Debating the value of debates

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The Republican presidential candidates have set a new standard for unending debate.  There have been 19 so far, and so many say, “Enough already.”  I say, “Keep ‘em coming!”

From the first of the modern presidential debates, the ones that pitted Vice President Richard Nixon against Senator John Kennedy, there has always been a cloud of skepticism over the whole process, that somehow it was all show and no substance.

For example, many believed Nixon won the debates on radio, but lost on television to the more photogenic Kennedy.

Through the years, presidential debates have been somewhat boring, with even those on the stage having a hard time focusing.  Remember President George H. W. Bush checking his watch during a town meeting with Governor Bill Clinton?

But there were also some slam-dunk moments, like when Ronald Reagan said to President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again.”  Or perhaps the all-time debate crusher — when Lloyd Bentsen destroyed Dan Quayle with his, “You’re no Jack Kennedy” classic.

I do not propose to keep the debates going strictly for theater, although as a political reporter it sure makes it more fun.

But the unending debate cycle, I believe, helps counter the insane avalanche of negative (and often inaccurate) political commercials.  Cable shows get to provide an unending variety of new debate clips from the candidates.  And people on the Internet looking for genuine information from the candidates themselves can get a daily dose from the nightly debates.

It’s true that debate experts like Newt Gingrich can turn a legitimate question on its head, like when he told CNN’s John King that a query about his ex-wife was “as close to despicable” as anything he’s ever heard. Really?

Gingrich also said this week he would not appear in a fall debate hosted by any reporters because they would favor the president.  Really? Didn’t they already provide him with the best fodder of the campaign?  And after a huge defeat in Florida, and with few debates upcoming, Newt’s campaign could start to fizzle.

Mitt Romney is still holding the front-runner position, but it’s amazing that after running for president for six years, his debate performance lacks the polish of his hair.

Ron Paul has delighted even his detractors, perhaps because he is the only one on the stage who truly believes in everything he says.

If you think you’ve heard enough, remember, the format could be much worse.  When Lincoln debated Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other for 90, then the first candidate got a 30 minute response.

The best man doesn’t always win.  Lincoln lost to Douglas.  And it’s fair to say that neither would make it onto the cable shows.