Republicans are paying a high price for allowing their presidential race to be dominated by nationally televised debates. The GOP candidates have reduced themselves to supplicants whose weak points are probed by media questioners. Meanwhile, they’ve given President Obama a free pass to set the terms of the 2012 campaign.
Obama has seized the opportunity. His effort culminated last week in the most divisive speech by a president in the lifetime of most Americans. Obama positioned himself as the champion of middle-class Americans whose future is threatened by Republicans tolerant of “breathtaking greed” and inequality “that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.”
He acts as if the first three years of his presidency—marked by the failure of his policies to revive the economy and the enactment of Obamacare—simply didn’t exist. What matters now, according to Obama, is thwarting Republicans and creating economic fairness. In his words, it’s “the defining issue of our time.”
Obama has largely gotten away with this argument. The press has neither called him on it nor faulted him for fleeing from his record. And many Republicans don’t take his case for class warfare seriously enough to combat it. Or if they’ve tried, their criticism has drawn little attention.
Why? Because the media are obsessed with the debates as the only meaningful voice of Republicans at the moment. There have been 16 TV debates so far, with three more scheduled before the Iowa caucuses on January 3. You’d think the Republican presidential candidates would tire of the format. But they keep showing up.
Obama is not on the debate agenda. Rather, the media sponsors are eager to generate excitement, which means bickering and tension and name-calling among the candidates. They force the candidates to focus on each other, never on Obama. The candidates either go along willingly or acquiesce. Newt Gingrich has complained occasionally about the triviality of some of the questions, but he’s never missed one of the debates.
So it adds up to this: Republican candidates and their minions have devoted the past six months to preparing for debates, debating, then talking about how the debates went. The president has concentrated on fleshing out a self-serving narrative for his reelection and now is trying to impose it on the campaign. Whose time was spent more productively?
Besides aiding Obama, Republicans have hurt themselves in numerous ways by letting the debates be the organizing events of the campaign. The stronger candidates have been diminished by appearing, debate after debate, on equal footing with also-rans whose chances of winning the party’s presidential nomination are nil.
With debates so frequent, peripheral candidates have no incentive to drop out. Fundraising, building an organization, developing policy papers—these aren’t needed to qualify for debates. The willingness to show up is sufficient. For also-rans, availability is their strong suit.
Lining up the also-rans gives debate sponsors the leverage to persuade the more serious candidates to participate. Who would want to be represented by an empty chair in a debate watched by five or six million likely voters? Not Gingrich or Mitt Romney.
The debates have distracted the media from policy positions advanced by the candidates. Romney put out a 59-point economic plan. It got minimal attention. When he took a surprisingly bold position on entitlement reform, it too was mostly ignored. Attempting to outline his positions in 30 seconds or one minute would be a futile exercise.
Jon Huntsman brought up his impressive tax reform plan in the debates, but his media interrogators didn’t bite. What did work was Herman Cain’s catchy “9-9-9” tax scheme. It may not have stood up to scrutiny, but examination of a plan for reforming the tax code is impossible in a debate broken into 30-second or one-minute interventions.
Maybe that’s too picky. But making a candidate’s debating ability a major criterion for presidential status misses a point. Presidents are required to do many things, but debating is not one of them. Prime ministers debate, but we don’t have a parliamentary system.
Yet in the Republican race, debates have marginalized every other aspect of the campaign. Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in the history of Texas, but that proved to be worthless up against his poor performance in debates. Gingrich resigned from Congress in 1998 after a revolt by his Republican peers, but his effectiveness in debates transformed him into the frontrunner for the nomination.
Romney, more often than his rivals, was declared the winner of debates. But he turns out to be a loser. He was too cautious, declining to make a strong pitch for conservatives and thus broaden his base of support. Gingrich was expansive and had nothing but praise for the other candidates. He was the big winner of the debate sweepstakes.
Along with Obama. He’s marketed, with some success, the notion that the 2012 election is a choice between the rich and the middle class. Caught up in debates, Republicans have been too busy to give this notion the drubbing it deserves.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.