LOS ANGELES -- I was pleasantly surprised last Wednesday when I asked a roomful of students at the University of Southern California how many had watched the Republican candidates' debate the night before and dozens of hands went up, more than half the students, maybe two-thirds.
Admittedly, it was a group of political junkies, but still, it was good to see people cared. Their reward is that there will not be another debate until Nov. 3. But we all learned a lot these last few weeks about a party in (to be polite) transition -- and about television.
Television first. We have begun to think of it as an "old" medium, but in fact, as far as politics is concerned, it is still king. It is a medium that can create stars instantly, and celebrity is the coin of the realm -- Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. It can also still discard them after 15 minutes: Michele Bachmann.
The "new" media, social media and all that, have proved to be important in campaigns for organization -- putting people of like minds together and raising money. And the new media, specifically YouTube, and the old media share one characteristic. They take one moment of a debate or a campaign and take it viral. Television does that by repeating the same clip, usually embarrassing, over and over again on news programs and news channels. YouTube is there for the same process of recasting politics and people as laugh-lines.
But television still has the big stick. Most non-fanatic voters -- and I think we are still the majority -- use their franchise to choose the person they sense has the best "character" and the most relevant experience. How we decide that question is by watching the candidates on television and by word-of-mouth, which often comes down to talking to friends and acquaintances about what we see or saw on television. Mass media. The Internet certainly reaches as many people, but its messages are far more diverse.
On to the debates, which in one way are better (or wackier) than ever, largely because the moderators are now less respectful than they were in the old days and, as Newt Gingrich constantly complains, they are interested in setting the candidates against each other. Shocking! Better television. The conventional wisdom on this last debate was that Texas Gov. Rick Perry "rattled" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by repeating an old charge, a true one, that Romney's grass was once cut by an illegal immigrant. If that goes viral, half the population is headed for jail in Arizona or Alabama -- to say nothing of California.
So what did we learn these last few weeks? To begin with, Republicans are people, too. These candidates mixed it up a bit, showed some passion and some humor. Nice. A viewer did not learn much about their positions except that they are inclined to publicly side with the extremists in their own party. The most important moment in the debate came when all the candidates, like kindergartners, raised their hands when they were asked if they would reject a deficit-reduction plan that would cut $10 in spending for every $1 in new revenues.
And we learned that they all hate Mitt Romney. It is not that he is the front-runner, or the even-runner with Herman Cain, who is about as qualified as I am to be president. His 9-9-9 plan makes a laugher of the Laffer Curve. And it looks as if Perry plans to go the flat-tax route as well, which means flattening the middle class. At any rate, their attitude toward Romney is that they hate the guy.
Romney is too handsome, too rich, too Mormon, too moderate (sometimes), too condescending and way too flexible. One suspects he is back in Massachusetts right now having his lawn covered with asphalt after checking whether any of the paving company employees have ever been within a hundred miles of our side of the border with Mexico.
So, whatever polls say, the Republicans are in trouble. The debates were fun, but they didn't move the needle or the ball, whichever cliche you prefer.