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Donald Trump and Our Debate Mania

December 15, 2011

'Sloppy looking . . . hack . . . bad person . . . so-called pundit."

What sin prompted these classy insults from Donald Trump? I objected to him moderating a televised Republican presidential debate. Originally scheduled for Dec. 27, it has now been canceled (after only Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum had agreed to participate).

When the debate was announced, I suggested Mr. Trump was unlikely to be an impartial questioner. He had already said he would be "probably endorsing somebody right after" the debate and was already "leaning" toward one candidate. He had also threatened to run for president as a third-party candidate. It would be folly, then, for the GOP to lend credibility to a prospective spoiler who, if he entered the race, would split the anti-Obama vote.

I added that it wasn't wise for Republican presidential hopefuls to associate with someone who began his own (aborted) bid for the GOP nomination by declaring Barack Obama ineligible to be president because he wasn't born in the United States—an opinion he still holds today.

Mr. Trump's reaction simply reinforced my points. But this kerfuffle obscures larger questions about the merits and shortcomings of this year's GOP debates. A dozen have been held so far this year, with another being hosted Thursday night by Fox News.

On the plus side, the debates have allowed every potentially serious candidate to be seen by large audiences (an average of 4.5 million people have tuned in to each one). They have helped candidates sharpen sound bites and flesh out images. And they've kept alive candidacies that might have otherwise died due to lack of interest.

For the most part, the debates have been helpful. Before them, the "generic Republican" never led President Barack Obama in any Gallup survey. Since early July, the generic GOPer has often been leading Mr. Obama. The debates likely contributed to this shift.

Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Debates have nearly crippled campaigns, chewing into the precious time each candidate has to organize, raise money, set themes, roll out policy and campaign.

Each debate kills at least three days: one day (and sometimes two) to prepare, the day of the debate, and the day after, spent dealing with the fallout from the night before. This late in the process—there are 19 days until Iowa and 26 days until New Hampshire, with the Christmas and New Year's holidays eliminating crucial campaign days—many candidates might want to chart their own schedules and set their own message priorities. But the debates won't allow for that.

This also needs to be said: What we're watching are not really debates. They are seven- or eight-person news conferences. Their choppy nature makes cogent argument difficult and thoughtful policy discussion almost nonexistent. There's a premium placed on memorable sound bites and snappy comebacks. Those are the clips that are endlessly replayed.

Debates transfer power to the media, draining it from the campaigns. Moderators and their news organizations—through questions they frame or select—have more impact than candidates on what's covered and discussed. Because each debate is a lavish feast of comments and confrontations, the media also decide what aspects are most worthy of post-debate coverage.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was right when months ago he tried to get control of this unwieldy process—one in which candidates often have no input into a debate's time, place or format. But his efforts to limit the number of debates and space them out came to naught: The campaigns told him to butt out. I suspect many of them now regret rejecting his efforts for a practical and rational way to ensure a sufficient, but not a suffocating, number of debates.

Thursday's Fox News debate is the last time all the candidates will share a stage before the Iowa Caucuses on Jan. 3. What each of the candidates and their campaigns do in the coming three weeks—especially the seven or eight days left before voter attention shifts from primaries to presents—will determine their fate in the Hawkeye State.

For good or ill, this year's record-breaking mass of debates has made the contest the most unpredictable, rapidly shifting, and often downright inexplicable primary race I've ever witnessed. And voting hasn't even begun.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, December 14, 2011.

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