Saturday, January 28, 2012

Debating is The Winner In Republican Campaign

The Republican primary campaign has been a great show, and there's no doubt that one reason is the sheer number of debates between the candidates. These may not have been to the benefit of the Republican Party, but they've certainly livened up the whole campaign and placed debate back where it should be - right at the heart of democratic politics. No matter how much preparation is done, no matter how much packaging is wound round a candidate, once they get into the debating chamber they are exposed like at no other time in a campaign. Your wits, your passion and your knowledge matter. The debates certainly put paid to the campaigns of determined ignorists like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann. They allowed Newt Gingrich, despite the stretches on his finances, to come back as a front-runner. They expose Mitt Romney's hollowness. For all the rules attempting to govern them they remain politics in the raw - a clear, sometimes visceral unpealing of a candidate's carefully managed image. They are absolutely what is required in a democratic process, and they have contributed hugely to the brilliant, roller-coasting unpredictability of the Republican race.

Mitt staged his come-back of sorts with a better than normal performance in the Jacksonville debate, while his old foe Gingrich seemed subdued, out of sorts and downcast. Andrew Sullivan thinks Ron Paul and Rick Santorum had a good night and wonders if that will see yet more polling number changes. David Frum calls it for Mitt, and concludes it was a bad night for Gingrich.

There have been murmurings that the Republicans may try and change matters in four years time - too many debates have exposed the divisions and fratricidal tendencies of their party. I hope they see sense. It may be messy, but the debates are classic politics, and the end result will be to promote candidates with more wit and a nimbler grasp of their political aims and principles than anything else on offer. The change now should be for more debates in the autumn, after the primaries. As for the UK, it took us over forty years to learn from the Americans and stage debates between the leaders. They should learn a lot more quickly that debate is the warp and weft of political life, and make the next election even more debate-focussed. Only then can you really take the initiative out of the spinners' hands, and give it back to the people.

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