More importantly, if someone like Rick Perry gets in the race, then Pawlenty is likely to fade fast.

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“In their eagerness to prove that they are in touch with the cool kids and social media they cranked out a debate format which was heavy on technical razzle dazzle but restricted the candidates to clipped, canned sound bites which mostly wouldn’t be long enough for a quick attack ad during campaign season. This format should be abandoned immediately and never rear its ugly head again.”

In other words, candidate’s answers were restricted to
a maximum 140 characters.

mrt721 on June 14, 2011 at 11:44 AM

Cain prefers Chicago non-pizza over New York pizza? Damn commie, he’s lost me.

rbj on June 14, 2011 at 11:45 AM

T-Paw can’t tweet his responses (per mrt721’s nice formulation), and that was his problem last night.

He has to preface each of his actual “answers” with a colorful oration on some related principle, punctuated by allusions to his long personal submersion in blue-collar civilization. He runs out of his 140 characters before coming anywhere near an “answer.”

Bachmann and Romney came off as the most effective tweeters. For my money, Bachmann won the debate. Santorum says a lot of the right things, but was hit-or-miss as a tweeter. Paul is, as Jazz says, Paul. What can you do. Gingrich is Gingrich: if circumstances beyond his control set up the opportunity for a zinger, he took it.

Cain needs to start getting specific on the right aspects of foreign policy, yesterday. Talking a little more specifically about the principles on which he would conduct it is the best approach. He needs to not ever again say he would “surround himself with the right people and make the decisions after reviewing the problem.” We got that. Time to move on.

J.E. Dyer on June 14, 2011 at 12:38 PM

I guess I saw it differently. I was thrilled the GOP did bite on CNN bait and attack eachother. The defeat Obama message was clear. I saw party unity. I did not think Romney look Presidential and fear Obama would crush him in a debate. Winners were Cain,Bachman and Newt.

Dennis D on June 14, 2011 at 4:32 PM

Dennis D on June 14, 2011 at 4:32 PM hits it out of the park.

davod on June 15, 2011 at 6:07 AM

Really, Jazz? I thought CNN wanted to keep the answers to 30 seconds because they would be the right length to use as attack ads. The longer, reasoned answers are a lot harder to distort.

There’s plenty of time to attack Romney for his policies. They’re lying there like hanging fruit. I agree that Pawlenty should have taken up the challenge, but perhaps Pawlenty just wanted to attack Romney on his own terms.

I liked the comradeship of the candidates, all unified in their resolve to get rid of Obama. It was more like a pep rally and intro to the candidates than a fight — okay for the first time out. Contrast this to the Democratic debates of 2008 where Obama, Clinton, and Edwards clearly couldn’t stand each other.

Aardvark on June 15, 2011 at 6:08 PM

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