Advancing a Free Society

A Republican Debate That Begins by Asking: Why Have This Debate?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Perhaps, during some college philosophy course, you wrestled with the question of “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

On Thursday night in Greenville, South Carolina, a handful of gentleman seeking to replace Barack Obama will grapple with this political brain-baffler: if a top-tier candidate doesn’t show up for a presidential debate, is it really a debate?

As of this writing, the following GOP hopefuls are expected to debate live on the Fox News Channel: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

That leaves a big group of GOP notables noticeably absently from the festivities: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, to name but four.

And that makes for a pretty good debate over . . . why Fox and the South Carolina Republican Party set themselves up for this kind of embarrassment.

I can’t attest as to why the South Carolina GOP was hell-bent on holding a debate (technically, they call it a “forum”) this early in the process, other than the seemingly irresistible urge to one-up the other early primary and caucus states (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina batting first through clean-up in the GOP’s 2012 primary schedule).

As for Fox . . . well, maybe the debate seemed like a good idea at the time; Bill O’Reilly gets the night off. Then again, the Reagan Library had the good sense to postpone a May 2 presidential debate until September 14.

Meanwhile, there are at least two problems as far as Thursday night goes:

1) Given that it’s the first week in May, most candidates are, at best, still in the “exploratory” phases of their campaigns. Other potential candidates, like Huckabee and Palin, are purposely biding their time. Still other hopefuls, like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, are coyly flirting with the media. The field simply isn’t gelled, at this point. Of Thursday night’s participants, Pawlenty is the only one seen as having breakthrough potential.

2) Given that it’s so far from an actual primary vote, a candidate like Romney can wager that it’s a safer risk to skip the debate, as he’s so chosen, and be attacked in abstentia over Massachusetts health-care rather than be there in person for the expected slings and arrows. You can fault the candidate for making the choice; I fault the system for making it an easy choice.

We won’t know the debate’s winners and losers until after Thursday’s broadcast. But an early winner is obvious: President Obama. The heavy dose of b-candidates, all likely trying far too hard to appeal to the Tea Party, will only add to the GOP angst to find a prize candidate.

And, coming as it will only a few hours after the President’s anticipated visit to Ground Zero, the Republicans’ debate likely will serve as a reminder of the stature gap between the incumbent and his potential replacements.

A gap that won’t be closed until the GOP has more to offer . . . in some future debate.