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A Bad Idea for GOP: Early Presidential Candidate Debates

Today, NBC and Politico announced they would co-host the first Republican presidential debate sometime in the spring of 2011. Presumably they are using the benchmark of April 2007, when the first Democratic debate for 2008 was held in South Carolina. There are so many ways in which this is a terrible idea for Republicans that it’s hard to count them, but here are a few:

1) An incentive for the lunatic fringe: An announcement like this lowers the barrier for entry to the race. Anybody looking for a little attention, or to get a chance to “go viral” with a snappy video-friendly performance highlighting a candidacy with no hope of ultimate success, might be able to get himself-herself into this thing. What if, just to take one bizarre possibility, the evil-crazy pseudo-pastor Fred Phelps of Kansas were to declare himself a candidate for the presidency in the Republican Party a week before the debate so that he could preach his “God hates fags” and “God wants veterans to die” gospel?

2) The panel of pygmies: It could well be, aside from the lunatic possibility, that not a single person who might actually win the nomination would be present on the stage. It would make sense in the new political atmosphere for serious potential candidates not to declare themselves early this cycle. It’s no longer necessary for fundraising; the only thing that speaks to the need for an early declaration is getting the right kind of staff on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But the operatives in those states would themselves be wise to keep their options open for a while in 2011 rather than commit early. It’s true that the two eventual front-runners in the 2008 Democratic primary were on that stage in April 2007. But so were Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel (remember him? of course you don’t). Was the debate of any value to any Democrat seriously thinking about whom to vote for? Was it even of any use to any of the people on stage other than Kucinich and Gravel, who got a little boost from leftist throw-your-vote-away types?

3) Party mockery: The outlier effect would have a dual purpose for the organizations running it — first, the outliers will surely make some kind of news by being ridiculous in some fashion, and that, in turn, will help cast the Republican effort to make a serious run at Barack Obama in 2012 into something of a joke.

There’s nothing to be done about this. Politico and NBC will extend whatever invitations they extend, and candidates eager for any kind of attention will appear. But very little good can come of this.



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