Debate Nights
We hardly knew ye? Or, Enough!


Last Thursday night we had the last of 13 GOP primary debates before the Iowa caucus. Were they too much? Not nearly enough? What did we learn and what have we yet to learn? Some familiar National Review Online commentators discuss.


We have settled views by now on what the vices are in this exhibition for turning a political debate into a version of the Ice Capades:


The candidates waive the power to frame the issues that mark, for them, the urgent problems of the hour — the issues that may account for the reasons and passions that moved them into the arena in the first place.


That power is taken over by the figures in the media, who are free then to define the issues that they regard as central. Those figures in the media become the center of the show. The spectacle works to highlight their “star” quality. And in turn they make the candidates dance. They call the tune; they assign the limit of 30 seconds, or ration out more. They push the candidates into speaking in sound bites, or in lines suited for bumper stickers. The result is to present these candidates for high office in a manner that is clearly demeaning. The best debates have come when the questions were asked by writers at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and in another session, by Robert George and Jim DeMint.


The figures in the media do not care overly much about the issues of abortion and marriage, or they are leery about raising them. Rick Santorum would argue that these issues are indeed central, but he has had no leverage in pushing them forward or explaining why they may be even more important than the economy. The killing of 1.3–1.5 million human beings, carried out over the last 38 years, can hardly be less grave than the loss of jobs and houses, quite apart from the loss of all of those taxpayers funding Social Security.


We seem to forget that after the Kennedy–Nixon debates, three presidential elections went on without them. They resumed in 1976 with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, a disaster for Ford, followed in 1980 by a disaster for Carter. But now everyone assumes that the debates are compulsory, and people are rightly afraid that Rick Perry, put next to Obama, will simply look the bumpkin. This good man could probably make a fine run and win without the debates. And yet, it is quite wrong to argue that the debates have no relevance to the qualities necessary to govern. For they test whether the man or woman who wants to be at the head of national affairs is capable of articulating the ends that will animate this new administration and provide the principled grounds of conviction for its policies. 


So why do the candidates agree to abase themselves? The answer is clear: to draw the kind of notice that an audience in the millions may supply overnight. Some of us have been arguing for years, long before Newt, that the Lincoln–Douglas debate should be a model, with the candidates set off in pairs or trios: No moderator, just a person keeping time. Each candidate gets to speak for an extended period to frame the main problems as he sees them — and lets the opponents sail in with their own arguments. But of course, the networks could not give that kind of time to debates in that format, especially when they promise to be less of a show. And there will always be the lure for some candidates, especially the candidates who are less well known, to take a chance on that larger audience, even at the risk of demeaning themselves.


It is no trivial reason, then, that accounts for the surge of Newt Gingrich. If the debates have done anything, even in their burlesque forms, they have shown how ordinary folk have been drawn to a man precisely because he had the wit to make a forceful “argument.” I share the deep reservations about Newt expressed by National Review’s Editors. But there was a moment during the debates when the camera caught a look in Newt’s eye, and one could just tell that he was mean enough, tough enough, deft enough to carry the argument to Obama. Choosing Newt could prove fatal in the general election, but one should not discount this part of Newt’s appeal: that many conservatives passionately want Obama to feel the steel of that argument that repudiates all of his works, and rather than limping along nicely, taking care not to scare anyone, they may be willing to risk all to see the lines drawn sharply and that argument made.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.