The MSNBC/Politico debate at the Ronald Reagan library was a major disappointment. Do not blame the candidates who came ready to scrum. Blame the journos. For reasons I still can't fathom the two news organizations configured the debate to intentionally avoid all social issues.
This may be sour grapes from a person whose expertise is in Faith and Values politicking and is now deprived of fertile source material. But permit me to adduce at least four reasons why permitting Brian Williams and John Harris to not pose a single question about abortion, gays, the role of religion in public life, and so forth, was a journalistic misstep.
First, GOP voters in the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary are, I think it is safe to say, undeniably interested in those very issues. Second, newcomer Rick Perry has — as he often does with everything — doubled down on Faith and Values themes with his call to national prayer of a few months ago.
Wouldn't it be interesting to know in this, the first debate featuring the governor of Texas, what the Mormon candidates Jon Hunstman and Mitt Romney made of The Response? What about Ron Paul, who clearly crafted his debate strategy to mix it up with his colleague from Texas? Paul could have conceivably busted out one of his vaunted anti-Fed tirades on the subject of religious politicking.
Third, some of Wednesday night’s participants have made appeals to faith central to their candidacies. Michele Bachmann comes to mind. As does Rick Santorum who says what he says because he believes it is the right and moral thing to do according to the teachings of the Catholic Church (though Santorum was asked about his views on poverty in the context of Catholic social thought and somehow managed to deliver a response completely bereft of any reference to Catholic social thought).
For those who are about to remind me that it's the economy, stoopid and that the debate properly should have been about jobs and deficits and taxes, well, yes, I get that. The problem is that the GOP has gone out of its way to proclaim the budget "a moral document" with ties to our most deeply held values.
We heard this argument, incidentally, as a rationale for slashing funding to Planned Parenthood during the government shutdown saga. There is an element in the GOP that refuses to disarticulate economic concerns from social ones. Journalists need to acknowledge that.
The inability of MSNBC and Politico to engage religious themes was at points inexplicable. Moderator Brian Williams asked Rick Perry about the 234 (!) death-row inmates executed on his watch (to which the crowd broke out into spontaneous applause). Perry answered that he didn't "lose sleep over it." The obvious follow-up question should have gone (but did not) to the Catholics on stage, Newt Gingrich and Santorum-- what with the church's longstanding moral concerns about the death penalty and all that.
With that said, I was left with a few stray observations, none of them having to do with religion because, apparently, that stuff isn't relevant to the GOP today.
• Michele Bachmann, is hands down, the most polished and on-message of all the candidates: Her every response is like a perfectly crafted short story with a narrative arc culminating with a nod to her own personal experience dealing with both the heroism and governmental contumely she has just described (in 15 seconds). She seems to be fading in this race, but with skills like this you will hear from her again.
• Jon Huntsman has already pivoted to the general election, where he could do some damage and make inroads among independents. He defended evolution and climate science tonight. He mocked the pledge plague afflicting the GOP. But how does he make it past the social conservatives in the primaries with positions like that?
• Rick Perry: Back in the pack: The sociologist Erving Goffman spoke of, if memory serves, "mystification" or the tendency of religious figures to increase their mystique, attractiveness and social power by simply making it very difficult for others to have any actual contact with them. Seeing Perry on stage was a de-mystifying experience. Not that he did poorly, mind you. He just seemed far more vulnerable among the ravenous pack than as a solo act. He looked especially uncomfortable when trying to defend the "unsettledness" of climate science.
• Can Newt Gingrich just answer the damn questions?: Look, all of us have our gripes with the media. But Gingrich's tendency to sniff out a liberal journalistic conspiracy in every question he is asked (even if, as in the previous debate, the question is asked by Chris Wallace of Fox News) is appalling.