The bad news: Like everyone else who read about it this morning, I shudder at the thought that we’ll be hip-deep in a bitterly divisive primary campaign fully 18 months before the next election.

The good news: Traffic goldmine.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan announced plans Thursday to invite the leading Republican contenders to the first debate of the presidential primary season, to be held at her late husband’s presidential library and co-hosted by POLITICO and NBC News.

The debate, sponsored by the Reagan Presidential Foundation, will be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.,
during the spring of 2011. NBC News will serve as the television partner for the debate while POLITICO is the online content partner…

“Ronnie would be thrilled that the road to the White House will begin at his presidential library,” the former first lady said in a statement. “I look forward to welcoming and watching the top candidates debate the issues next spring.”

The reason this is so jarring, I think, isn’t because the debate is scheduled unusually early — Politico reminds us that they sponsored one at the Reagan library in spring 2007 as well — but because it’s being announced so soon after the midterms. We spent months obsessing about dozens of races and are now mired in stories about the new Congress, the lame-duck session, pols jockeying for leadership positions, etc. And suddenly this drops, and we’re forced to pivot instantly to an entirely new bone-wearying strategic slog. Truth be told, plenty of Republican candidates likely would have declared by spring anyway with or without any scheduled debates. Remember, The One jumped in all the way back in early February 2007. Figure Romney, Pawlenty, and Santorum (all of whom are obviously running) will formally announce around that time next year, if not long after, which will put pressure on Daniels, Thune, and Huckabee to follow quickly and not cede any huge advantage in name recognition. (See Nate Silver’s piece today on just how hard it’ll be for dark horses like Thune to get traction. They can’t waste a moment.) Palin, I think, is the one candidate who could wait awhile before declaring, partly because she doesn’t have to worry about name recognition and partly because she could then sell her late entry as some sort of dramatic “I’m here to save you from this field of losers” deus ex machina. One question, though: Would she really skip a debate at the Reagan library, with Mrs. R herself putting out statements about how excited she is? That was a smart move by NBC and Politico to schedule it there. No one’s inclined to just say no to Nancy.

John Podhoretz thinks a debate that early is a horrible idea, either because it’ll encouraging no-shot cranks to jump in to get a bit of camera time (Trump, anyone?) or because there’s a chance even the big candidates will skip it. On the former point, I think you’ll have that problem even if the debate’s held six months later; on the latter point, as noted above, the Reagan imprimatur and the field’s need to counter Palin by boosting their name recognition are heavy incentives to participate. And of course, there’s a prisoner’s dilemma whereby candidate Y might have to show up if candidate X decides to be there. Pawlenty, who desperately needs to raise his profile, will surely attend, and since he’s a threat to peel centrist Republicans away from Romney, Mitt may have no choice but to jump too. I do think J-Pod’s spot on, though, in saying that we’re likely to learn little from whatever happens there. For ideas on how to change that, see Matt Lewis’s suggestions for a round of debates to be hosted by conservative media. My favorite:

Conservative new-media outlets should host at least one debate. Back in 2007, when I was at Townhall.com, we attempted to host a debate in Florida, which would have been broadcast on Townhall and simulcast on Salem Communications radio stations across the nation. Sadly, it fell through when one prominent GOP candidate would not agree to the terms. But that’s not to say that the idea couldn’t be revisited. After all, it is no longer only the mainstream TV networks that “own” broadcasting equipment. There’s no reason why National Review, Heritage Foundation, and, say, RedState couldn’t — and shouldn’t — sponsor a primary debate.

Imagine it — the Townhall/Hot Air presidential debate. “First question is for Gov. Palin. Let’s talk about atheism.”