Debates a perfect proving ground for modern presidency

Political debates have often been left to political junkies, activists, journalists, and people without cable.

The Republican candidacy for President is being decided by them, as the emphasis on these debates – seemingly a weekly occurrence – have grown in importance.

I’ve heard conservative talk radio hosts complain that we shouldn’t choose a leader that way, after all look what happened with Barack Obama.

On the other hand, political veterans like Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal have noted that these debates help us get to know candidates and get an idea of how they would be as a leader.

But it runs deeper. A smooth talking, charismatic leader is not the only  qualification a president ought to have, but they help.

A candidate has to have substance, at least a quality candidate ought to. But, if you can effectively argue your point, you don’t always have to be on the right side of issues for voters if they have to understand why you believe what you believe.

This ability to set the agenda, to make people understand why certain things are important and certain others aren’t, may be the most important characteristic a president can have.

As I’ve noted many times, the power of the president as a legislator is minimal. In fact, that’s the way our constitution is written, set up so that Congress has more authority and power than the president.

That was before cable, before MSNBC and Fox News, before Twitter and before we could access information at any time from just about anywhere.

Real, legislative power, Congress wins that battle. The power to dominate political discussions is the President in a landslide.

The President of the United States sets the political landscape, the agenda. When soon-to-be-former President Obama gives a speech on jobs, his plan receives more attention, more people watch and more people take note.

If Congress doesn’t pass it, he can say “Look, I told them to pass it,” even if the plan isn’t a good one.

He has the power of the media, the power of public opinion, and the power to persuade if necessary. Setting the agenda, explaining to people the issues of our time and how we’re going to address them, that’s part of being a president. Getting people to believe you are the man for the job, that you have the skills necessary to get it done and that you’re going to be accountable if things don’t change, that’s being a leader.

Our president doesn’t quite get the difference.

The demise of Rick Perry is a case in point to this argument. Rick Perry has face-planted in the polls, trailing Ron Paul and (gulp) Newt Gingrich along with favorites Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.

The reason? Perry doesn’t do well in the debates.

Yes, this is important. Winning an argument means deciding the terms under which the discussion is held. If you can frame a debate in the way you want to, you win.

That’s why Obama couldn’t win the debt-ceiling debate and why his policies haven’t resonated with the people: he can’t get people to buy into his way of looking at things.

Perry can’t frame arguments, can’t articulate the issues in a way that people like, even if he were to jot down his core beliefs, he’d be an exceedingly likeable candidate for conservatives.

Ultimately, this will lead to the demise of Herman Cain as well. Cain is charismatic and has plenty of good ideas. His 9-9-9 plan he wisely tweaked to leave out those living in poverty.

His energy, enthusiasm and charisma are appealing, but he struggles with issues. Bill Maher rightly (which is hard for me to admit) mocked Cain for his incoherent interview recently with Fox News.

Cain said he was pro-life but that it was a woman’s choice to get an abortion, then added that abortion should be illegal.

Come again?

This is where his lack of experience in politics comes in because he doesn’t understand the issues well enough, nor does he understand the way to handle questions he doesn’t really have an answer to.

To some, Cain’s snafus have become endearing, to others a red-flag. The pizza mogul is leading in the latest WSJ poll, but eventually his inability to deliver a clear message may do him in.

Conservatives also have to remember that these Republican debates will give way to Presidential debates where the Republican candidate will have to face off with Obama.

Obama cannot be underestimated as a campaigner and orator, despite his poor poll numbers and even worse record as an administrator of policy.

The Republican candidate for president can’t just be “the best conservative,” he has to be “the most qualified to be president.”

The includes the skills to dominate a debate by framing issues the way you want them framed. It’s why Gingrich has risen, Romney has stayed steady and Perry has fallen.

These Republican debates have hardened Romney as a legitimate competitor, exposed Bachmann and Perry, and created a rising star in Cain (when he gets to prepare for questions).

It’s the perfect proving ground for a president who will face a world consumed by critics, media, and constant information. To lead this nation, the commander in chief has to do more than implement quality policy, he has to convince the American people why the policy benefits them.

Having the right agenda means nothing if you can’t defend it against blogger, twitterers, journalists, talking heads, radio blow-hards and your opposing party.

Obama’s support has free-fallen because he’s been unable to effectively sell his agenda, while also failing to show the resolve to continue to defend it and stick to his guns.

If Romney or Cain can show, through these debates, those characteristics, they can win this election.

They’ll also have given strong evidence they can succeed as a leader at a time when a leader is what this country so desperately need.

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