Get ready for six more nationally televised Republican presidential debates before the end of January. Yes, that’s another half-dozen—two each in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida—on top of the 18 that have already taken place.
This won’t help Republicans in their effort to deny President Obama a second term—quite the contrary. It means debates will continue to dominate the battle for the GOP nomination in 2012, just as they did last year. It also means the candidates and their campaigns won’t decide what issues are discussed. The media will. Hint: what media interrogators want the candidates to discuss may not be in the best interest of the candidates or Republicans in general.
In tomorrow night’s debate in New Hampshire conducted by ABC News and its local affiliate, WMUR, the questioners will surely try to stoke New Gingrich’s anger at Mitt Romney over negative ads. And they’ll want to get the other Republicans involved in that squabble. The debate could turn ugly.
But who can blame the media? For TV purposes, conflict is a lot more exciting than deliberations on policy. It results in good ratings. Indeed, the debates so far have drawn large audiences. But the candidates have suffered. The media stars loom large. The presidential candidates look small.
The debates have become like hockey games. Viewers show up to see the candidates drop their gloves and flail away at each other. Or perhaps like auto races, with the prospect of watching a candidate or two crash and burn, as Rick Perry did in one debate.
By and large, the candidates are treated like children, chastised when they talk longer than 30 seconds or one minute. They’re often forced to comment on trivial issues and made to look trivial themselves. And with debates as the centerpiece of the race, substantive issues fail to gain traction with the voters. And Obama usually gets off scot-free.
Gingrich has drafted a new Contract with America, a sequel to the Republican contract in 1994. Who knew? Not voters, because it hasn’t been a focus of attention in any of the debates. Nor has Romney’s proposal to reform entitlement programs, including Medicare. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan was talked about, but only because Cain touted it shamelessly at every opportunity.
Why don’t the candidates object? Occasionally they have, Gingrich especially. But stand up to the media and not show up? They wouldn’t dare. They lack the moxie for that.
Debates, by the way, take up more campaign time than you might think: normally three days, one to prepare, one to engage in the debate, one to review what went right or wrong. All that for the privilege of jumping through hoops created by their media questioners.
Are this month’s debates filling a gap in the campaign? Hardly. There have already been three televised sessions in New Hampshire, three in South Carolina, two in Florida.
The candidates need to reclaim their campaign. They’ve been humiliated enough.