Were the Debates a Mistake?

If you can get past the attacks on President Obama, the disregard for actual economic conditions, and the assertion of “philosophical decreptitude” in American liberalism, you’ll find a smart point about the GOP presidential debates in Fred Barnes’s latest op-ed for The Weekly Standard. For your sake, I’ll just post it here:

Besides aiding Obama, Republicans have hurt themselves in numerous ways by letting the debates be the organizing events of the campaign. The stronger candidates have been diminished by appearing, debate after debate, on equal footing with also-rans whose chances of winning the party’s presidential nomination are nil.

Given the extent to which Barnes is a solid member of the conservative establishment, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were echoing the thoughts of many other conservative elites. The debates have had an astonishing and unprecedented impact on how conservative voters view and evaluate the Republican presidential candidates, and it’s hard to say that this has been a positive development. Texas Governor Rick Perry is the obvious choice for a decent candidate who was damaged by the debates, but this extends to Mitt Romney as well. Romney has produced his fair share of gaffes and extreme rhetoric, and if he wins the nomination, he’ll face a torrent of attacks that showcase these debate performances. If the Republican presidential nominee succeeds, it will—at least in part—be despite these debates.

It should be said that the second most interesting thing in Barnes’s piece comes toward the end, when he is lamenting the “stronger candidates” that have been “diminished” by their appearance in the debates:

Yet in the Republican race, debates have marginalized every other aspect of the campaign. Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in the history of Texas, but that proved to be worthless up against his poor performance in debates. Gingrich resigned from Congress in 1998 after a revolt by his Republican peers, but his effectiveness in debates transformed him into the frontrunner for the nomination.

Between this and George Will’s positive re-evaluation of the Texas governor, it’s clear that Republican elites are re-evaluating their decision to move away from Perry following his poor debate performances. And while it is tempting to dismiss Perry as an also-ran, it’s also true that he is second to Mitt Romney in endorsements, fundraising strength, and institutional support. Even with his mistakes, he is a plausible choice for Republican primary voters. If Gingrich falters—and if Perry gives a strong finish in Iowa—there’s a fair chance that GOP voters give will give him a second look.