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Frank Luntz, center, leading what looked much like a revival meeting for six of the GOP presidential candidates on Nov. 19. (AP photo)

There’ll be one less GOP candidates' debate in Iowa

COMMENTARY | November 23, 2011

The Des Moines Register, a sponsor of presidential candidate debates for many years, won’t get a chance this time around to improve on its much-ridiculed 2008 effort, which the Wall Street Journal, in one of the kinder critiques, called 'infamous.' All isn’t lost; the Register will be a (junior) cosponsor of another, earlier debate.

This first appeared in Cityview, the alternative weekly in Des Moines.

The cancellation of The Des Moines Register’s Dec. 19 debate of Republican presidential candidates wasn’t done to “streamline what had become a crowded debate calendar in Iowa,” as the newspaper’s political editor, Carol Hunter, ingenuously wrote last week.

It was cancelled because the candidates — or at least most of them — decided not to show up, folks who usually know what they’re talking about told Skinny.

Part of the reason is because some of those very conservative people, and their handlers and supporters, don’t particularly care for the Register, we’re told. Part is in fact because there are other debates scheduled. And part is because the Register and then-editor Carolyn Washburn made a mess out of the Republican debate four years ago.

“Jesus, she was awful, just terrible,” a Washington political reporter vented to Skinny four years ago. And as Craig Robinson notes in The Iowa Republican this week, Washington commentator (and psychiatrist) Charles Krauthammer called that debate “crushingly dull.” “That was not just the worst debate of 2007, that was the worst debate in western history, and that includes the ancient Greeks,” he said at the time. The Iowa Independent called it “a train wreck,” and The Wall Street Journal called it “infamous.” That wasn’t a compliment. Washburn, who has since moved on to edit the Cincinnati Enquirer, was lampooned and lambasted.

And she helped wreck things for her successor, Rick Green, a guy who likes and understands politics, and for Iowa Public Television and the PBS Newshour, who were to be co-sponsors. PBS’s Judy Woodruff, a longtime and long-respected political reporter and analyst (sort of the anti-Washburn), was to moderate, with Green handling the open and the close and being deeply involved in the content. This will be only the second time the Register hasn’t run a debate since 1980, when then-executive-editor Jim Gannon, an old Washington hand, launched the idea and moderated with skill. There were no Register debates in 1992 because the Republicans had an incumbent president and one of the Democratic candidates was Iowa’s Tom Harkin, which unbalanced the Iowa field.

Now, the Register will join as a co-sponsor (with, among others, the Republican Party that screwed the newspaper) of the ABC debate scheduled for Dec. 10, but it clearly will be a junior partner. It seems to boil down to this line from Carol Hunter’s press-release-style story: “Some of the debate questions will be provided by the Register’s political reporting staff.”

Matt Strawn, the state’s GOP chairman, called the decision a “win-win agreement” for candidates and caucus-goers. But for the Register, it’s lose-lose. They lose a longtime showcase event, and they end up teamed with a political party and with WOI-TV, the ABC affiliate whose news shows apparently are watched only by some sports junkies and people too lazy to change the channel after “Dancing With the Stars.” Iowa Public Television and the Register, meantime, still plan to collaborate on some caucus specials; they’ll probably make an announcement about those this week. …

Too bad Cityview’s political reporting staff wasn’t asked to provide a question or two for that Family Leader Forum on Saturday. It was like a revival meeting, with the six candidates — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman chose to be elsewhere — coming forth to confess and ask forgiveness.

Frank Luntz, playing the role of Billy Graham or Billy Sunday or Burt Lancaster or some such, all but laid hands on the sinners. But as they confessed haltingly to minor flaws — no one used the word “covet” — we kept hoping Luntz would ask:

“All of you are good Christians who believe in God and the Ten Commandments. Please tell us which ones you have broken in your life.”

You go first. No, you. ...

As long as we’re helpfully providing questions for moderators, here are a few that Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolous might consider asking at the Dec. 10 debate:

• The latest platform of the Iowa Republican Party says that “creationism should be included with all science instruction along with the Darwinian theory.” Do you believe that, and do you believe in Creationism?

• The platform says medical care “is a privilege and not a right.” Do you agree?

• The platform opposes all agricultural subsidies and says they should be phased out. As you stand here in Iowa, do you think that’s a good idea?

• The platform calls for the repeal of minimum-wage laws. Do you agree?

• The platform calls for the repeal of no-fault divorce laws. Do you have an opinion, Mr. Gingrich?

• The platform calls for repeal of the corporate income tax, the estate tax, and the gift tax and the abolition of the IRS. Discuss.

• The platform calls for eliminating — besides the IRS — OSHA, the Federal Reserve, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the departments of Agriculture, Education and, oops, Energy. Mr. Perry?

• The platform finds no problem if a person with a permit to carry a concealed gun carries a gun into a school — any school or any classroom, from kindergarten to college. Is that a good idea?

• The platform would eliminate Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Do you agree?

• And finally, the platform states: “We support the definition of manure as a natural fertilizer.” Do you have position papers on that?

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