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Why Debates Are So Detestable -- and Yet So Helpful

Why Debates Are So Detestable -- and Yet So Helpful

By Mark Salter - October 21, 2011


When the 2008 presidential election ended in defeat for my candidate, John McCain, I was consoled by the knowledge I would never again have to be involved in a candidate debate. I hated them.

For seemingly endless stretches, it felt like the chief activities of our campaign were helping our candidate prepare for debates, pacing anxiously in holding rooms while he slugged it out on stage with his opponents, and arguing about the results after they were over. Why, I often wondered, had we ever agreed to do so many of the damn things?

The biggest winners of those contrived contests were the sponsoring cable news networks that showcased themselves and boosted their ratings at the expense of the miserable candidates and their staff.

Debates have become the most important function of the campaigns for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and my sympathies go out to all the candidates and their teams. They’ve been trapped in almost weekly overhyped, circus-like showdowns. The press promotes the stakes in advance: It’s always one candidate or another’s last chance to get traction or overcome previous poor performances or answer lingering doubts or manage to string two sentences together coherently. Within seconds of the last answer to the last question, pundits and reporters announce the winners and losers before the poor viewers can draw any conclusions for themselves.

Unlike the 2008 campaign when Mike Huckabee frequently outperformed the other candidates and still came up short, debates appear to be actually determining the direction and quite possibly the outcome of the 2012 race.

Candidates with little chance of winning the nomination and less chance of winning a general election -- Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, for example -- suddenly rocket to the position of top challenger to front-runner Mitt Romney based on the strength of a single debate performance, and then return, Icarus-like (as Bachmann has and Cain will), to the pack.

Rick Perry’s best day was the one he entered the race to become the Tea Party’s much yearned-for alternative to Romney. By sleepwalking through several debates, and offering answers that seemed, at times, like free association, Perry’s fortunes declined precipitously. He got off the mat in Tuesday’s debate by portraying Romney as a political shape-shifter -- and a hypocrite.

Romney fought back effectively enough to maintain his front-runner status. Perhaps Perry did enough to re-establish his claim to the second spot in a two-candidate contest.

The debates have exposed each contender’s strengths and flaws. Tuesday night, Romney showed again he has become a more agile candidate. He also inadvertently confirmed the gist of Perry’s criticism when he answered the Texas governor’s attack on his employment of illegal aliens to mow his lawn by recounting how he had told the lawn service he was running for office and couldn’t afford the bad publicity. Mystifyingly, none of the other candidates seized the opportunity to reinforce the charge that Romney takes positions to serve ambition rather than principle.

Perry showed why he’s long been regarded as a tough, even brutal, campaigner, and also a facile one. His answers in previous debates to attacks on his record of inoculating girls for the human papillomavirus and granting in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants revealed a theretofore unsuspected generosity of concern for others and also how maladroit he is at shrewdly defending his positions on the fly.

Rick Santorum mainly revealed, once again, an unnerving certitude in his own convictions and moral superiority. He’s the most forceful debater in the race, and the smuggest by a mile. That explains why he didn’t manage to become the Tea Party flavor of the month when Bachmann and Perry began to lose their appeal. Irrespective of Santorum’s uncompromising conservatism, he just isn’t likable.

In every debate, Newt Gingrich reminds us why he’s the smartest candidate, and the most undisciplined. Bachmann reinforces the impression she hasn’t any idea how she got there. Cain did little to change the impression he’s a remarkably uninformed, unprepared and unserious candidate for president.

These debates are no fun for the contenders and their staff. They’re wearying, nerve-racking and dangerous. I know they must hate them, as I did. So it’s with great chagrin that I admit that they’ve been indispensible at informing voters about the qualities, good and bad, of the men and woman who would be their president. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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