Anyone who plays sports knows to avoid playing with lesser mortals. They will bring down your game.
And so it goes, too, with political debate.
The sophomoric CNN/YouTube debate Wednesday night proved again that even serious veterans of government and war can be made to look silly when playing with silly.
Republicans can't say they weren't warned after their Democratic counterparts suffered through the same format and entertained questions from children and a snowman. Apparently fearful of offending the childish vote, GOP rivals gamely donned their dunce caps for their turn on the block.
Despite moderator Anderson Cooper's assurance that there would be no snowman or other goofy players, characters were not absent. Anyone who made it past the cringe-making, game-show "Come On Down!" introduction could not have missed a certain moronic quality to several of the YouTube-user questions.
One fellow asked the candidates' opinion on gun control, then noisily shifted a cartridge into his shotgun's chamber. Another menacingly thrust a Bible into the camera lens, demanding to know whether the GOP rivals believe what the Bible says. From his wild-eyed antics, we might infer that anyone who believes in the Bible must be a knuckle-dragging, wife-beating, child-spanking, snake-handling, Talibanesque, creationist wacko.
Of the three who answered him -- Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee -- the latter was the most graceful. Romney, whose Mormonism poses a nagging challenge, responded awkwardly, but finally asserted that the Bible is the word of God. Giuliani noted that though he consults the Good Book, he doesn't take every word literally.
Huckabee sounded like a smart Baptist preacher, saying that, obviously, no one believes when the Bible says, "Go and pluck out your eye," that we ought to go pluck out our eye. But the larger biblical messages, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself," aren't open to interpretation and are more important than debates about metaphor and allegory.
The most controversial question came from retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr -- an "openly gay man" -- who got two shots at the candidates with his question about why they think that "American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians"?
Kerr, who announced that he was gay after leaving the military, first posed the question on tape and then materialized in the audience to ask it again. Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, serving as one of the post-debate commentators, raised the question of Kerr's affiliation with Hillary Clinton's campaign after e-mailers contacted him.
As it turned out, Kerr is a member of Clinton's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender steering committee, though the general has said he merely lends his name to the group. He is also a co-chair on Clinton's national military veterans group and worked for John Kerry's presidential campaign.
None of that matters, of course, unless Kerr was a deliberate "plant" by the Clinton campaign. (Yet to be determined.) Kerr's question would have been legitimate -- if aimed at a deeper understanding of where the candidates stand on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
But that was clearly not where Kerr's sights were focused. The wording of the question -- reminiscent of "Have you stopped beating your wife?" -- implied that any who object to open homosexuality in the military for a range of reasons necessarily doubt our troops' professionalism.
Thus, the real aim was to frame the candidates as both homophobic and anti-troops. Nice try. Cooper, who played no part in selecting the questions, begged ignorance of Kerr's affiliation, as did CNN executives who apologized for the oversight.
Apologies notwithstanding, the question was clearly a favorite of those on the question-selection committee, as were several others that played to the bubba stereotype so beloved by cheap-shooters and cliche-mongers.
All together now: Republicans are only concerned about guns, gays and God. Oh, and race.
According to the Democratic playbook, forever emblazoned on the American psyche by Howard Dean back in his Confederate flag-waving days in the 2004 campaign, those are the issues that can get Republican hearts athumpin'. More to the point, those are the issues that get Democratic voters astumpin'.
To paraphrase the gun-totin' redneck, Democratic consultants will give up their "guns, gays and God" trope when someone pries their cold, puckered lips from the derrieres of those who must be pandered to.
Though there were some moments of substance and clarity sprinkled throughout the evening, the YouTube debates were beneath the dignity of the man or woman who would lead the free world.
One also wishes they were an insult to voters' intelligence.