Diminishing returns in the Republican Tea Party Debate: No Surprises; No New Information for Voters

–Richard E. Vatz

Even though Rick Perry is a relatively new entrant to the Republican presidential race, the often volatile polls are in a holding pattern. Last night’s second Republican debate should not yield significant immediate change either, and the substance of the debate produced no measurable personality variation or policy position transformation.

The presidential race appears at this time to be down to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Political persuasion, like all persuasion, is a struggle to make salient — and put on the debating agenda — the issues that help you and hurt your opponent. Conversely, debate participants seek to de-emphasize or avoid issues that redound to their detriment. So Romney emphasizes Perry’s ill-chosen rhetoric on Social Security; the issue of in-state tuition for illegal aliens is one Perry would like to avoid and one on which Rep. Michele Bachmann wants to cross-examine him; and Romney wants to discard the issue of his Massachusetts health care similarities to Obamacare, between which there is much similarity. Perry would like to spend the debate contrasting state jobs records.

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For myself, a former Gov. Tim Pawlenty supporter, I am marginally favorable toward Romney, his irresponsible health care policy notwithstanding (and apparently Pawlenty can overlook that too, as he has become Romney’s campaign manager).

Point after point finds Romney making substantively important understandings of complicated issues, such as his support for Latinos and the fact that, except for the far-left Latino Democrats, they do not support “handouts” and the correction that he didn’t say that social security was criminal, as Perry alleges, but that Congress’s taking money from the system was.

Incidentally, Perry’s calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” shows that he has little rhetorical sophistication. To argue that point publicly is to communicate that it ought to be disbanded, because people do not en masse understand “Ponzi scheme;” they think it means he finds the system conceptually corrupt.

Even 14 months before the election, the supporting players have become unimportant, although only some deservedly so. Newt Gingrich brought up some important perspectives in foreign policy (such as the disquieting recent changes in attitude and behavior by Egypt and Turkey). The Santorum-Paul clash on foreign policy neo-isolationism is just not going to be a salient issue in the 2011 presidential election, but the Perry-Huntsman clash on maintaining or not maintaining troop levels in Afghanistan is.

There were no major policy deviations by Romney or Perry; one change I would recommend is more questions specifically requesting policy iterations: if you oppose Obamacare, what precisely would be your recommendation on government-sponsored health care? What specifically would you as president do if Iran acquired nuclear weapon capability? What exactly would you do about entitlements?

Just a recommendation for particularity and details from candidates, now that we have reached debating diminishing returns.

Prof. Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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