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Why Are These GOP Debates Causing Everyone Such Consternation?

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Those who closely follow the 2012 presidential race seem to find the constant stream of GOP debates increasingly intolerable to watch.

Former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein declared Thursday that "the Republican debates have become a reality show." Former Michele Bachmann campaign manager Ed Rollins also offered frustration, albeit less pointed, earlier in the week, when he told The Hill, "Debates are good, but we're reaching overload." And when we put out word on Twitter that the Des Moines Register had cancelled their plans to stage a debate on Dec. 19, my pal Ana Marie Cox replied, "THANK YOU."

I retweeted her. For the record, it was an endorsement of her sentiment: I thought the televised contests began too early in the cycle (the first, in Greenville, S.C., took place May 5) and that there have been far too many (11 so far, with two more planned between now and Tuesday). Furthermore, I thought the sheer volume of debates this time around to be unprecedented.

But when I looked to the historical record, I found that my memory was severely lacking. According to the Wikipedia, by this time in the 2008 campaign cycle, there had already been a staggering 27 debates, 21 of which had been televised.

Of course, this was because both the Republican and Democratic parties had brand-new slates of candidates to choose from. Still, the Democrats alone had held 11 debates by this point, and their debate season began even earlier -- MSNBC broadcast a debate with all eight then-Democratic candidates in Orangeburg, S.C., on April 26, 2007. That's an insanely early date. Perhaps it's a similar trick of memory, but I don't recall the 2007 debates filling people with quite the amount of annoyance and consternation.

The people who cover the debates are annoyed, anyway -- viewers at home are still happily tuning in to watch this year's contests. TVNewser reports that the most recent debate, staged by CBS News, was watched by 5.3 million people. This fell short of the marks set by earlier debates on Fox, CNN and MSNBC, but CBS held theirs on a Saturday night. It's clear that voters are still taking an enormous interest in watching the GOP candidates contend with one another.

Nevertheless, concerns are mounting. Duberstein referred to the debate season as a "reality show" in the context of the GOP brand suffering amid a series of gaffes and flubs -- many of which went down under the kliegs. And as Jamelle Bouie points out, the candidacy of Rick Perry, once thought to be very promising, appears to have suffered most from such mistakes. He hasn't been the only one, though: Michele Bachmann's downfall accelerated after she badly overplayed offstage the opening she seized in an early debate from Perry's HPV vaccine support, while Tim Pawlenty never recovered after backing down from a challenge to say "ObamneyCare" to Mitt Romney's face.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Chait suggests that there's an ongoing tension between the debates and longstanding Republican Party traditions:

The analytic grounding for this view is a book called The Party Decides. I haven’t read it, but I have read quite a bit about it. The thesis is that, even after Party apparatchiks lost their ability to pick candidates in smoke-filled rooms, they learned to maintain control of the process by influencing voters. The classic example would be the 2000 Republican primary, which George W. Bush wrapped up behind closed doors long before a single vote was cast, though he did have to hold off an outsider challenge from John McCain.

Chait goes on to point out that in an environment where GOP elites hold sway over the choosing, they will, in all likelihood "decide to nominate Romney, a vastly stronger choice than [Newt] Gingrich." But the debates are having a distorting effect. As "the central driver in the Republican primary," they have allowed Gingrich, who Chait calls "a master of the medium," to maneuver himself toward the top of the heap despite having very little campaign infrastructure to speak of. And the debates have become a beast that the elites can't tame:

The more important function of the debates is that they circumvent the party apparatus. Republicans are less dependent on tuning into the media – in this case, usually Party organs like Fox News – to learn who the leading candidates are. They can squeeze the merchandise themselves. Certainly debates have existed before this cycle, but now they seem more frequent and far more influential. Viral moments are spreading farther and wider.

Chait's explanation reflects the varying ways different segments of the audience experience these debates. Some observers are annoyed. Party elites are frustrated. The media, meanwhile, is lapping up every big "viral" moment, making the most of the gaffes and stumbles and eternally questing for the next meltdown, often ignoring the substance.

But again, having a lot of debates is not a new thing. Nor is the media's lust for a good flameout a recent cultural development. And surely, American politicians have not become more gaffe-prone in the last four years. So why are party elites anxious, annoyed and seemingly at war with the decision-making process? I think the reason may be simply that the party elites aren't particularly well-represented on the debate stage.

Back in 2008, the Democrats opened with a pair of strong contenders in Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, an intriguing outlier candidate in Barack Obama and a pair of unorthodox voices from the party fringes in Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. The GOP countered with Romney, previous candidate John McCain, popular New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Ron Paul was the unorthodox voice with the big following who was a few years ahead of his key issues' time.

