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Athwart

We the People

by James Lileks

You never get the debate performance you want, do you? A young man at a town-hall meeting stammers out a plaintive bleat about poor job prospects for college grads, and you know the candidates will screw off the cap of the bottomless Jug of Empathy and pour it on like syrup over a stack of Eggos. What you want is something blunt and quick: Toss the kid an M-1 rifle and shout, “Soldier up, egghead. Uncle Sam’s always hiring. Next!”

But no. The undecideds must be courted and flattered, their indecision held up as a badge of intellectual rectitude, even though they’re like people in a troubled airplane looking at the oxygen masks hanging down and thinking, “Now what the heck are those for?” Enough! Abolish the town halls. Even though the questions are supposedly balanced, somehow it always works out like this:

Question for Romney: “I’m a gay pregnant Iraq War–veteran teacher who can’t get insurance because I have Münchausen syndrome. Why do you hate me?” Afterwards, in the interest of balance, the moderator gives the president two minutes to explain why Mitt Romney hates the questioner.

Question for Obama: “I have a son with leprosy. We were thinking of lowering him through a hole in the roof of the Oval Office so you could lay your hands on him. Does noon tomorrow work for you?” The moderator steps in to fact-check: “Mr. President, just to clarify, you’ll have to cut a hole in the roof, is that not correct?”

Here’s an idea: Don’t screen the questions. Let America see the true face of the Undecided Voter. Let them meet some guy with a white beard and 25 political buttons on his suspenders and a straw boater: “My name is Treefrog Holistic, and I’m a laid-off unemployment counselor. I voted for Obama because he had more vowels in his name, but now I’m wondering which candidate can convince McDonald’s to have that Shamrock Shake all year, instead of just around St. Patrick’s Day. They are delicious.”

The candidate responds: “Thank you for coming. That’s an important question, and thank you for letting me answer it here in this hall, and thanks to the people who built this hall for letting me come here tonight, and also for the use of the sidewalk to get in, which is not technically part of the hall but, I believe, a very important part of it. Now. We’ve been struggling with unemployment for far too long, and we need to ask ourselves what needs to be done to move forward in a positive direction, either up or north, that’s something the Congress and my administration will work on, but the real question is whether year-round Shamrock Shakes would increase the decrease in unemployment overall, or provide a quick fix. But let me be clear: Making Shamrock Shakes is the kind of green job that will put us ahead in the 21st century.”

The only sensible response: “Really? That’s your question? Please stay home on Election Day. They’re running a SpongeBob marathon on cable. Look into it.”

Could the debates be improved? Yes. First: Replace the moderator with a dressmaker’s dummy that fires Taser darts at anyone talking after four minutes. That would let them mix it up, but would keep them focused. Second: Each candidate gets one chance to drop a Cone of Silence over his opponent, so he can finish his point. (Drawback: Both of them would save it for the other’s closing statement.)

Third: Base all the questions on the campaign ads. Most of the Democratic ads have been designed to prove how Mitt Romney wants to harvest Grandma’s organs so his rich friends can ride around the Cayman Islands on gold-plated rickshaws, caning orphans for sport. The president would’ve been required to trot out the $5 trillion–tax cut shibboleth, and cited an economist who believes Romney’s plan would require the transmutation of lead into gold. Romney would have replied with specifics that show the president’s ads are a steaming heap of ordure sprinkled with the spent casings of class warfare.

Of course, class warfare works, with some. Half the country apparently believes national greatness is defined by the number of people who get signed up for food stamps while having an abortion on a light-rail train. To them, President Obama is totally awesome because he has organized a bucket brigade from the Free Money Geyser that makes sure teachers have free phones and birth control.

And hair weaves! Twitter was ablaze for a day when some excitable citizens heard rumors: Mitt Romney wanted to ban hair weaves, because of China or something, and he wanted to ban the dollar menu at McDonald’s. It fit the mindset of the mindless: Decades of accumulated interaction with the welfare state has taught them that government’s power is absolute and arbitrary, so naturally the president could order crew cuts with a stroke of the autopen. Never mind that big-city liberal busybodies overregulate hair-weave parlors to extract juicy license fees; never mind that big-city liberal scolds are heck-bent on stamping out the dollar menu because it keeps people from chewing a head of lettuce for supper.

If you think that Mitt Romney threatens your hair or your hamburger, nothing in the debates will help. No election will change your mind. No recovery that follows from an application of fiscal restraint will penetrate your adamantine brainpan. These are the people who scoff at Romney’s desire to put people back to work.

Work? For what? The same stuff we get now for free? What kind of deal is that?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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