Campaign Drama: Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss the Kickoff of the GOP Soap Opera

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Michele Bachmann.
Michele Bachmann. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Adam: Hi Frank. Only 15 months to the election — I thought this campaign would never start. Yet just last week, on the Republican side, we had a gaffe, a debate, a straw poll, and the late entrance of a gorilla (his poundage remains to be seen). First question: Are corporations really people?

Frank: Hi Adam. Of course they are! They reach out and touch someone, bring good things to life, and bestow two-day erections. But yes, I get what Mitt Romney was saying. The people in businesses are people, too, which indeed they are — even in our own. The problem is that when he was in corporate America he treated the people in the companies he took over as faceless pawns in financial shell games that often benefited him hugely (net worth recently estimated as high as a quarter billion) while leaving the discarded employees on the junk heap.

Adam: Is it fair for the Democrats and the press to call candidates out for slips like that? I mean, we all know what Romney meant when he was answering that heckler. Obviously it took off, briefly, because it fed the executive-robotron story line about Romney that the media, and the opposition, will try to promote — but I found myself, while amused, already thinking: fifteen more months of this? What's your stance on the gotcha business?

Frank: It's fair, but it does become a tiresome game. And there's such a pack mentality that the gotcha questions and their answers are repeated over and over again to the point that they lose their sting anyway. It was rather hilarious during the debate, by the way, to hear Newt Gingrich lecture the press on the impropriety of gotcha questions — Newt, the leader of the Clinton impeachment, the longest extended gotcha question in American history.

Adam: Favorite moment in the debate? I'm still stunned by that exchange between Byron York and Michele Bachmann, when York asked if, as president, Bachmann would be "submissive" to her husband. The question didn't come out of nowhere, but still ... It was like we had taken the way-back machine to the days of The Total Woman, and yet the Total Woman was now a candidate for president. Almost a historical oxymoron.

Frank: Way-back indeed. Given Bachmann's homophobia, Anita Bryant may be due for a comeback too. Well, York's was a gotcha question, and it backfired on him without hurting its target — much as his fellow debate moderator, Chris Wallace, looked like a jerk when he asked an insulting question to Bachmann on his Sunday show a few weeks ago. (Could these conservative male questioners on Fox possibly be sexist? We report — you decide.) What I liked about that Bachmann moment — was intrigued by, actually — was that extended pause when she took in the question, took in the hissing and booing (at York) in the house, and then composed her riposte. The half-grin, the expression in her eyes, hard to describe really but definitely human, maybe even a tad vulnerable, was far more interesting than the portrait on the Newsweek cover** ... Otherwise, my favorite moments involved the sure losers — Cain, who seems like a genuine jackass, and little Ricky Santorum, the annoying younger brother in a fifties sitcom whose only credential for being president of the United States is his own complete and utter lack of self-awareness.

Adam: At the debate, one GOP candidate after another denounced the deficit deal as Obama's deal — Obama's "dog food," in Romney's felicitous phrase. Considering almost everyone outside that room knows that the deal was practically dictated by their own party, how is it that they can make those statements with a straight face? And of course this happens all the time in both parties. Do you think candidates know they are being disingenuous (at best) on the campaign trail, or is there something in the political personality that allows them to put their shame in a lock box?

Frank: They probably have to put their shame in a lock box or they wouldn't get up in the morning. Here, of course, you have an extreme example — a large early field pandering to the hard right of their base and unlikely to be challenged on the facts by the Fox moderators (who let Bachmann get away with completely inverting S&P's stated rationale for its downgrade). So they'll say any fiction they want, happily and, yes, disingenuously.

Adam: Campaigns have a built-in plot narrative, intrinsic moral dilemmas, outsized characters — why is it that The Candidate and certain West Wing episodes aside, there are so few movies or television shows or books built around elections? I've heard good things about the new George Clooney movie, The Ides of March** , which fits that bill I think, but they're rare.