That was already a feast for party elites. But between the strong contenders and the outsiders, both parties put up a slew of candidates that could rightly be called capable, substantive career politicians. The Democrats had Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson. The GOP countered with Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson and, eventually, Fred Thompson. Tom Tancredo, who's basically an immigration-panic candidate, filled out the race with former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who you probably forgot even ran.

Whether you agree with their politics or not, that's a fairly formidable bunch of candidates fielded on both sides -- nothing for party apparatchiks to worry about. Flash forward to this year, however, and here's what you have: Romney returns as the de facto frontrunner who's difficult to love and Ron Paul comes back with as big a following and more relevance. From there, however, here's what you have: a throwback nostalgia candidate who crashed and burned in his last contest (Rick Santorum), a capable politician who's tragically out of step with the current mentality of the party (Jon Huntsman), a charismatic but batty celebrity candidate who takes more credit for the successes of the Tea Party than she reasonably deserves (Bachmann), two guys on high-concept book tours (Gingrich, who's rebuilding his brand, and Herman Cain, who's trying to establish one), and the Savior Candidate Who Almost Immediately Failed (Perry).

If you're a GOP big shot, you look at that field and immediately notice that it doesn't reflect your perception of yourself. Instead, you see a carny act drawn from your opponent's Big Book Of Republican Caricatures, plus Mitt Romney, who you don't ... quite ... trust. You think to yourself, "This isn't the way it was supposed to look." And you know what, big shot? You are, in a sense, right!

Let's recall that the people touted by the big shots in the run up to the campaign season aren't standing on the stage. There's no Mitch Daniels. No Chris Christie. No John Thune or Tim Pawlenty. Those four represent the core of what the GOP wanted to be in 2012 -- stolid middle-aged guys who hated deficits and had (with the exception of Thune) recent experience running state governments according to the Republican playbook.

A lineup that would have included Christie, Daniels, Pawlenty and Thune would have likely crowded the celebrities, also-rans, never-weres and book-shillers to the side, leaving Romney among a solid, formidable fivesome saying the reasonably intelligible things the GOP fixers want discussed along with Ron Paul doing his outsider 8-to-12-percent act. In this lineup, it's questionable whether Perry even enters the race to make his litany of mistakes, since the conventional wisdom was that he was hesitant at the outset.

To be sure, a Bachmann or Cain type would likely still have had a reservoir of support. A slice of the party simply wants that type of candidate, and Daniels, Christie and Thune all have their shortcomings (a touch of centrism, a stint as Bush's budget chief and support for TARP, respectively). But even if Bachmann and Cain did generate enough fandom to sustain their bids -- or even perform well in the polls -- much of the silliness that their campaigns have generated would not have made so much news that they wound up tarnishing the Republican image as a whole.

This means, at the very least, that the "reality show" phenomenon doesn't happen. Literally! How would CNN have done their famously embarrassing "reality show" debate introduction, where Huntsman was "The Diplomat" and Gingrich was "The Big Thinker," if three of the people on the stage were Daniels, Pawlenty, and Thune? The Staid Midwestern White Guy! The Other Staid Midwestern White Guy! The Third Staid Midwestern White Guy, Who You Will Have A Hard Time Distinguishing From The First Two, But Maybe We'll Make Him Wear A Hat Or Something!

If party elites had gotten the lineup they wanted, they'd be free to stretch out, relax and calmly let the debates act as the party's Sorting Hat, giving them more time and space to organize behind a sensible contender instead of having to cover for Rick Perry's inability to speak in complete, recognizable sentences. Pundits would have more meat to chew on. Voters would be just as interested. And the debate organizers wouldn't spend their time constantly setting up the next big staged conflict or milking last week's great gaffe.

Yet here we are with the reality show and all that comes with it. You know how it seems that the popular elimination show you watch seems to preserve some of the competitors with the least merit for a long period of time, causing you to suspect that the producers are gaming the system to keep the zazzy failures alive for the sake of controversy? ("American Idol" viewers are probably thinking "Sanjaya" right about now.) Well, this debate season seems to be having the same sort of effect -- the debates can ruin candidates, but as long as there's a free teevee appearance set for next week, it never quite culls the candidates. This is what most baffles and annoys everyone about this debate season.

All of this is great news for Mitt Romney, by the way, who's kept his head while those around him have, to varying degrees, submitted to one form of decapitation or another. And that's probably the biggest thing that rankles the GOP bigwigs at this point. See, I'm pretty sure that they would have always been willing to accept Romney as their nominee if that's what this whole process produced in the end. But they surely didn't want Romney to have it so easy.

 
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