December 16th, 2009
Did you see the New Orleans Mayoral Political Forum last night televised on WDSU? If not, you can watch the hour-long show here
My view is that debates are mostly political theater. Voters always say they watch debates in order to hear the “details” of the candidate’s “plans” for addressing the “issues”. But for the most part voters’ reactions to a debate are determined by how well
1) a candidate engagingly presents his or her views in a manner that seems to “make sense” within the moment and
2) how the candidate responds to questions or attacks that require them to improvise and go off script.
Number 2 is when political drama occurs during a debate, and that’s when voters’ ears perk up. I know mine do. You get to see the candidate thinking on his or her feet, and you get an opportunity to see them perform when the (political) pressure is on. Unfortunately, political forums like last night are structured to limit the opportunity for give and take (or attack and response) among the canidates. And this limits the opportunity for revealing drama.
On the bright side, though, WDSU laudably included all of the registered candidates (except one). So the audience got to see both “major” and “minor” candidates respond one right after another. This became entertaining.
I was disappointed with how the Times Picayune characterized the predictable results of this debate arrangement, though:
The New Orleans mayoral campaign hit prime time Tuesday night with the campaign’s first televised debate offering a mishmash of opinions, observations and humor.
With 12 of the 13 candidates competing in the Feb. 6 primary scrambling to cram thumbnail versions of their top priorities into just 60 minutes, the forum, which was broadcast live from Xavier University, at times seemed like a breathless sprint.
The eight major contenders, who all arrived with well-rehearsed talking points, also found themselves competing with long shots who hijacked the proceedings with such nontraditional proposals as legalizing marijuana, recruiting the Amish to rebuild neighborhoods and turning the city’s sea of blighted properties into farmland.
WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson kept the candidates on point and the agenda rolling, though the format of posing different questions to each candidate for most of the evening made it difficult to measure the candidates against one another.
Considering the event marked the candidates’ only opportunity to speak directly to a citywide TV audience until January, it was relatively free of fireworks.
I think “hijacked” is an unfair characterization of the “nontraditional proposals” that were made by some of the “long shot” candidates. Sure, some of the candidates seemed unserious. Manny Bruno’s idea of recruiting “hostesses” from Bourbon Street to help citizens navigate City Hall was described by host Norman Robinson as a “friendly” proposal. (I got a bigger laugh than you did from that one.) However, I’d say that “hijacked” is a disparaging way to describe how the longshot candidates affected the proceedings. Things didn’t get out of control, and the “serious” candidates got to spew their prepared lines amidst the more entertaining discussions of marijuana legalization and urban micro-farms.
In his review of the debate, We Saw That chooses to only review the so-called “minor” candidates, and advises New Orleanian voters to vote for one of the minor candidates and stay away from the “polished turds”.
As much as I’d like to, based on what I saw at the debate I can’t echo that advice. However, I will say that the gulf between a “minor” candidate who says funny things and a “major” candidate who echoes inert talking points is not as great as people think. In a forum where everyone is on stage together, a minor candidate has the opportunity to make a stunningly good impression. With a dedicated amount of practice and preparation (several months at least) plus a little creativity and innovation, you could make some of these other rich businesspeople and career politicians running for mayor look like fools. A minor candidate has the opportunity to come across as being smarter and funnier than the risk-averse establishment candidates. (For example, no one knew the amount of the city’s indebtedness. What if a minor candidate knew it cold, and piped up and said “It’s $524 million. Or should I phrase that in the form of a question, Alex?”) A so-called “minor” candidate who did that three or four times in a debate— acing out the professionals— would be an instant mini-celebrity in New Orleans. They’d dominate the news coverage, the talk radio and internet forums, the conversation at the coffee shop… money would come into their web site, they’d get dozens of calls and people willing to volunteer… that translates into instant momentum. And I don’t believe this scenario is some impossible dream, either. An aspiring “longshot” candidate who takes full advantage of opportunities like that WDSU debate could surprise everyone.
Below, I’ve presented my initial take on the performance of the so-called “major” candidates’ during the debate. First, though, I’d like to link to some fellow nolabloggers who already opined.
Cliff at Cliff’s Crib shares his first ten thoughts.
E at We Could be Famous liveblogged it, then analyzed it.
G B… at The G Bitch Spot shows her talent for multitasking and did both at once.
Jeffrey at Library Chronicles found the “Clown Show” entertaining, and promises to add more to his initial commentary soon.
For web links to nearly all the candidates in all the local races, I recommend consulting mominem’s round-up here.