Frank: The Clooney movie is based on the play Farragut North of a few years ago — all about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the campaign operatives. The candidates don't even matter. Generally the best American political movies do focus on the Machiavellian and cynical plotters manipulating the candidates offstage. The Candidate, certainly — which was written by a former Gene McCarthy speechwriter (as Farragut North's author had worked for Howard Dean in 2004) — and Gore Vidal's The Best Man. I'd also include The Manchurian Candidate (the original 1962 version), maybe the best American political movie ever, though not about an election so much the events leading up to the most thrilling convention imaginable. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting — readers should chime in — but I think the reason there are so few is that in American politics, truth is stranger than even the craziest fiction. You couldn't top Sarah Palin by inventing a new one, so you might as well make a movie about the real one (as HBO, where I am a consultant, has done in adapting John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change).

Adam: Miss Tim Pawlenty?

Frank: No. He had nothing to say, a dull resume, and became more and more phony during his campaign's short life. Had all the charisma of a high-school student council treasurer. That he got out now, actually, shows that he had a bit more sense than I gave him credit for.

Adam: Do you admire Ron Paul's (relative) ideological purity, or do you think he's just out to lunch?

Frank: I do admire his ideological purity actually. He, at least, is never disingenuous. He may be a flake, but at least he's a sincere flake.

Adam: And now here comes Rick Perry, rendering that whole Iowa faux- campaign kind of moot. Unless Michele Bachmann can really keep this thing going, which I find hard to believe but who knows, the Republican primary seems as if it's going to be Perry and Romney in a fight to the finish. I promise not to hold you to anything you say here since it's still fifteen months to the election, but how do you think this fight will play out? If you were Obama, who would you rather face?

Frank: Well, the Perry-Bachmann battle will be a blast, so let's hope it doesn't end too soon. I really think almost anything can happen in the GOP race and in the election. If these are Obama's alternatives, he's in better shape than he deserves to be. Romney would be the toughest opponent, because he's not nearly as far to the right (no matter how hard he pretends to be) as Perry. And disingenuous as he is on just about everything, if the economy keeps going into the crapper, he might be able to persuade a desperate electorate that he is somehow the new "grownup in the room" whose "executive experience in the private sector" could fix it. Do you agree, or do you think Perry would be more of a challenge for Obama?

Adam: It's hard to tell what America will be looking for — a safe-ish alternative to Obama (Romney) or a national daddy with strong leader-ly pheromones (Perry, presumably). Both seem easy to tear apart, but then so is Obama. Perry would be more fun to cover (Bachmann too, as you suggest). It's going to be a long 15 months. But since you seem to be in a generous mood, praising Paul and even Bachmann in this dialogue, let's end with this: what Republican political figure do you most admire? The dead (or near-dead) don't count.

Frank: Praising Bachmann may be overstatement; she was just the most intriguing person up there, by far — a pretty low bar, as low as perhaps the "Star Wars" bar scene** . And she doesn't mind looking more ridiculous than even Newsweek could imagine if that's what it takes to win — let me call your attention to an Iowa State Fair photo sent my way by the writer/political-junkie Paul Slansky** . As for Republicans right now, can't say there are many to admire — but I wouldn't say much differently about Democrats. I mean, were there to be a primary challenge to Obama (not something that will happen in any case), who would be that great alternative? Some might say Hillary — not me — and otherwise? Be curious to know who you might find plausible. And as for Republicans of recent vintage, I greatly admired Chuck Hagel** , who got out of the Senate rather than sell his soul, like his disappointing buddy McCain. I liked Olympia Snowe**  until she acted like a hack in her protracted health-care jockeying... Dick Lugar** , though conventional and cautious, seems to have integrity and....who am I missing? Are you a secret Chris Christie fan?

Adam: No particular love for Chris Christie here. But almost any Republican gets better once he or she retires from politics — inside the fray, they are usually captive to the extremists in their party. Outside, at least some become reasonably sensible — consider that story in the Times last week in which one Republican economist after another castigated the active Party (candidates and legislators both) for their refusal to consider raising revenues and their do-nothing stance on job creation. There seems to be a growing chorus from the reasonable-right trying to loosen the grip of the Tea Party, perhaps to give cover to one of the members of the deficit "super-committee" to color outside the lines. Can't imagine that will go anywhere, but one can at least hope.

That's it for this week. Readers, address your questions to AskFrankRich@nymag.com.