Opinion Columns & Blogs

Lincoln, Douglas: You each have 3 minutes

Start with James Madison, say, and Alexander Hamilton. Add any other six or seven men who debated the new U.S. Constitution in 1787, and march them onstage bound by the conventions of today's presidential debates.

They would come off as shallow bordering on silly, and clearly unpresidential.

Or try Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, whose famous debates averaged about three hours, and toss in Williams Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Tell them they have three minutes each to make an opening statement. They couldn't convince you to want a longer lunch break, much less to want one of them as president.

And yet Americans have been exposed to nine ill-conceived and clumsily executed primary debates thus far and — you may want to avert your eyes — at least 14 more lie ahead.

That ominous news would be no less threatening if there were a Republican in the White House and the Democratic Party were lining up these human sacrifices to the twin gods of television ratings and bumper-sticker rhetoric.

In 2008 the two Democrat finalists — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — revealed, as I wrote then, "little about their actual leadership and governing skills. If we're going to pick our leaders on the basis of cool unflappability under klieg lights and the ability to remember and deliver dozens of scripted sound bites, we should elect Charles Gibson or Jim Lehrer."

Small wonder that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in an uncharacteristic bow to sensibility, has talked about skipping some of the remaining GOP events. His performance thus far has badly unhinged his ambitions.

What began in 1960 as an interesting and informative innovation has morphed into an improbable and largely meaningless combination of cattle call and Kabuki theater.

It's insulting to voters, shrinks the journalists who try to bring some order to a food fight, and diminishes the candidates themselves.

That's not to imply that the candidates are wholly being taken advantage of. To the contrary, they are the ones taking advantage of the sad fact that the television networks have found yet another way to gull people into wasting their time while thinking they are learning something useful.

Proponents of extended debates, in this case the Republican Party, argue that they are part of a winnowing process and that the last person standing will somehow emerge stronger.

That may have been a possibility several election cycles ago, but in today's superficial celebrity environment, any public notice, no matter how demeaning, is somehow valued. Thus, the herd of Republican wannabes will hang on as long as microphones are thrust into their hands, because it helps them sell books, get lucrative future speaking dates and flog us with their special interests.

The debates are also life-sustaining for the 24-hour cable news commentariat. In any grouping of eight to nine candidates, a couple will muff even the stale sound bites they have been using for weeks and another one or two will chance something new and fumble it, sending the commentariat into paroxysms of "who won, who lost" and "He's up! He's down! He's up again!"

Today's political class does enough damage to itself and to Americans' faith in the political system on its own. It doesn't need help from a system that has outlived its usefulness.