In defense of the GOP debates

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  • Voters have flocked in record numbers —3.3 million tuned in to first @FoxNews debate; 5.6 million watched @CNN debate in Vegas

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  • Debates have served a major function: They have democratized the nominating process

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  • Think Herman Cain would be the front-runner without the #GOP debates?

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Rick Perry's recent criticism of the GOP presidential debates and his announcement that he may skip some have led GOP officials and conservative commentators to suggest that there are just too many of them.

The voters don't agree. They have been watching in record numbers — from the 3.3 million who tuned in to the first Fox News debate back in May to the 5.6 million who watched the most recent CNN debate in Las Vegas (which beat out NBC's hit show “The Biggest Loser" in head-to-head competition). Americans are voting with their remotes — and thus far they love the presidential debates.

"How will we know when the debates have reached the point of diminishing returns? Simple: when voters stop tuning in. But until that day comes, let the debates continue." --Marc Thiessen

Little wonder. The debates have given us an unprecedented look at the candidates and their ability to defend their policies and records. Naturally, those who have not fared as well are the most critical. Gov. Perry said recently it was a “mistake" for him “probably ever doing" a debate. It may have been a mistake for him personally, but not for the Republican Party or the country. Imagine if Perry won the nomination without debating and then went on to face President Obama in three nationally televised debates — only to put on the kind of performances he did in his first three GOP contests. It might cost Republicans the election.

The debates have given candidates like Perry a chance to refine their skills. The Texas governor has gotten better as the debates have gone on. (“Shoot," he told an audience in New Hampshire on Friday, “I may get to be a good debater before all this is over.") Republicans who abandoned him after his early poor performances may well give him a second look if he continues to improve in the next five debates he has committed to attend. And if he does recover to win the GOP nomination, he will be better prepared to face President Obama for having run the gauntlet of primary debates.

Some ask: OK, but do we really need more than a dozen debates? It seems like a lot, but put the number in perspective: At each primary debate, there are eight or nine candidates on stage dividing the time. By contrast, the eventual Republican nominee will have to face President Obama one-on-one in three debates. It would take more than a dozen primary debates to match the debating time the Republican candidate will put in against the president next fall.

The debates have served another important function: They have democratized the nominating process. It used to be that the establishment candidates had a built-in advantage because only they had the money to saturate the airwaves with television ads. But the debates have made it possible for insurgent candidates to reach millions of voters and make their case alongside the better-funded establishment candidates. This has opened the door for outsiders to surge and shine. Think Herman Cain would be the front-runner without the debates?

Some critics of the debates, such as the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger, have complained that they are forcing us to choose a nominee based on 30-second answers, and that “we've shrunk the biggest U.S. election in memory to half-minute spurts of ankle-chewing." As opposed to previous elections, which were decided based on 30-second ads? Communicating in sound bites is a fact of life in the information age. There is a famous story that, back in 1990s, Democratic strategist Paul Begala was trying to get his candidate, Harris Wofford, to speak in sound bites. Wofford, who was running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, resisted, declaring “my health-care plan is too complicated to explain in a sound bite." So Begala pulled out a Bible and asked Wofford to read John 3:16 aloud: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." It took eight seconds. Begala told him, “Now if God can explain Christianity in eight seconds, you can explain your health-care plan." Thirty seconds should be plenty of time for Herman Cain to explain his 9-9-9 plan, for Rick Perry to explain his flat tax and even for Mitt Romney to explain his 59-point economic plan.

This is not to say that the debates have been perfect. One major weakness has been the lack of any serious discussion of national security. So the American Enterprise Institute (where I work), the Heritage Foundation and CNN decided to add — you guessed it — another debate, this one, on Nov. 22, will be devoted exclusively to foreign policy. It is not too much to ask the candidates for commander in chief to devote 90 minutes to answering questions about how they would lead the free world.

The upcoming debates will play a critical role in determining the GOP nominee. A CNN poll this month found that 67 percent of Republicans say they may change their mind about what candidate they'll support. The next debates will help them decide how to ultimately cast their vote.

So how will we know when the debates have reached the point of diminishing returns? Simple: when voters stop tuning in. But until that day comes, let the debates continue.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI

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