by Doyle McManus
This year's presidential campaign -- and it's not even half done -- is already historic for several reasons. It has been the first truly wide-open campaign since 1952, with no incumbent president or vice president anywhere in the competition. On the Democratic side, it has been the first campaign with a viable female candidate and a viable African-American candidate. On the Republican side, it has seen at least a temporary fragmentation of Ronald Reagan’s coalition into factions of economic, national security and social conservatives, a problem the GOP must now resolve.
And one more odd distinction: It's setting a new record for the number and variety of debates. We’ve had no fewer than 20 Democratic debates beginning in April 2007, eight months before the first caucus in Iowa -- including such innovations as a radio debate and a YouTube debate (the one with the talking snowman). The Republicans have been more restrained: they’ve held only 18 debates, but they'll nearly catch up with a debate in Florida Jan. 24.
Which raises an unexpected question: Is there such a thing as too many debates?
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that debates are an unalloyed public good. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were seminal moments in the national struggle over slavery; the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 confirmed television’s new role as the dominant medium of political discourse in the twentieth century.
But Lincoln and Douglas only met to debate seven times, Kennedy and Nixon only three. And no one ever asked Lincoln, Douglas, Kennedy or Nixon to answer a question from a snowman - the low point of last year’s arduous succession of debates, for my money. (I’d rather listen to Dennis Kucinich describe his UFO sightings any day; at least he, unlike the snowman, is arguably real.)
So by historical standards, we are already suffering from debate overload. The moderators and panelists don’t like to admit it, but by Iowa and New Hampshire they were in danger of running out of new questions to ask. The candidates were scrambling for new talking points. The tanking economy saved them all by opening a new line of inquiry.
In most cases, it’s not even clear that the debates have affected the outcome of the caucuses and primaries much. John Edwards seemed to be the dominant figure at the final Iowa debate, but he still finished second to Barack Obama in the caucuses Jan. 3. Mitt Romney “won” the New Hampshire debate two days before the Jan. 9 primary, in the view of reporters who watched it -but lost to John McCain at the polls.
And yet - here’s the surprising thing - the audiences have been big, at least by the standards of public service programming, and as the campaign has heated up they’ve been getting bigger. The CNN/YouTube Republican debate in New Hampshire in November drew an estimated 4.5 million viewers; CNN’s debate in South Carolina on Monday drew almost 5 million, a record for cable. ABC’s Republican-Democratic doubleheader in New Hampshire this month drew more than 9 million viewers, a striking number for a public service program on a Saturday night and the largest debate audience of the whole season. (Reality-TV check: “American Idol” drew 33 million.)
These debates have also gotten better as they’ve gotten smaller, with some of the marginal candidates dropping out of the race - or, in some cases, being locked out because they fell short of whatever threshold the sponsors set. (For the criteria we have set for next week’s Los Angeles Times/CNN/Politico debates in California, go to latimes.com/news/politics, and look for the debate box.)
Forcing the candidates to answer one another’s charges in person has been more illuminating than allowing them to slide away from their statements in the dark. Hillary Clinton’s moue in New Hampshire when she was told she wasn’t likeable, and Barack Obama's icy aside that she was "likable enough," revealed hidden facets of both personalities. These debates have covered issues of substance, too, the kind of substance that doesn’t always get on newscasts about the horserace: the pros and cons of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, healthcare for the uninsured, how to make Social Security solvent, bankruptcy legislation, taxes, immigration.
The early debates gave little-known candidates such as Kucinich and Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul a chance to make their cases to a national audience, increase their fundraising and try to break into the top tier. Huckabee succeeded; the others didn’t, but it wasn’t because they didn’t get national television time. Their followers hate to hear it, but the messages of Kucinich and Paul simply didn’t attract as much support as those of other candidates. That’s how democracy works.
Next week, we are sponsoring two debates in California - the last debates before the “Super Tuesday” primaries of Feb. 5. The Republican candidates will debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 30; the Democrats will debate at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on Thursday, Jan. 31.
We’ll be asking questions submitted by our readers. To send in a question, go to our politics page online and look for the box headed “2008 Presidential Debates.” Or just e-mail your question to me at email@example.com; I’ll do my best to get into the mix.
Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, has covered national politics and world affairs for 32 years. A former foreign correspondent in Europe and the Middle East, he has reported from more than 60 countries. He has covered every presidential election since 1984 and was a White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton administration.