The American Debate: Keep those GOP debates coming

Posted: November 20, 2011

Some people seem to think the Republicans are staging way too many debates. Heck no. We can never have enough.

By my count, there have been 13 since spring, and 14 more are on tap. This is welcome news, because the GOP is staging one of the great reality shows, with a rollicking cast of colorful characters who keep getting voted off the island but keep coming back for more.

There's a cliff-hanger every week.

Will Rick Perry master the English sentence and reclaim his cognitive memory?

Will Michele Bachmann utter another whopper that is light-years from factual reality?

Will Newt Gingrich double-down on his claim that Freddie Mac paid him big bucks for his advice "as a historian"?

Will Herman Cain demonstrate that he knows the difference between Afghanistan and what he has called "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan"?

Will Rick Santorum volunteer to personally lead the first bombing raid on Iran?

Will Jon Huntsman stop reminding viewers that he looks like Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy?

And then there's Mitt Romney, still the likely 2012 nominee, who stares at his hapless rivals with a look best described as polite patrician bemusement, as if to say: "Keep talking, inferiors. The deeper you dig your holes, the easier it will be for me to bury you with my money."

Not that he's so great, either. In a debate Nov. 12, Romney said we should stay in Afghanistan for three more years - thereby undercutting what he said in a debate in June, when he urged U.S. troop removals from Afghanistan "as soon as we possibly can," and insisted that we shouldn't fight "a war of independence for another nation." But stay tuned. Which way will the weather vane spin next time?

That June debate was so long ago that T-Paw was still a candidate. Surely you remember T-Paw. Tim Pawlenty's people gave him that nickname in the vain hope that it would inject some pizzazz into his vanilla persona. He should have stuck around, because lately the cable networks have been smothering the candidates in so much glitz that you'd swear they were finalists on The X Factor. And some of the introductory music has been great. Where else can you see a pizza marketer cross the stage to the strains of martial trumpets best suited for a testosterone summer movie?

But seriously, if not for these debates, the aspirants would be doing most of their politicking in the early caucus and primary states, in the living rooms of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And we would be denied the opportunity to watch them under pressure, in real time. We would not have the chance to see them grow, or shrink, in the crucible of competition, virtually week by week.

Perry recently complained that the debates were deterring him from what he does best, chatting up the voters in person. He and his aides say that a candidate should not be judged solely on debating skills (or lack thereof), and they're right about that - up to a point.

Glad-handing and kissing babies are worthy skills, but debates give us a chance to find out whether these people can think on their feet in the spur of the moment. Last I heard, presidents are required to do that a lot, dealing lucidly with the unexpected at 3 in the morning. Debates tend to expose those who are lucidity-challenged, as in:

"It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the, uh - what's the third one there? Let's see . . . OK. Commerce, Education, and the . . . I would do away with Education, uh, the, uh, Commerce, and, let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."

Viewers saw that one for themselves, live and unfiltered. They delivered a thumbs-down verdict on Perry's performance in real time. Indeed, these debates are in perfect sync with the contemporary gestalt. People screw up on American Idol, they quickly pay a price. I suppose you can argue that debates are no way to pick a president and that there are too many debates in this election cycle, but at this point you might as well complain that there are too many cars on the road.

The thing is, these debates are a hit in the ratings. Granted, tens of millions of Americans would probably prefer to gargle thumbtacks before they'd tune in to the GOP candidates, but a recent Fox News debate audience - 6.1 million - set a debate record on cable. Cable loves these shows because they're cheap to produce. The cosponsoring media outlets, like Politico and National Journal, love the shows because they're a chance to publicize their "brand." The cosponsoring conservative groups and state Republican Parties love the shows because they're a chance to raise money. And the money-strapped candidates (in other words, most of them) hunger for the free exposure.

So get ready for many more. Prominent Republicans are reportedly worried that the serial gaffes are damaging the party - as former Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein fretted Wednesday, "People have to be perceived as capable of governing this country" - but what better way to build suspense for the next installment?

It's Tuesday night, by the way. Another debate on foreign policy. Will Romney be compelled to explain why he would refuse to negotiate a political solution with the Taliban, when in fact CIA chief David Petraeus and ex-Pentagon chief Robert Gates both deem such talks to be essential? Will Cain remember what position he's supposed to take on Libya? Will the next debate audience find something new to boo?

And in the wake of President Obama's recent quip that his 2012 campaign "may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim," who on that stage is best equipped to prove him wrong?

Contact Dick Polman at or @dickpolman1 on Twitter.