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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The GOP does not need fewer debates

First, let me admit a bias: I love debates--including participating in them, watching them, and writing about them. So, I must acknowledge that my aversion to a recent push in the GOP for fewer primary debates next time around arises partly from concern about my personal entertainment in 2016. Still, there is more to be said about this than that. I bring up the topic in response to this Salon piece "Republicans' desperate plan to hide its clowns," by Alex Pareene. Opening:
Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, has told NBC and CNN that they will not be allowed to have any Republican presidential debates in 2016 if they go ahead and air planned films about Hillary Clinton, who will likely be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That is the reason he gave them, at least, but it is not really the actual reason Priebus wants to not have any debates on those two channels. The real reason, everyone knows and sort of acknowledges, is that debates were a disaster for the party in 2012, an endless circus made up entirely of clowns on a national tour of shame.
These debates were on TV, people watched (and mocked) them, and the real candidates, the ones the money people were counting on to win the stupid race, were forced to say unacceptable things to appeal to raging loons. Furthermore, the serious candidates looked less serious simply by sharing a stage with Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. So: Fewer debates, next time, is the plan, and these Hillary movies are a convenient reason to cancel on two of the big networks. (Do you know how I know that the Hillary Clinton movies aren’t the real reason? Media Matters’ David Brock would also like the networks to cancel these movies, because let’s be honest they probably won’t be entirely flattering.)
Me: It seems quite plausible that Priebus's motive here is indeed to reduce the numbers of debates, and that this stems from a perception that the events are damaging to the party's electoral chances. In my opinion, that perception is wrong. Consider two points:

1. Whatever effect the debates had in foregrounding "non-serious" candidates, the events also had a winnowing effect in helping remove from the race candidates whose views, rhetoric and preparation could not hold up under scrutiny. The obvious example here is Rick Perry, who showed himself in debate to be a low-information candidate (a conclusion not exclusively dependent on his "oops" moment). Whatever benefits Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann got from the attention high of the debates (future speaking fees? talk radio gigs?) were more than counterbalanced by their inability to appear as serious candidates on a stage. (By the way, Pareene is unfair in lumping Newt Gingrich in with the fringe candidates. I have shown that I'm no Gingrich fan, but a former speaker of the House who once led the party to vast political gains ought not to be dismissed with an empty snort.)

2. The debates gave Mitt Romney practice, helping him be a better debater. This was glaringly obvious in his first debate with Barack Obama, who was clearly badly out of practice himself. Was it enough? Obviously, no. Obama regained his stride in subsequent debates, and of course debates were not the only factors shaping the Election Day outcome. But woe betide the Republican Party if it concludes that sheltering its candidates from debates is the key to future electoral success.

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