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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Off Message


Birth Control, Religious Freedom…What Happened to the Economy?

Memo to CNN: in future debates don’t put candidates for president of the United States at little desks that look like they belong in a really slick third grade classroom.

Last night’s 20th GOP debate – yes, it’s only 20 times, seems like 200 – convinces me of something I thought I would never say or believe: there is such a thing as too much debating. The current campaign season should remind us that presidential candidate debates should be like eating french fries – once in a while and not too many. The candidate’s body language seemed to indicate that they are just plain fed up with the new-to-this-cycle’s debate-a-week schedule. And why not. Debates are hard, draining and require preparation. In their heart of hearts these candidates – any candidate – hate these debates even as they know they need to do them.

While we’re at it Newt looks like he hasn’t been passing on the fries.

I’m guessing today that all the campaigns – and the smart folks in the GOP who must be increasingly concerned about the fall campaign – are happy the debates are over, at least for a while. Last night’s contest found the contenders almost completely off message when it comes to the fall campaign.

What smart guy suggested to any of the GOP contenders that with a fragile economic recovery limping along – Barack Obama’s single biggest re-election liability – that they should turn on a dime and start talking about birth control, Planned Parenthood and whether Obama is going to launch a war on the Catholic Church if he’s re-elected? In the last debate last night there was more talk about birth control pills and Syria than about unemployment rates. That is a definition of off message.

This line of debate is the political equivalent of taking the drapes down for cleaning on the Titanic as the ship sinks and passengers scramble into the life boats. In other words, it is almost completely disconnected from the reality that most American voters live every day. Maybe the social issues play with the most conservative GOP base, but the task in the fall is to broaden the party’s appeal, not narrow it.

For me the highlight of the debate was the Romney-Santorum exchange over the former Pennsylvania senator’s 2004 endorsement of then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. Specter hasn’t gotten this much air time since Anita Hill and the Coke can. You could almost hear voters saying, “who are they talking about?”

But, the biggest mistake Romney and Santorum are making is squabbling among themselves over issues that Barack Obama has already won on, like the Michigan auto industry bailout. As the Christian Science Monitor points out today: “The Obama campaign is hitting the GOP field – and Romney in particular – with an advertisement arguing that ‘when a million American jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back’ before flashing Romney’s now-infamously headlined op-ed Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

At a time when General Motors is reporting extraordinary new profits, the GOP field is debating the details of the long-distance bailout. Obama’s new Michigan TV spot neatly wraps the whole thing around their necks.

Memo to field: quit digging when you find yourself in a hole and enough with the debates already. Go shake some hands.

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