In defense of (lots of) presidential primary debates

March 28, 2013

Mitt Romney political svengali Stuart Stevens penned a piece in the Daily Beast today arguing that there are just too many damn presidential primary debates.

"Let’s don’t kid ourselves," writes Stevens "These 'debates' have become phony entertainment spectacles not serious news events." Later, Stevens adds: "There are many reasons to run for president. But being used to help generate profits and ratings for the news divisions of large multi-national corporations and to promote the careers of on-air talent are pretty low on the list."


Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman before a Republican presidential debate in 2012.

Stevens is a very smart guy who has elected more Senators and Governors than the Fix by, well, a lot. (By our last count, we hadn't elected any.) But, we respectfully disagree with his assessment that the 2012 Republican primary debates were, by and large, a useless exercise that should not be repeated in 2016. (Yes, as a member of the media, this argument in favor of more rather than less debates is self serving. But, we beat on, boats against the current.)

Here's why.

Presidential politics -- and politics generally -- has become remarkably scripted and controlled.  Fearful of making a misstep, campaigns protect their candidates from the media constantly. Technology has enabled campaigns in this regard as they are now able to communicate with supporters (and potential suporters) directly -- end-running the media entirely.  (President Obama has turned this end-running into an art form.)

While campaigns love their increasing independence, it creates a troubling reality: Candidates can go through large swaths of a race without ever having to answer tough questions about their records and past statements.

That's where debates come in.  Candidates have to submit themselves to questions from serious, nonpartisan journalists in real time. They are forced to think on their feet. They have to engage with their opponents about issues of genuine disagreement.

Given all that, it's not surprising that debates tend to be where the news of presidential contests is often made.

Remember back to late 2007. Then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was coasting to the Democratic nomination before she got caught being too political by half on whether illegal immigrants should be able to get drivers' licenses during a debate in New York moderated by the late great Tim Russert.

That moment crystallized for many people what they didn't like about Clinton -- that, they thought, she would say whatever was politically expedient, that she lacked a true political core. And, without that moment, the 2008 Democratic presidential primary might well have turned out very differently.

Fast forward to 2011.  Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the 2012 Republican race in its latter stages and was immediately cast as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.  Then came the Republican presidential debates in which Perry put in a series of lackluster performances where he seemed ill-prepared on a number of major issues he would have to deal with as president.

Debates are the best -- and increasingly only -- way for voters to see how the men and women who want to be the most powerful politician react in adverse circumstances. Debates provide a window into who these people actually are -- going beyond the "brand" their campaign is selling.

Campaigns, no matter what the candidates and their candidates want, shouldn't be monologues. They should be dialogues -- between candidates and the voting public and candidates and the media.

There's no question -- to Stevens' point -- that the television production surrounding these debates have made them look a bit like professional wrestling. (All that is really needed now is entrance music for each of the candidates...but the Fix is working on that.)

But, what matters more: How the candidates are introduced on the stage or how they answer questions in a live setting? It seems to us like the latter in a landslide.

Do there need to be 20+ debates in for each party during the 2016 primary season? No. But limiting the debates to just a handful would also be a mistake.  Let the public see these men and women at the closest thing to their most natural/real state as possible.  Let them see who they are electing.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Next Story
Rachel Weiner · March 28, 2013