We have gone ten days without a Republican debate, and the estimable NRO writer Katrina Trinko is having withdrawal pains. Trinko argues in her USA Today column that we have not had enough debates despite the 19 already conducted in the primary season, and that we should see these as “an inspiration” for the future:
The debates have also allowed candidates to spar directly. When Gingrich lectured Romney about the individual mandate, Romney fired back, “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.” Gingrich returned the favor two weeks later, scornfully dismissing Romney’s claim that he was a Washington outsider as “pious baloney.” Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann jousted with Ron Paul on Iran, while Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan was shot at as if it were a coyote Perry had seen during a morning jog.
That’s what primaries should include: a freewheeling arena where policies are heatedly debated. And because we don’t elect platonic ideals but flawed human beings, that means debates will occasionally tip over into the personal. That can be messy — but also revealing of a candidate’s character. …
In future primary cycles, this year’s debate-heavy schedule should be viewed as an inspiration, not a horror story. The candidate who makes a false or inane statement in a debate is likely to encounter a follow-up question from a moderator, a rebuttal from a rival, an outraged audience reaction — or some combination of the three. That’s healthy for the GOP’s policy discussion, as is the fact that candidates have to speak off the cuff when asked detailed policy questions.
For attentive voters, fewer debates would reduce the exercises to a controlled series of sound bites. Rinse and repeat. And that’s about as enthralling (and as authentic) as, well, watching a politician deliver a speech with his eyes glued to a teleprompter.
I’m not exactly buying that closing argument. Debates in their current format are almost nothing but “a controlled series of sound bites,” almost none of them spontaneous in the least. In fact, the current debate format practically precludes anything else. We won’t get a serious, substantive debate on economic policy when the explanation of policy gets limited to 60 seconds or 30 seconds on a follow-up. Matters of serious policy don’t lend themselves to sound bites, and if that’s not entirely enthralling, that’s an indictment of the viewer rather than the process — and that won’t improve with more debates, either.
There is a good argument that we’ve already had too many. Most of the debates these days either tread over the same ground as earlier debates, focus way too much on debating various attack ads, or simply spend too much time on arcane nonsense, like the 15 minutes ABC spent discussing the non-existent threat of states banning contraception — an issue last raised in 1965. They’re only notable for the eruptions of personal attacks that occur during them, which delights the media but does little for Republicans who want a substantive process to select a nominee and unity when that process finishes.
The only argument to be made for adding more debates in the current format (or keeping the ones already scheduled) is that candidates polling lower don’t have as many opportunities for national coverage without them. Even with that acknowledged, though, they have all had 19 prime-time debates spanning almost 40 free hours to get their messages and points across to voters. That should be enough. If they cannot compete any other way, that tells us something about the viability of the candidacy, too.
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