The Washington Post

Republican debates — keep ‘em coming

More debates, Brian! (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

That’ll be debate No. 19.

There’s some grumbling about the never-endingness of these sessions. And there’s talk about reforming the system for the next quadrennial cycle. Politico, in a news story, declares that the polemical clashes have gotten out of control: “Debate overkill sparks reform outcry.”

Of what overkill are we walking about? What’s broken here? Each month, the leading candidates have to sit before moderators once or twice or thrice and take whatever questions come their way. Oftentimes the questions and the responses are predictable: How many times, after all, can we hear Rick Santorum go nails-hard on foreign policy toward Iran? And do we need to hear Romney chant about this country needing a “president who understands the economy”? We have that stuff down.

Even so, the sessions have yet to produce diminishing returns. Take Monday’s tilt. Brian Williams was a bit low key, and the diktat against crowd noise robbed it of CNN/John King/Marianne Gingrich action-flick energy. So all that was left was, well, quite a bit of substance. Financial regulation and the ins and outs of the Dodd-Frank legislation got almost as much serious attention as it’d get on C-SPAN. In between lame riffs on where Fidel Castro would end up after expiring, an intelligent debate broke out over how to upend his 50-plus year regime. Gingrich said he’d use “every asset to minimize the survival of the dictatorship,” including covert and overt action. Cue the jokes about the Bay of Pigs II.

This being Florida, we even got a NASA question. What did we learn? That the candidates had prepped for that one. President Obama, remarked Romney, “doesn’t have a vision or a mission for NASA,” adding that we need all kinds of collaboration between NASA and commercial enterprises.

And Gingrich killed this one, fashioning a riff that included talk of ”leapfrogging into a world where you’re incentivizing people find exciting and romantic futures.” In debate No. 19, perhaps someone from CNN will drill him on how he’d pay for all that romance.

That Gingrich’s NASA-romantic line would leapfrog from one of the more boring and inconsequential debates in this 2011-12 collection is the point. Even the bad ones are good. Even the bad ones produce news. Even the bad ones keep candidates from hiding behind their flacks and ducking into their campaign buses and planes. Even the bad ones force an authentic moment once in a while.

Still a believer in overkill? Try out this angle: If there weren’t umpteen debates, is it possible that Rick Perry might still be in the race? Clearly this was a guy who wasn’t prepared for the slog, for the rat-a-tat-tat tempo of debate season. He could prep himself for a few of these confrontations, but not for a slew of them. They wore him down to the point where big-time gaffes exposed him. He stood there for a debate eternity trying to remember just which federal agencies his plan called for eliminating. He stands as one of the most persuasive voices against debate reform.

Another is Karl Rove, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal a month ago: “Debates transfer power to the media, draining it from the campaigns.” Full disclosure: With that line, Rove was actually arguing in favor of reform.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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