Politics & Policy

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.


#ad#‐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.



How does Ronald Reagan, who raised both the individual and corporate top marginal tax rates as governor of California, become transformed into one of the greatest presidents of all time? How does John F. Kennedy rise above an undistinguished legislative career to electrify a nation?


The reality is that presidents are as much made as they are born. And they are formed particularly by performance under pressure. There is much to dislike about the U.S. primary system. It starts way too early, places too much emphasis on fundraising, and has the daily potential to overemphasize the trivial. But it is also grueling. Candidates travel, raise money, meet constituents, pursue backers, give speech after speech, and debate one another.


#ad#The Republicans have held 13 primary debates leading into the Iowa caucus. That is 13 opportunities to shine, and 13 opportunities for disaster. A misstep by a tired or distracted candidate is a land mine on the route to the nomination. This is good. Being president is grueling, and requires making countless decisions in less-than-ideal circumstances. Far better that Americans learn the mettle of their presidents-to-be during the relatively low stakes of a candidate debate than during an international crisis.


The debates do more than simply identify the survivors. They are learning experiences — both in the moment and during preparation — that expand the breadth of candidates’ knowledge and depth of their understanding. Few, if any, candidates arrive for a presidential run with experience in all the key areas. Debates force a governor to develop a coherent international-security policy, a business leader an understanding of the policy process, and a life-long legislator the nuances of the executive branch. Again, good.


More is not always better, of course. But to my eye the Republican debate schedule has been more blessing than curse.


— Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum.


The goal of the Republican-party primaries is to select a candidate for the presidency who can, one, defeat the Democrat candidate in the general election, and two, once elected, be a good president.


“Be a good president” means that the Republican be able to govern in a manner that reduces the size, scope, and power of the central government while helping to elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Republican governors and state legislators, and then get himself reelected. Presidents must be able to raise political money. And play team ball.


Because the president must manage a civil-service staff of 2 million, some management ability helps. Since the government he manages is driven by politics rather than wealth creation, as a modern corporation would be, the kind of management ability that is valued is “political” management, read governor, not Fortune 500 CEO.


Because the establishment press is hostile, the ability to manage through the smog of the networks and major newspapers is required.


Campaigns for the presidency do require some management ability. Stamina is tested. Battle with and through the media is 24/7. Fundraising ability is tested.


This year almost the entirety of the race has been based on the candidates’ performance in 13 debates mostly run by and for the establishment press.


I am not convinced that Republican primary voters have learned much through the debates to answer the questions: Who could win in November 2012, and who would govern well?


#page#One concern is that when the establishment press asks the questions, their choice of topics is driven by the possibility of creating exciting television and showcasing how clever the media questioner is rather than maximizing information flow to Republican primary voters.


Media-run debates have attracted “candidates” who were actually running for Fox News commentator, not president. And the PR value of all that TV time has kept many in the race long after it was clear their reward would be something other than the nomination.


#ad#Why not have fewer debates run by the media and more where New Hampshire or Iowa GOP county chairmen ask the questions and where candidates have a longer time to speak? Perhaps there should be more time for opening and closing talks and less for questions.


The many debates have been like a Seinfeld episode: good television, but no learning going on.


— Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.


The debates have taught us that the candidates generally know their talking points. The exceptions have been “teachable moments.” In the last debate, Michele Bachmann reminded us that if you have to say that your facts are accurate, they probably aren’t. And after Rick Perry’s brain freeze, the other candidates should have made contingency plans in case they ever forget the third point of a three-point list. William Safire wrote that the “all-purpose last point” is “there are no easy answers.” Then there’s the Monty Python approach: “I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.”


More seriously, the debates have done a good job of displaying the candidates’ issue positions. But these positions don’t tell us everything, because the next four years may bring unexpected issues. In future debates, then, we should hope for more insight into the candidates’ thought processes. That is, how have they made decisions in the past? What philosophical principles have guided them, and how has their thinking evolved? How have they dealt with the tensions between ideals and political realities?


Moderators should press Mitt Romney on why he has become more conservative. They should seek more detail on the development of his health-care plan. How much of it was what he wanted, and how much was a concession to an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature?


