In the end, last night, only the candidates who did the hard work of actual conventional campaigning — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — made it to the top tier in Iowa. They built organizations, spent time in the state and brought their messages to county after county and voter after voter.

The only virtue of Debate Year 2011 was its exposure of the unfitness of Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who would have walked into the nomination if he had been at all suitable.

Debate Hell provided terrific copy for pundits, led to record ratings for cable-news channels, and helped enshrine Twitter as the news flavor of the moment. But it made the Republican Party look foolish and silly, not serious and sober in facing the problems of the present with solutions for the future.

In that sense, the debates were worse than a waste of time. They were a self-destructive exercise. Both parties better wise up and figure out how to limit the takeover of the process by cable television and these interest groups between now and 2016 — or whichever one of them has an open run for the presidential nomination in 2016 will be humiliated in the same way.