When Politico and NBC announced the week after the midterm elections last November that they had already scheduled the first Republican primary debate for May 2nd, the news didn’t exactly set hearts aflutter on the Right. Traditionally, candidates hold off on announcing their intentions until the summer before the primaries, although the wide-open races in both parties in 2007 prompted most candidates to announce in the spring or even mid-winter. Hugh Hewitt openly called for GOP candidates to boycott the event, hosted at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, but in the end a boycott turned out to be unnecessary:
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation has postponed its debate for Republican candidates from May 2 to September 14.
The move, announced Wednesday in conjunction with cosponsors NBC and POLITICO, follows an unexpectedly slow start to the Republican presidential nominating contest.
Organizers worried that the May 2 debate, which was announced shortly after the midterm elections last November, would not attract candidates who will eventually get into the race but are delaying announcements for legal and political reasons. Only one top-tier candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has officially created an exploratory committee.
An “unexpectedly slow start”? That sounds like Reuters doing economic forecasts. The GOP candidates — whomever they may end up being — just decided not to dance to tune of NBC and Politico, and leap into a longer, more bruising campaign than necessary. The media can’t wait to start getting sound bites from Republicans in this cycle, for all of the obvious reasons. There’s nothing unexpected about having no declared candidacies by the end of March, or April, May, or June, either.
Candidates need to connect with voters in person before committing to TV gigs, and the field needs to narrow down somewhat to have effective debates — or at least as effective as these formats allow. Without formal declarations of candidacy, NBC and Politico might have had to put a dozen or more people on stage at the same time on May 2nd (and may still on September 14th), which in a two-hour debate would allow for less than 10 minutes per candidate and a lot of crosstalk. That would guarantee zingers over substance, and potshots from the media rather than careful analysis of policy positions.
We don’t need to rush into candidacies, let alone the game-show antics we call presidential debates. Let the candidates work the stump first to weed out the unserious and disorganized, then hold debates when people are ready to see some interaction. I’d hold off until Thanksgiving, but then again, I’d hold off altogether until a format could be found that doesn’t reward potshots and slogans over thoughtful discussion of policy.