Sunday, November 20, 2011

The GOP debate you probably didn't watch, but should have

Last night, CitizenLink, a Focus on the Family affiliate, sponsored a debate in Iowa last night between the Republican presidential candidates, focusing on social issues. But you probably didn't see it, because it was online only, in a livestream that was scheduled up against a lot of college football games. That's really a shame, because it was definitely worth watching.

(At the end of this post, I've included a link to the video of the entire debate, so you can watch it, and I strongly encourage you to do so.)

Frank Luntz moderated, the candidates all sat together around a table, and there didn't seem to be any time limits or formal structure. As Luntz commented before the debate:
I promise this won’t be like anything you’ve ever seen. No gotcha questions by the panel. No spin by the politicians. Just an authentic discussion among the people who seek to lead this great nation. It has the potential to be the most important forum of the primary presidential campaign.
Luntz's promises seemed to come true. Last night had a much more relaxed pace than previous debates; in fact, it seemed more like a conversation than a debate. Because the candidates were able to finish a thought without being interrupted by a buzzer, they gave more complete answers than we're used to hearing, and even shared personal stories.

The personal stories were definitely one of the highlights of this debate. Herman Cain talked about how much his wife supported him during his fight with cancer, remembering how he had told her, "I can do this," and she corrected him, "We can do this." Rick Santorum talked about the health struggles of his daughter Bella, who was born with Trisomy 18, and what he'd learned from her. Rick Perry told stories about his humble upbringing in Texas. Newt Gingrich talked about his family and faith, and remembered a friend's newborn son with a very rare heart defect and brain tumor issues, who survived thanks to finding the right doctor who was willing to fight for a child with a low likelihood of survival.

Wow, emotional debate. Apparently @frankluntz is the Barbara Walters of the right.Sat Nov 19 23:33:45 via Echofon

Naturally, sharing these personal memories was emotional for the candidates, and there were a number of moments where they got choked up. Luntz was clearly touched as well, and commented how much he admired these candidates, how inspirational their stories were, and how he hoped that they would keep this in mind as the campaign went forward, and avoid attacking each other in future debates.

Gingrich's comments got a lot of attention, based on what I saw on Twitter and blog comments, and for good reason. He went beyond his usual "smartest guy in the room" debate performances, and showed a heartfelt sincerity and faith that was very moving. As Greg Hengler posted at Townhall:
Newt stood out from the crowd, but this time it was not only his mind and experience that were memorable, but it was also his heart and his humility. This is the Newt the media refuse to report on.
Gingrich used last night to address the issue of his personal baggage, describing his mindset at the time as a deeply unhappy person, one who had achieved political success, but yet, "There was a part of me that was truly hollow." He spoke directly about his regrets for pain that he had caused his family and his journey to redemption. Here's an excerpt from the debate with Gingrich's comments:

One thought that kept persistently rattling around in my head during last night's debate was not just how different it was from all the other debates we've seen this year, but how frustrating it was that it was so different. It might be harder for Saturday Night Live to make a skit mocking it, but I learned more about the candidates and felt more positive about the Republican field than any of the previous debates.

And isn't that what we are supposed to be doing with these debates? Learning about the candidates and getting motivated for the 2012 elections? It has seemed that many of these debates are doing more to provide fodder for the chattering class (and probably DNC advertisements too) than information to the voters. 

I'll be the first to admit it's fun to read the snarky comments about Romney and Perry's bickering, Cain's repeated mentions of his "9-9-9 Plan," Ron Paul's wackadoodle foreign policy ideas, Michele Bachmann's incessantly mentioning that she's a mother, etc. - but does all that really, truly, fundamentally help us select our nominee?

Why can't we have Frank Luntz and others like him moderate more of the debates? Why do we insist the candidates give choppy 30 second or 1 minute answers? Erick Erickson at RedState has extended an invitation for each candidate to participate in a one-on-one question-and-answer forum, one-at-a-time; has anyone taken him up on his offer?

A few more thoughts on last night:
  • Why, oh why, oh why was Bachmann pouring water for everyone at the beginning? That looked just plain weird.
  • And yeah, I get the Thanksgiving theme, but the pumpkins on the table were a bit distracting and blocked the view of the candidates at times. Don't get me started on the giant cornucopia in front of the table that, from a distance, looked like a dead critter placed there for a sacrifice. It all seemed a little kitschy and not appropriate for a presidential debate forum. 
  • Solid performances from both Cain and Perry. They both seemed at ease and acted like their gaffes from the last month were a million miles behind them. Not sure whether it was the more relaxed format, or (for Perry, at least) the fact that they were seated, but they both gave strong, detailed answers and just sounded a lot sharper than they have in recent weeks.
  • Romney and Huntsman both skipped the debate. Romney at least was campaigning in Iowa - Huntsman was in New York City so he could make a guest appearance on SNL. His monologue during the Weekend Update segment was awkward and honestly not that funny, and he got completely upstaged when Kermit the Frog showed up right after him. Getting overshadowed by a piece of green felt isn't very presidential.
  • If Bachmann says "I'm a mother" during the debates one more time, I'm going to scream. The way she phrased it last night especially bothered me, because she made several comments that women and mothers know certain things, sounding like she was writing off the contributions of fathers. 
  • I know I already said this, but I want Frank Luntz to moderate more debates. He understands something very crucial: the debates are not about the moderator, and he was very fair and even-handed in his treatment of all the candidates.
What did you think about the debate? (Again, if you didn't watch it, please check out the link below. It's definitely worth your time.)

To watch the full debate, click the link below (note: the actual debate starts about 30 minutes in):

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