Presidential Debate Overload

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Chip Litherland / The New York Times

Republican presidential candidates gather on stage before a debate in Orlando, Florida, on Sept. 22, 2011.

On the eve of yet another Republican presidential debate, Fred Barnes makes an important point in the Wall Street Journal: Presidential debates have acquired a ridiculously outsized role in the nominating process:

The debates have overwhelmed the Republican race. “They are about all there’s been to the campaign,” says Fox political commentator Brit Hume. After each debate the campaign has been frozen until the next one, except for arguments over issues spawned by the debates themselves.

As Barnes notes, it wasn’t always this way. The quick growth of new cable television networks in the 1990s gave rise to a new wave of nationally televised debates, which in previous decades had been rare, especially during primary season. Debates encourage unserious publicity-seekers–people after book sales, a talk show, whatever–to stick around for the free airtime. And in this campaign, at least, debates have played a massive role in shaping the candidates’ fortunes. Think of the rise of Michele “One Term President” Bachmann, the fall of Tim “What’s ObamneyCare?” Pawlenty, Rick Perry’s stammers and stumbles, and the current Herman Cain boomlet.

Contrary to Barnes’ argument, this trend isn’t all bad. Debates are an equalizer, allowing candidates who lack big fundraising machines, fancy political strategists, and big-media boosters to make their mark. Still, it’s an odd way to shape a campaign. The current debate obsession places an absurd emphasis on clever one-liners and in-the-moment agility of a sort that Presidents, in their ultra-scripted appearances, are rarely forced to demonstrate. Anyway, how do you think Romney’s hair will look tomorrow night?