What voters didn’t learn from all the Republican debates in 2011: Character Sketch

SIOUX CITY, Iowa--In the spin room after Thursday night's debate, Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, said of his candidate, "Americans watching at home could easily imagine him in the Oval Office." The line was, of course, designed to be flattering to Romney (this was the spin room, after all), but it captured the leap of faith that voters will make next month, beginning in Iowa on Jan. 3.

How do you imagine a president? Despite the oversize role of TV debates in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, as the curtain falls on 2011 it is worth remembering how much about the job of the president was never discussed during these celebrity survivor shows. Three years ago, few Democrats, flush with the enthusiasm of the 2008 campaign season, could have envisioned President Barack Obama bedeviled by congressional Republicans and buffeted by chilly economic winds. Now Republicans have to identify a would-be president from the seven candidates on stage during the final debate before the Iowa caucuses--picturing one of them delivering a State of the Union address, choosing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and struggling with gloomy projections from economic advisers.

The debates in 2011 did little to help voters to imagine the 45th president. The moderators could not resist fatuous horse-race questions: Megyn Kelly asked Rick Santorum on Thursday, "So far your campaign and you have failed to catch fire with the voters. Why?" The strait-jacket imposed by one-minute answers is at odds with the complexity of the presidency. Jon Huntsman was all but forced to sit in the corner with a dunce cap after he had the temerity to try to take two minutes to explain the role of the United Nations in American foreign policy. Candidates are also adroit at confecting crowd-pleasing banalities instead of real answers. Romney boldly declared, "It has to be the American century. America has to lead the free world."

The real problem is that debates tend to revolve around position-taking (what senators do all day) rather than executive policy-making (the job of a president). Early in the Sioux City debate, Newt Gingrich bragged, "I have a 90 percent American Conservative Union voting record for 20 years." Michele Bachmann burbled about devoting her congressional career to "going toe-to-toe with Barack Obama, taking him on, on every issue from Dodd-Frank to cap-and-trade to illegal immigration to Obamacare." Rick Perry once again peddled a balanced-budget amendment and a part-time Congress as a panacea. And Huntsman declared, ""We need to go to Congress and we need to say, you need term limits." (Almost certain congressional answer: "Fat chance.")

Even when the topic turned to a major presidential power, nominating federal judges, the emphasis quickly veered from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. Gingrich was asked about his long-standing proposal for Congress (not the president) to subpoena judges to justify controversial decisions. This was all part of the former House speaker's pledge "to take on the judiciary if, in fact, it did not restrict itself in what it was doing." Part of Gingrich's big-ideas solution involves eliminating entire federal appeals courts, as Thomas Jefferson did in 1802, should a decision displease him. Because position-taking trumps governing in these battles waged from behind lecterns, Gingrich was never asked how such a radical proposal would survive a near-certain filibuster by Senate Democrats.

Sure, working with Congress is a major part of the presidential job description posted on Monster.com. But in debates, presidential candidates are allowed to claim without contradiction that they possess magical powers to cloud the minds of legislators. Perry, who has been a polarizing figure in both Texas and national politics, blandly invoked bipartisanship: "We need a president, who has that governing, executive experience, someone who understands how to work with both sides of the aisle." Romney, suggesting that not all Democrats are patriotic, said, "There are Democrats who love America as Republicans do, but we need to have a leader in the White House that knows how to lead." Bachmann said that if she were president during last summer's debt-ceiling crisis, she would have met with all 535 members of Congress and dictated her three non-negotiable conditions--no tax increases, drastic spending cuts and fidelity to the Constitution. She ran out of time before she could explain how she could have convinced Democrats to agree without resorting to mass hypnosis.

Ron Paul was the only candidate to articulate his vision of the presidency: Calvin Coolidge for the 21st century, only sleepier. "I would be a different kind of president," Paul said with understatement. "I wouldn't be looking for more power. Everybody wants to be a powerful executive and run things. I, as the president, wouldn't want to run the world." Even as the Texas gadfly grew shrill in his exasperation with the bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran rhetoric from his Republican rivals, Paul was clear in how he would respond to ambiguous intelligence estimates: "I would say that the greatest danger is over-reacting."

Over-reacting to televised highlight reels from a debate is also dangerous. Often the most intriguing moments in debates are the ones that are barely mentioned in the after-action wrap-ups. Perry, for example, offered a brief, but telling, glimpse of his executive style when he said about Attorney General Eric Holder's ignorance of a failed federal gun-tracking operation on the Mexican border, "If I'm the president of the United States, and I find out that there is an operation like Fast and Furious and my attorney general didn't know about it, I would have him resign immediately."

Few debate questions--or answers--relate to the actual executive powers that come with the keys to the Oval Office and the codes for nuclear weapons. In almost every debate, except Sioux City, Gingrich promised to bring Lean Six Sigma business management techniques to the federal government. Instead of concocting clever gotcha questions, maybe a debate moderator might someday ask Gingrich to explain how Lean Six Sigma would work in the Commerce Department.

A naïve fantasy, sure. But it is the Christmas season and a time for dreamers.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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