Newt Gingrich’s congressional record deserves more attention. As a back-bencher, he briefly flirted with a value-added tax to finance Social Security. Why did he adopt the idea — and why did he drop it? Toward the end of his speakership, he agreed to a large increase in non-defense discretionary spending, and criticized the GOP’s “perfectionist caucus” for disagreeing. Why did he think that there was no alternative? Would he do things differently?


Such questions could make the debates even more valuable than they’ve been.


— John J. Pitney, Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.


The “debates” (which they were not) were okay as far as they went. They often reminded me of the question period at the Miss America contest, but without the beauty (Michele Bachmann excepted) and the question about “world peace.” One can’t have too much information when considering a candidate. The Newt Gingrich sessions — first with Herman Cain and then with Jon Huntsman — were far more interesting and informative if one cares primarily about ideas that will solve problems and reduce the size and cost of government.


The candidates would have served themselves better if they had opted out of some, or even all, of these media-driven political beauty contests. There is no constitutional mandate requiring debates. Candidates are free to set their own rules, timing, and subject matter. By submitting to the media sessions and their rules, the candidates elevate journalists to a co-equal role. Surveys have shown that’s how the media think of themselves, but that is no reason for the candidates to enable them by ratifying their conceit. The Republican audience doesn’t like the format. Recall when, in the early sessions, Newt Gingrich criticized the press and was greeted with loud applause. Why shouldn’t the candidates design their own scenarios and then invite the media to cover them? This puts candidates, not journalists, in control of the agenda. Besides, the media irritatingly and too often ask “gotcha” questions (of Republicans, but rarely of Democrats).


#page#People feel cheated, like when a contractor who promises one thing delivers an inferior product or service. Voters are made promises based largely on polling data, not deep convictions. It is why you see so many candidates flipping and flopping when within recent memory they were taking polar-opposite positions on important issues. They said as recently as early in this millennium that their beliefs were based on firm convictions. They say the same now about their new positions. It rightly makes one wonder whether either “conviction” was as firm as advertised.


Given the solid TV ratings, the public is clearly interested in hearing from the candidates. But the game-show podiums make them look like contestants on Jeopardy, not candidates for president of the United States. I’m all for Gingrich’s suggestion that the Lincoln–Douglas model be employed for next fall’s debates with President Obama. Contrary to the naysayers who claim no one would watch because the “sound bites” would be too long, I think more people would watch because they would regard such debates as serious. Serious, even critical, is what most voters believe our condition to be. The way these “debates” are currently structured fails to convey the serious condition most voters believe the country is in.

— Cal Thomas is a syndicated and USA Today columnist as well as a Fox News contributor.



It has been clear for many months that the 2012 Republican presidential primary would be waged over the airwaves. Voters across the country want to get to know the candidates up close and personal as the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have done for decades because of their first-in-the-nation caucus and primary.


Cable television and wall-to-wall news coverage of the campaigns are allowing voters in the other 48 states to see the candidates and hear their views at a level of detail like never before. And the 13 debates held so far have contributed greatly to this dialogue.


Yes, the candidates are still somewhat programmed, and they still have to give answers in sound bites. But the candidates also have become more comfortable with the format and are willing to push the envelope to get airtime for their views with real conversations, debates — and, of course, gaffes. They also have learned from one another, and the candidate who prevails will be stronger in the general election as a result.


The best debates have been the ones with the least structure. The first prize, in my book, goes to the debate jointly sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and CNN at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on November 22.


Wolf Blitzer was a skillful moderator of the foreign-policy-focused debate, and he facilitated a real conversation among the candidates. The questions were asked by extremely knowledgeable experts from those think tanks who delved deeper than journalists typically do.


My particular interest is in health care, and there has been more debate in the Republican field than ever before on this crucial issue. Yet the candidates have not delved much beyond the “Repeal Obamacare,” “The individual mandate is unconstitutional,” and “Romneycare is Obamacare” sound bites.


If the primaries continue for several more months, there may be an opportunity for more issue-focused debates like the successful CNN debate. Health care should be next.


Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute. 

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