Last night’s GOP primary debate at Saint Anselm College began something like an episode of Jeopardy!, with the contestants/candidates making quick, charming, innocuous introductions, like, “I’m Rick Santorum. I served twelve years representing Pennsylvania in the United States Senate, but I also have substantial executive experience making the tough decisions and balancing budgets and cutting spending. Karen and I are the parents of seven children.” Then the Jeopardy! theme continued, with candidates often giving their answers in the form of a question. (To be fair, this is equally a “presidential debate theme.”) Pressed on what would happen if he didn’t raise the debt ceiling, Mitt Romney, for instance, responded: “Well, what happens if we continue to spend time and time again, year and year again more money than we take in?”
And aside from CNN moderator John King’s “demi-syllabic blurts” every time a candidate babbled too far beyond the thirty seconds of allotted answer time, it was all about as genial as an episode of that old-school game show. It was less a debate really than a series of tiny stump speeches, all aimed not at anyone else on the stage, but at the big man himself, President Obama.
Two quick observations of the more theatrical nature. With so little back-and-forth, it was odd to see Rick Santorum looking so sweaty and nervous—as Ezra Klein described him on Twitter, “like he’s being played by Natalie Portman.” And Herman Cain might have done damage to his credibility/likability with a line you probably wouldn’t hear a contestant ever say on Jeopardy!. Discussing whether he would be comfortable with Muslims serving in his administration, Cain replied, “I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us.”
But enough of this forced analogy. What are those in the press saying about last night’s debate?
Well, given little to go with, they’re pretty much working from the same script. Romney did well by being both charming, strong, and by not being challenged. Bachmann did well by exceeding low expectations with some coherent answers, clever sound bites, and by using the stage to announce officially that she was running. Pawlenty did so-so, losing major points for not backing up his “Obamneycare” digs at Romney from Sunday. (Though, really, if you were the coiner of that phrase, wouldn’t you also want to look over your shoulder and pretend you never said it?)
Policy-wise, it was mostly unspecific outside of social issues, with the exception of Gingrich and Paul, who at times got too far into the weeds to easily follow. The general vagueness was a result both of clever candidate evasions and a typically constricted format that would have curtailed depth even if a candidate had wanted to try for it. Witness Paul rushing through his more complex answers to meet the non-binding time limit.
The Times’s Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny hit the general consensus on how the debate played in a front-page story today with the wonderfully Yoda-esque headline, “7 in G.O.P., Civil to Each Other, Hit at Obama Instead.” The reporters emphasized how little the debate was really a debate and offered the field the kind of faint praise usually reserved for a middle child playing foliage in the school play. (Our emphasis.)
Each of the contenders had serious moments and enlightening exchanges in a lively forum that ended without any noticeable gaffes or missteps.
Noteworthy is that Bachmann, who some imagined would draw a hefty amount of the debate coverage today with her announcement, is relegated to the fifteenth paragraph of the report, behind musings on candidates who didn’t even appear, like Sarah Palin and Jon Huntsman Jr. Still, the paper gave her a thumbs-up: “On Monday she seemed solid on her feet as she, for instance, criticized the United States’ role in the NATO intervention in Libya as failing to forward ‘any vital American interest.’” The focus was clearly on performance over any kind of substance.