The clichéd phrase “debate season” is inescapable. There was a Republican debate on CNBC Wednesday night. Tomorrow will see another shootout, this one down in South Carolina. But these events seem to have won few fans. They are being mocked and denounced by everyone from Bill O’Reilly to MSNBC contributors. My friend Alex Massie has written an amusing piece for TNR that satirizes the entire format, calling in jest for us to revel in its very vapidity.
But I’d like to offer my own modest proposal: That the Republican debates are a positive example of civic pedagogy, and we ought to be thankful we have them.
As far as I can tell, the objections can be boiled down to three crucial, often separate complaints (and unlike a certain someone I can remember all three):
They make for dreary viewing
They only matter to Washington political junkies
They tell us nothing of substance about the candidates, and should thus not matter
It would take a brave soul to argue with point number one. The debates are overlong, feature too many candidates, are absurdly overproduced (CNN is particularly bad in this regard), and cover the same ground over and over again.
As for point number two, whether these are just Washington-centric events that no one outside the Beltway watches? The answer is no, they are not. Television ratings have been stellar, which is one reason that the networks continue to schedule so many of them. In fact, this election season has been one in which the debates have been particularly impactful. (A contrast would be the 2008 Democratic primaries, which I think would have basically played out the same way without any debates.) Rick Perry went from front-runner to also-ran mainly because of his debate performances. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign crashed and burned after some anemic appearances. Michele Bachmann has been hot and cold, and her poll numbers have mirrored her efforts. Gingrich has clearly gotten a boost from the debates, although not as much as Cain has (where would he be without them, one wonders?). And Romney has cemented his status as the front-runner with his smooth answers, and his impressive ability to turn every question to Obama and the economy.
Point number three, however, begins with a different premise. It grants the importance of the debates, but does so in sorrow or anger, arguing that the forums are a giant waste of everyone’s time. But is it really true that the debates have taught us nothing about the candidates? There have been eight principle participants, and each of them, I would argue, has revealed plenty of important information while debating his or her fellow candidates.
What would someone who only watched the debates learn about the Republican race? For starters, they would learn a lot about Mitt Romney: He is an impressive politician with a moderate record now trying his best to appeal to conservatives. In other words, he is electable, potentially too liberal for primary voters, and willing to change his positions on almost everything. All of these factors are—and indeed should be—important to Republicans.
Meanwhile, Rick Perry has seemed vague, none-too-interested in policy detail, bored and clueless about foreign affairs, moderate on immigration, and otherwise staunchly conservative. Does anyone think this is not the real Rick Perry? Michele Bachmann comes across as kooky and sincere, two things that can also be said about Ron Paul, and both of which seem apt and good to know. Jon Huntsmann appears to be the most moderate man on stage, and Rick Santorum the most socially conservative and hawkish. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, comes across as a pompous policy wonk who takes himself more seriously than anyone on earth (the grammatical confusion is intentional: Newt Gingrich takes Newt Gingrich more seriously than anyone else takes Newt Gingrich…and Newt Gingrich takes himself more seriously than anyone else takes himself or herself). Herman Cain exudes sincerity onstage, and a complete unreadiness to be president. (His sincerity tends to disappear when he is on stage alone denying sexual harassment allegations.)
Even if you want to argue that the debates do not tell us much, where else are voters supposed to learn about the candidates? Sure, they do interviews on Fox News and other soft venues, and yes they give campaign speeches and run ads about their records (as they see them), and the records of their opponents (also as they see them). The net effect of all this cannot be completely dismissed, but the amount of valuable information pales in comparison to what we can grasp from debates. Sure, they may be tired and dull, and certainly we don’t need thirty of them. But they remain important to the political fortunes of the candidates, and they are still an excellent way for voters to appraise their options. We could do a lot worse.
Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book at TNR.com