Mark Souder: Do debate disasters really matter?
Saturday, October 01, 2016 9:14 AM
FORT WAYNE – In 2004 I had the unique distinction of participating in what was certainly among the most disastrous debates ever for a federal level candidate.
The Democrats had nominated Maria Parra. She was a Michael Moore-style liberal but certainly an otherwise qualified candidate. Parra had an MBA from IU-Bloomington and had a successful business career in the health care field. Our debate was to be held in the studio at WPTA-TV in Fort Wayne taped “as live” with no audience. This was different than all other debates that I’d ever agreed to participate in, but her campaign insisted on the conditions.
The Democrats wanted Andy Downs of IPFW as sole host as opposed to the normal panel we had at debates. When I arrived at the station, it became clear that her campaign had invited all the local media to observe. Whatever my weaknesses are, one of them was not an unwillingness to talk to media, so I didn’t care, but the constant changing of conditions without consultation was getting irritating. However, she didn’t make it through her opening statement. She took off her microphone, got up and went to her staging room. Andy and I sat there stunned.
I remember Andy saying, “What should we do?” as did the producer through our earphones. I immediately said, “Keep your voices down, the media can hear us.” So I softly said I was willing to do whatever was necessary because the entire nation was likely to see this tonight if we didn’t fix this immediately. Our area would be the laughing stock of the country.
Her campaign manager coaxed her back out after I agreed to let her choose whether to go first or second on statements, questions and closing. Even more importantly, I agreed to let her have notes and that Andy Downs would give her the questions in advance. Whatever she wanted, she received.
The local media – three other television stations, multiple radio representatives including WOWO, both Fort Wayne daily newspapers and representatives of other daily regional papers plus some early social media people – were now much more focused than before.
As the media reported, we both “made it through our opening statements.” The first question was on health care. It went to me, per agreement, so she could respond. I could see all her notes ready for the question that was about, after all, her occupation at the time. My answer was unmemorable, other than it included lots of detail which was a good “tactic,” but anybody who ever listened to me talk or reads this column knows that including lots of detail is built into my DNA.
I will never forget looking at her as I was concluding and seeing the panic in her eyes as I was talking. She wasn’t ready for this. After my answer, Downs turned to Parra who paused, and then said “I can’t do this. I just can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
And again walked off.
After she then rapidly departed, the first logical question from the media present was: “Have you ever heard of this happening before in a congressional debate?”
I realized at that moment, in the seconds before answering, that whether or not I won the election (which was obviously then cinched; I won with just over 69% of the vote) my response was likely to stick with me in people’s minds long past this election. What type of person is Mark Souder? Is he vindictive? Does he just care about winning? Or is he a decent person?
I responded that this was “not a commentary on her knowledge of the issues in particular. She was just very nervous.” What I told Sylvia Smith of the Journal-Gazette, off the record, was how I had wanted to respond: “Do you mean even in a high school debate?” – but had resisted. The quip would have been an instant media sensation because the story was in fact on ABC News with Peter Jennings a very short time later.
I continue to oppose Donald Trump even though Hillary Clinton’s issue positions are so repulsive I want to scream at the television set. Any of the other Republican candidates could have demolished her because of her incredibly uninformed understanding of how the economy works, insensitivity to how upset people are about the murders in this country (his “law and order” point), superficial apologies concerning her email erasures, and seeming callousness about jobs lost.
To me, issues have mattered since I became a conservative activist in junior high school, but I believe Trump is a con man on the issues as well because he’s a person wrapped in a self-centered marketing brand, not someone who has ever cared how government actually works. He didn’t even have the respect to prepare for a debate, let alone governing.
Trump’s campaign clearly understood that his temperament is his biggest problem. Kellyanne Conway is a brilliant tactician. Gov. Pence, as Conway said in recommending him as the Trump choice for vice president, stays on message and massages his words well.
It was no accident that Trump in the debate asserted that he has the better temperament to be president. Or that Pence came out stressing that same pre-planned talking point, even after Trump’s incredibly disastrous debate performance which had illustrated precisely why he doesn’t have an acceptable temperament.
It is unclear that it will hurt Trump much. Those who support him don’t seem to care. But for me and other holdouts, Trump’s unacceptability as the leader of our country has become critical. I have no intention of voting for Hillary. But nor do I intend to abandon my respect for the institution of the presidency, the process, and common human decency to vote for somebody – who represents our side, which I support because we are not like the Clintons – who shows even less respect for the incredible importance of the presidency and common decency than they do.
I just can’t believe this is happening to our nation.
Souder is a former Republican member of Congress.