A Farewell to Debates

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Oops! After two debates in 15 hours I thought we'd reached a climax and finale, like the blow-it-all-out ending of a fireworks show. But it turns out that the respite is brief. A week from tomorrow, the fun starts again in South Carolina.

But who know how many candidates will still grace the stage at that point? So to make brief note of what could be our final six-person panels:

 - Impressive "you're no Jack Kennedy"-style moment by Huntsman vs Romney this morning. ("This nation is divided because of attitudes like that." Background: Romney dissing Huntsman's claim of having "put country first" by serving as Obama's ambassador to China.)

- Impressive "you're no Jack Kennedy"-style moment by Ron Paul vs Gingrich last night. ("When I was drafted, I was married and I had two kids, and I went." Background: Gingrich's saying that he wasn't eligible for the Vietnam draft because he had a wife and kids.) Reminder: debates almost never matter because of the differences of policy they expose. They mainly count in giving us an impression of the candidates as people, including how they react to surprises and under stress. Those impressions, pro and con, mainly register though moments like these.

Historical reminder. Here is one of the truly incredible moments in public life, which nothing in any debate since then has quite equaled:



- If Rick Perry had sounded in the first half dozen debates the way he sounded at his best in these last two -- by which I mean, in command of the English language and of his thoughts, and with a sense of humor rather than of cocksureness -- this would have been an entirely different race. Remember that the boomlets for Cain, Gingrich, and most recently Santorum all had as their precondition the collapse of Perry as a plausible non-Romney conservative in the race. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Perry's new "send the troops back to Iraq!" proposal would be a winner in the general election, or even in the primaries. (Molly Ball of the Atlantic on this same theme.)

- What makes Ron Paul's presence on the debate stage so galvanizing -- in human and dramatic terms, entirely apart from his policies -- is the apparent absence of any "how will this go over???" filter between his brain and his mouth. You ask him if he thinks Newt Gingrich -- standing a few feet from him -- is a "chickenhawk," and he'll say, Yes, I hate people who didn't serve but want to start wars. Ask him if he thinks the other politicians are "corrupt," and he'll say, Yes these guys over here, they are. With any normal politician and indeed most normal people, you see an endless calibration and hedging exercise going on: remarks are tailored to local biases and sensibilities, to real people within physical proximity (remember Tim Pawlenty not wanting to criticize Romney to his face?), to "proper" sentiments, and so on. But with Ron Paul, you ask a question, and you're going to get an answer to that exact question, not to some other point he wants to get on the record.* I think for this enlivening power Paul should be (so to speak) grandfathered into all future debate panels, including those between Obama and (presumably) Romney in the fall. Robert Wright and Conor Friedersdorf have made less flip arguments about the positive effects of Paul's influence on the race.

* Bonus point: Mitt Romney's presence on the stage of course gives just the opposite impression from Paul's, with all-too-evident calibration of "How will this go over?" But he has become very, very good at the necessary political segue of disposing of the question that was actually asked with a brief phrase, then moving on to what he wants to say. He is objectively good as a debater. Obama: take note.

- When I ask myself, What Is Wrong With Me that I am watching a GOP debate from New Hampshire at 9pm on a Saturday night and doing the same thing at 9am on Sunday, I rationalize my way to a non-embarrassing answer. The debates have mattered more in this year's GOP race than in any other contest in recent memory. So, keep them coming ... after a little while.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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