The Iowa Debates

In defense of boring

The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television took a lot of knocks last week for the Republican and Democratic presidential debates they ran in Johnson, Iowa, in which the candidates were held on a tight rein and pointedly instructed not to dwell on Iraq or immigration reform. Here’s a late dissent from the pack.

The moderator, Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Register, justified the no-Iraq, no-immigration caveat by noting that a survey of Iowa voters had indicated that they wanted to hear about the candidates’ views on the economy and related issues. Although both Iowa debates were carried nationally by CNN and other public television outlets, the events were obviously staged for Iowans making up their minds. In the Democratic debate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson mildly complained about barring discussion of Iraq, which he called the prime issue “affecting not just this country but Iowa caucus-goers,” but the determined Washburn simply sloughed him off. (And, in fact, the candidates’ positions on Iraq and immigration had been repeatedly aired in other debates.)

The national press didn’t much like the approach. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, in his Washington Sketch column, compared Washburn to John Cleese, the Basil Fawlty innkeeper of the British television series, Fawlty Towers, instructing his staff in dealing with German guests: “Don’t mention the war!” Other post-mortems on the debates painted them as a pair of yawns. The New York Times called the Republican session “a sleepy affair” and the Washington Post headline labeled the Democratic event “a lifeless debate.” CNN in its online analysis complained: “The format seemed to extinguish any hint of confrontation, and the crowd was missing in action for most of the first half of the debate. While the Republican and Democratic candidates were playing to different audiences, this week’s debates seemed like mirror images. There was very little interaction between the candidates as they used this final event as more of an opportunity to recite stump speeches than directly criticize one another.” Washburn’s colleague, Register columnist David Yepsen, was not a fan of the approach, either: “The event would have been more nourishing had the format allowed for more back-and-forth,” he wrote.

Reporters may groan about having to cover a debate-free debate, but surely some Iowans found value in hearing and comparing what often amounted to bite-sized stump speeches from the candidates - sometimes on often-overshadowed issues from tax cuts and government spending to health are and preserving the family farm. Might the debate have been “more nourishing,” as Yepsen wrote, had there been more back-and-forth among candidates? Certainly it would have “nourished” snappier stories from campaign reporters who have heard the stump speeches more times than any individual Iowan. But previous debates have allowed for ample disagreement among candidates — much of it not so “nourishing” at all.

Last week’s debates may not have made as good TV (or as good copy) as, say, one at which a snowman becomes the unlikely star. But for some weary voters, that may actually have been a welcome departure.

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Jules Witcover is a columnist for (Chicago) Tribune Media Services. He has been a columnist and a reporter at newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Star, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times (Washington bureau), Newhouse Newspapers (Washington bureau), and the Newark Star-Ledger. He has written 12 books on American politics and history and co-authored five others. He is one of several guest writers who are contributing to's Campaign Desk during the presidential campaign.