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By Jay Cost

« Debate Predictions | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | On the Republican Itinerary »

A Waste of Time

Yesterday's Republican primary debate was awful.

There was basically no "hitting" in it whatsoever. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if the only thing you knew about this debate was that there were no real shots taken by any candidate - you might guess that it was a worthwhile ninety minutes that educated voters on policy differences between the candidates.

But you would be wrong.

In fact, this debate combined the worst feature of the prior outings - questions that elucidated little in terms of substance - with none of the entertaining fisticuffs that at least made the previous debates fun to watch.

There were two major problems.

First, the questions stunk. Just plain stunk. Here are the questions I had jotted down in my notes:

"Does our financial situation create a security risk?"

"What sacrifices should Americans make to reduce the national debt?"

"Who is paying more than their fair of taxes?"

"How would you have an open White House?"

"Ron Paul, how would you get a Congress that completely disagrees with you to go along with your policies if you were elected President, which will never happen, anyway."

"Is it more important to be a social conservative or a fiscal conservative?"

"Alan Keyes, please tell us what you think because your opinion is worth hearing."

What a waste. What were these questions designed to do? They might have some value in a debate between a Republican and a Democrat - for instance, it might be interesting to hear differences between the parties on the relationship between economic and national security. But when you have candidates from just one party participating, you have to try a little bit harder to get them to differentiate themselves from one another. For how pompous the moderator seemed - shushing candidates left and right, and abjectly refusing to allow Fred Thompson to speak on global warming - you would think she was asking something better than these inane queries.

When the questions were not completely useless - the format impeded anything approaching an intelligent answer. The Des Moines Register took the same basic MSNBC format - where candidates are awarded for pithy one-offs and silly sound bite attacks - but did not ask the questions that facilitate those small-ball answers. This was the second big problem. The format. The Register wanted important answers compacted into the petty time allowances. That just was never going to happen. So, Mike Huckabee was given ten or so seconds to tell us something new about how his faith would inform not just his policies generally, but his health care and his education policies.

The last question was the best example of what seemed to me to have been an ill-conceived debate. It was basically an open opportunity to take a shot at another candidate. However, the question itself ("Name a New Year's resolution for one of your opponents") was so poorly constructed that virtually no candidate made use of it. Tancredo, no stickler for subtlety, was the only one willing to take his shot - but the moderator cut him off!

It is not surprising to me that Thompson was given a gold star for his performance. His campaign is, as I have argued, a campaign against the way the media presents politics to the voters. So, it figures that Thompson was quick to complain about the format - and win kudos for expressing what all of us were feeling at that moment.

All in all, the number of good debates have been pathetically few. The press needs to reevaluate its role in our presidential politics. At least so far this cycle, it is not performing the role we might expect of an institution protected by the Bill of Rights.

As for winners and losers - John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. They lost. Big time. The reason is that neither of them is actively competing in Iowa anymore, so they made special trips to the Hawkeye State. They lost a full day of campaigning for this waste of time. With just a month left and both of them in second place - that's a real loss. The winner was clearly Mike Huckabee. This debate could not have changed any minds in Iowa - as he has the lead right now, he benefits the most.

-Jay Cost