Published: January 30, 2012
Senator John McCain spoke for many nervous Republicans on Sunday when he said it’s time to “stop the debates.” They’ve turned into mud-wrestling contests, he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC, and are driving up negative impressions of the party’s presidential candidates.
Mr. McCain, who knows something about unfavorable ratings, is right that the 19 debates so far have left an increasingly sour taste in voters’ mouths. Since the debates began, the popularity gap has grown between the leading Republican candidates and President Obama.
But that’s not simply because the candidates have increased the intensity of their attacks on each other, nor is it curable by cutting back the mud-fighting, as Mr. McCain suggests. It’s also because voters have been exposed to the broken windows of the Republican idea factory. The value of debates is to put the candidates on stage to air their ideas. If voters find them dishonest and divisive, the Republicans are getting the wrong message if they think all they have to do to fix that is to stop talking so much.
Consider some of the “bold ideas” the country learned about in just the last two debates in Florida, leading up to Tuesday’s primary there.
Newt Gingrich wants to build a lunar colony on the moon in just eight years, and he seems to believe that the private sector can be induced to pay for it. He wants to convene a “gold commission” to get the country back to hard money, which would shackle the economy to a single commodity. He wants to end multilingual ballots (disenfranchising millions), promote an uprising in Cuba and end the capital gains tax, which would allow millionaires to pay less of their income to the government than the minimum they pay now.
Mitt Romney promised to get millions of illegal immigrants to “self-deport,” apparently by making their lives miserable. He would veto the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for immigrant college students and military service members. He would refuse to extend any government help to struggling homeowners, while repealing the Dodd-Frank law that finally regulated the banking practices that led to the housing crisis.
The debates that Mr. McCain so deplores also gave voters a taste of the incompetent candidacies of Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, helping to put an end to them. They have properly marginalized Ron Paul and his cranky libertarianism.
And they have given Rick Santorum repeated opportunities to point out that Mr. Romney’s bellicose opposition to “Obamacare” is an almost comical contradiction to his support for the same idea in Massachusetts when he was governor there. (Mr. Santorum’s strong debate performances haven’t given him much recent traction in the primaries, though.)
Most of all, the debates have shown the complete lack of interest by all the Republican candidates in the issues of economic fairness. While the candidates argue over their investments and their complex tax returns and who can cut taxes for the rich the most, the contrast to Mr. Obama’s newfound voice on shared responsibility could not be more clear.
The long series of debates are an open window onto the failed policies and dubious values of the Republican Party. No wonder some people want to close it.