But in the end, Tuesday night’s debate was a real plus for the GOP. All the Republican debates have been, because they’ve made the Republicans look like the alive party. There’s been jousting and predictable disagreement, but there has also been substance. Often this is thanks to Ron Paul, who had the wit and depth the other night to score Herman Cain for not seeing that the unemployed are the victims of bad policy, not the perpetrators.
Ratings have been strong for the eight debates so far: Thursday’s delivered 5.5 million viewers to CNN, and Fox News’s two weeks before drew 6.1 million. Most of those viewers are politically engaged; most will be voters.
I’ve never seen TV debates play such a prominent role in a nominating process. The reasons people are watching are obvious: They’re deeply concerned about America’s future. They’re shopping for a new president, and TV is an easy way to judge the merchandise. It’s live, so that if something dramatic happens—some flub, some breakthrough—it won’t be removed in the editing. And the debates have developed an internal arc of their own. Because they’ve been held so regularly, five in the past six weeks, people can see particular candidates rise and fall, they can see their dramas play out. This one impresses you against your will (that would be Newt Gingrich), that one consistently fails to gain his footing (Rick Perry.) And so the debates have gained a reputation as decisive: They did in Pawlenty, made Cain, solidified Romney.