By MARSHA MERCER
The first test of the nationwide Emergency Alert System this week revealed glitches and gaps in some parts of the country. That’s why we test the system before a real emergency happens.
Another test is taking place before the 2012 presidential election. The political early-warning system tests Republican presidential candidates with intense media scrutiny and fast-paced debates, and it too is revealing glitches and gaps, among the contenders.
Herman Cain and Rick Perry, are struggling, while more Republican voters are warming up to Mitt Romney. Gallup reports that 45 percent of Republicans say the former Massachusetts governor likely will be their presidential nominee.
Cain, former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, has blamed the news media, a Rick Perry aide, the “Democrat machine,” a “troubled woman” and Asteroid 2055 YU55 for the mess that has enveloped his campaign. OK, not the asteroid, yet.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in contrast, admitted right after the Michigan debate Wednesday night that he “stepped in it” when he couldn’t remember the third of the three federal agencies he wants to kill as president.
Perry’s memory lapse was a human mistake, but it also underlined his previous poor debate performances. He wasn’t trying to summon a huge list, like Romney’s 59 economic proposals, just three agencies.
Both Cain and Perry have enthusiastic supporters, and both vow to stay in the race. But running for president is relentlessly hard work, a long and grueling job interview for the nation’s chief executive. And that’s how it should be.
I don’t mean our system of testing presidential contenders is perfect. Debates rarely give candidates enough time to explain their policy positions, but they do provide a chance to see candidates unscripted and thinking on their feet. Unbiased fact-checking afterward lets us know who’s on top of the facts.
The alternative to debates would be a steady diet of political ads, which always play more on emotion than reason. We will get more than our fill of ads in coming months.
As for the media glare, some political news coverage is gossipy, as though directed by Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The daughter of Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.” And too often bad news comes scented with Schadenfreude – the German word for pleasure in other people’s misery.
All in all, though, the news media performs a valuable service when it provides the good, bad and ugly information voters need to make informed decisions. Politicians naturally blame the messenger.
At the Michigan debate, an indignant Cain said, “The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.” The Republican audience was wildly sympathetic.
Cain’s woes, though, stem from what was his strength – his past experience as a corporate executive and boss. Cain portrays himself as an outsider, but the allegations of sexual harassment when he was head of the National Restaurant Association remind that Cain was a Washington lobbyist.
Once the charges surfaced, other reports of Cain’s behavior started popping up. One online news organization even ran photos of the close body hug Cain gave Republican presidential rival Michele Bachmann and the polite handshake Ron Paul gave her.
His Republican rivals have avoided piling on.
“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these accusations,” Romney said at the Michigan debate. “And the people in this room and around the country can make their own determination.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told the Associated Press, “Only Herman Cain can address the issues before him.” And, Huntsman added, “In the meantime it’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room, depriving the people of this country from a conversation about the issues that really do matter.”
But it’s important to try to know whether Cain sexually harassed employees as a clue to what kind of man he is, just as whether Romney’s flip-flops reveal squishy principles.
Romney used the last debate to reintroduce himself as a steady-Eddy. Voters can decide whether the fact that Romney has stayed married to the same woman for 42 years and worked 25 years f0r the same company mitigate his policy shifts.
Perry has indicated he may skip future debates. That would be understandable but a mistake.
Hiding fails the test.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.