Can it really be the end of the line for the 2012 Republican debates, just as the presidential primary season kicks into its final, crucial months? A long-scheduled March 19 joint appearance in Oregon now appears unlikely to materialize, and no further debates loom on the horizon. Yet this is precisely the moment when Republican voters ought to be demanding additional opportunities for side-by-side comparison shopping among their top presidential contenders.
A debate between the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, is particularly desirable. Over the past few weeks of primaries and caucuses, the Republican electorate has been sorting itself into two philosophical camps, represented by these contrasting candidacies. Debates are the perfect vehicle for exploring this dichotomy in the televised marketplace of ideas, where Romney and Santorum can present their wares to an interested, ideologically conflicted public. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul need to step out of the way and let these two have that conversation.
If I were Rick Santorum, I would be challenging Romney to as many one-on-one debates as possible -- and if I were Mitt Romney, I'd do the same with Santorum. It's smart politics for whoever makes the first move, because issuing the invitation would demonstrate fearlessness. No matter who initiates, there are clear advantages to both sides in participating in two-man debates. Both Romney and Santorum are talented debaters, articulate champions for their positions who are not intimidated by each other. Because they are more or less evenly matched intellectually and stylistically, neither holds a particular advantage. Politically, Romney is ahead in the number of delegates amassed, but Santorum has more passionate supporters. It's a fair fight, and a fight worth having, since one of these men will have to put the Republican party back together again once this is all over.
Another advantage presents itself to Romney and Santorum in opting for head-to-head debates. Debates are tent-pole events, specific points in the campaign in which it is possible to push the narrative in a new direction, away from the endless Groundhog Day loop of mixed results and qualified victories and eye-glazing delegate counts. Because neither Romney nor Santorum has been able to close the deal with broad swaths of Republican voters, each side could profit by jump-starting the conversation. Debates offer a way to do that.
A fresh round of debates, limited to the front-runners, would put firecrackers in the pants of the national media, which are ever hungry for a new plot twist. And the public would undoubtedly be riveted as well; despite all the complaining, audiences for this season's joint appearances have been impressively large. Debates may frighten candidates, but they fascinate audiences.
Republicans would do well to emulate the Democrats in 2008, whose debate season continued through mid-April with a memorable series of four one-on-ones between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For Democratic voters these were clarifying moments. Clinton proved to be a formidable opponent, holding Obama's feet to the fire on any number of issues and making him a much better debater in the process. Despite attempts by some of the moderators to goad the candidates into attacking each other, the discussions between these two unfolded along generally substantive, thoughtful lines. Only rarely did the tone grow personal, as when Obama weighed in on a question about Clinton's likeability with the unforgettable comment, "You're likeable enough, Hillary, no doubt about it..."
In the final analysis the Barack-versus-Hillary matchups reaped dividends for Democrats by conditioning Obama for his fall general election debates. By the time he debated John McCain, Obama had survived not just the four one-on-ones with Clinton but also two additional three-person debates with Clinton and John Edwards. Clinton and Edwards were excellent sparring partners; as the incumbent president, Obama will not have his debating muscles nearly so well toned next fall. For this reason alone, Republicans would do themselves a favor by keeping their front-runners on the debate stage.
Fundamentally, however, this is not about what serves the interests of candidates, but what serves the interests of voters. More than half of the available delegates have yet to be awarded in this contest. More than twenty-five states and territories have not cast votes. If the race isn't even halfway over, why in the world are the Republicans through debating?