Politico’s primary production: A debate not worth having

November 13, 1979: Ronald Reagan announces he’ll seek the Republican nomination for President.

The content of Reagan’s speech still resonates. Reagan speaks of reducing spending and lowering taxes. He advocates a streamlining of government and a dismantling of the federal bureaucracy that’s burrowed its tentacles into more and more aspects of our lives. He reminds America of her greatness. He presents what’s really an ode to Tea Party values that, with a little updating in the current events department, is as concise and compelling a message you’re going to find of what the Republican Party should stand for.


There’s a lot more that can be said about the speech, but this isn’t a post about the content of the speech. It’s about when it was given.

With no Internet and far fewer television stations, one would think that it’d be a must to declare one’s Presidential aspirations very, very early in the cycle. Though clearly a front-runner, Reagan did not formalize his interest until well into the process. In fact, the first primary of the 1980 Presidential season was on January 21st — a mere 70 days after Reagan’s candidacy officially commenced.

I’m under no illusions that candidates for higher office don’t campaign long before making their intentions “official.” Lining up donors, testing the policy waters and the response of voters… it’s all part of the process. What I have trouble accepting is that it’s healthy to formalize the process of selecting another government before there’s been any governing by the most recently elected one.

That’s my problem with the Presidential primary “debate” Politico announced last week that it will put on this Spring, and which co-sponsor NBC will presumably broadcast. With the Reagan Library as a backdrop and with none other than First Lady Nancy Reagan in support, the political newspaper is planning an electoral event before there are even any declared candidates to headline it. Whether Mrs. Reagan suggested the event to Politico or vice versa — the headline of the press release, “POLITICO, NBC News co-host first 2012 debate at Reagan Library,” doesn’t mention the former First Lady at all — it’s an arrangement that should make us all uncomfortable, not least of which reasons is that it turns what should be a slower, more methodical process for candidates and voters into a two-year soundbite slog. Americans can find plenty about the candidates on their own without having their candidates pass through a preordained “eye of the needle.” The internet has disintermediated much of the Presidential introduction process. Quite frankly, this is a the media’s way of reintermediating itself.


In fact, this event is what our press needs, not what the American People or our political culture need. That Politico and MSNBC held a similar debate in May 2007 still fails to convince me that such a debate is either wise or necessary. (Even there, the announcement for the debate was made on February 14. And the headline then? “REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY TO HOST GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES’ DEBATE.” Compare, contrast.)

Why are we formally planning for the next government before the latest government is even seated? Why is a news operation casting itself as the gate-keeper to the nomination instead of an eventual facilitator when there are candidates to nominate?

I have no objection to Politico presiding over a debate among the candidates, or being the first to do it. But this is not the way. If we’re going to have primary debates, let them begin in November, not March, a sort of Reagan Rule for Electoral Mental Health — no debates before November 13. Times change, and with them, campaigns change, but that doesn’t mean our candidates should bend to the needs of a 24/7 news cycle and sacrifice the seriousness of our elected offices to meet the traffic needs of those covering them. It’s the TMZ-ing of the Presidency, the play-by-play celebritization of the political process, the sweeps weeking of government. Political players generate news organically. We don’t need news organizations generating it for us.


Our eventual candidates can declare their intentions whenever they deem necessary. I just hope they don’t find Politico’s springtime debate a necessary part of those plans, and gently recommend that the newspaper push their event back to a more appropriate time. It’d be better for our candidates, and it’d be better for our democracy.


(Agree? Disagree? I’m on Twitter.)

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