Let’s start with my longtime whipping post Rob Couhig. Before the debate I encouraged Rob to “make it lively”. He disappointed me on that count. What I was most intrigued by, though, was Couhig’s belief that crime was the number one issue. When he explained his position, the first thing he mentioned was the need to hire a new police chief. This is interesting in light of his decision in 2006 to support Ray Nagin over Mitch Landrieu, because Nagin was the only candidate who was committed to retaining Chief Riley, and Landrieu said he would lead a nation-wide search for a new Police Superintendant. This year, every candidate believes that’s a good idea. Couhig was recently interviewed by T-P columnist Stephanie Grace, who wrote:
Couhig’s so hard on Nagin that, if you didn’t already know it, you’d never guess that he capped off his 2006 run by turning around and endorsing the mayor for reelection against Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who once again qualified for mayor last week.
That stunning turnabout is now part of the Couhig brand, just like the tough talk, although Couhig insists it shouldn’t be.
He argues that at the time, Landrieu wasn’t promising to do anything differently from Nagin.
So, item one on Couhig’s “top issue” for 2010 is the same item that was on Landrieu’s agenda in 2006. But Couhig endorsed Nagin, because he didn’t see any difference between the two. I think that requires further explanation.
Mitch Landrieu was professional. He looked and sounded like an experienced politician, and seemed a little more engaged than in some debate performances in 2006. Is that enough for voters this time around?
Ed Murray was very calm, bordering on somnambulant. When James Perry (and Landrieu) fired opening shots at Murray, claiming he supported legislation that hurt efforts to reduce blight, he remained very calm— almost too calm. Not a dynamic presence.
Speaking of “not a dynamic presence”, businessman John Georges and businesswoman Leslie Jacobs weren’t exactly scintillating, either. Jacobs sounded very rehearsed and scripted. I’ll give her marks for preparation, but she never got outside of her scripts, which is neither all good nor all bad. Georges on the other hand sounded like he always does— hoarse— like I do the morning after attending a Saints game. According to the T-P article, he did manage to make some news in the debate when I wasn’t looking.
Unveiling a new policy position, Georges also revealed that he supports “the immediate reopening of Charity Hospital … so we can immediately impact the redevelopment of our downtown,” he said, adding that City Hall should “save the historic neighborhoods they’re planning to put the new hospital in.”
Whoah. That’s a pretty major policy move from the vague “plan” he describes on his web site’s “Health Care and Hospitals” page. But I believe this isn’t the first time Georges has done something like this, albeit much more subtly.
Recently, Georges aired a much maligned (and rightfully so) political advertisement featuring a dog on a couch that he’s reluctant to pet. The general rule of thumb with political commercials is that they should “work” with the sound off. Not every scintilla of information needs to be conveyed silently, but the general message of the ad should be there visually when the volume is muted. This ad fails on that count and many others, as local bloggers gleefully mocked Georges, who seemed either annoyed, confused, or in the middle of a dufus impersonation. In the ad, Georges admits that he is an “aggressive” candidate, and is shown as a reluctant participant in a commercial aiming to show his soft side. He ends up submitting to the whim of the bossy director and petting the dog— not a very strong or assured move for self-made business tycoon who wants to be mayor. Any intended theme of the ad is lost in the failed light-heartedness that comes across as bizarre.
Quite simply, Georges commercial should’ve been rethought. However, to those who closely inspect the ad, they’ll glimpse a director holding a cue card that states “will create 50,000 jobs”. My question is this: is this a real campaign pledge? (It’s not part of the “plan” on Georges’ web site.) Does Georges have a strategy for making this happen? Is it a 4 year or 8 year goal? Most importantly: are we supposed to take the goal seriously, or is it part of the annoying personae that the director is forcing down Georges’ hoarse throat?
Troy Henry was more dynamic. He came across as assured and passionate. In the debate he explicitly stated that he would create 40,000 to 50,000 new jobs. But unlike Georges he outlines a few ways he intends to attain this goal at his web site. As an alternative to Ed Murray and other major candidates, I think Henry scored some points in this debate.
I thought James Perry was dynamic, too. He was energized and came out swinging. He reminded everyone about his debate success in an earlier forum, and criticized Ed Murray for legislation that inhibited blight reduction. He reiterated his titanic pledge to not run for re-election if he can’t cut the murder rate by 40%. I think he scored some points as well.
At one point, “day laborer” Manny Bruno thanked Perry for keeping his comments “G-rated”. This was a humorous reference to Perry’s controversial commercial. (Perry’s ad got people to notice him, but didn’t accurately capture the source of voters’ outrage. Citizens were shown cursing in anger at the current selection of mayoral candidates rather than yawning or rolling their eyes. (People are outraged at the problems in New Orleans and the inept Nagin administration. They aren’t outraged by boring guys like Ed Murray or cottonmouths like John Georges. If Perry can connect other major candidates to the current problems which do frustrate Orleanians, then he’s cooking with gas.)
Nadine Ramsey seemed uncomfortable throughout, like she was forgetting the right words for her answers and statements.
So, what did you all think? The next mayor of New Orleans will come out of that crowd that was on stage last night. Does that excite you or make you want to roll a left-handed cigarette and smoke some wacky tobacky?