A new way to handle primary debates

posted at 11:31 am on April 6, 2013 by Jazz Shaw

Over at Outside the Beltway, Doug Mataconis has a pretty good roundup of discussions currently underway as to what should be done about the GOP presidential primary debate process, if anything needs to be “done” at all. Much of this was spurred by the RNC autopsy last month, and it’s hard to argue that the ten thousand or so debates which took place left quite a bit to be desired at times. As usual, I have my own solution to propose, but first let’s look at two people in particular who are raising some interesting questions.

Stuart Stevens (of Romney campaign fame) understandably feels that the circus has made far too many stops in the same town.

This debate escalation is somewhere between silly and dumb and serves no public good. We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve? Other important national questions are decided more expediently: it only takes 12 shows for The Bachelorette and The Bachelor to pick a mate.

Howard Kurtz seems to think the networks did a fine job, (a proposition I find rather laughable) but does make an important point.

The reason there were so many Republican debates last year—and more than 20 involving Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the previous cycle—is that the candidates kept saying yes. And whose fault is that?

The top contenders don’t want to appear to be ducking. And the also-rans need a way to break through. Indeed, without the debates, it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain having been able to rise to the top of the polls, or the underfunded Rick Santorum having been able to hang on as long as he did.

I think the point Kurtz is missing – and which in no way refutes the point Stevens is making – is that the fault doesn’t lie with the candidates themselves, and placing the blame on them is the wrong starting point. The candidates are who they are and each one has to choose their own path in terms of trying to make the sale with primary voters. The real problem is the way that these spectacles have evolved into little more than a stage full of grenades for Republicans seeking the nomination, and everyone in the party seems to have pretty much accepted this as The New Normal with no way around it. This is the doing of the media, not the candidates, the “establishment” of the party or the grassroots.

Doug finds most of the conversation to be little more than an exercise in navel gazing, since there’s nothing that can be done about it anyway.

Another point, which Kurtz doesn’t really touch on and which Stevens and the RNC seem to ignore, is that there really isn’t much that the RNC can do about this situation. If one of the broadcast or cable networks, in cooperation with online sites like Politico or private companies like Google wants to set up a debate during the summer or fall of 2015 and invites the candidates, there’s nothing the Republican National Committee can do to stop the candidates from agreeing to appear. Even if the RNC did issue some kind of “edict” urging the candidates not to appear for a specific debate, there would be nothing they could back it up with, and it’s quite likely that most of the candidates would ignore it.

I think Doug is right about the problem, but ignores what should be the obvious, free market solution which is still available. Trying to issue orders from on high about how to select the candidate is going to blow up in your face. (Just ask Karl Rove.) But if you don’t want the prospective nominees and the base going into full blown revolt on you, don’t tell them not to go to the circus… offer them something better.

As I hinted at above, the problem isn’t the number of debates. The problem is that the debates suck. And the reason they suck is that the people organizing and moderating them are not putting on a public service to inform the voters. They’re staging a series of ambushes to make the Republicans look as extreme as possible and to goad them into the worst possible sound bites which they can then run ad nauseum for the next week. Given the recent trajectory of events, the first debate we see in 2015 will be sponsored by MSNBC, hosted by Chris Hayes, and feature the opening question, “Show of hands… which of you will do the least damage to the country if you somehow manage to steal this election?

If you want to defeat this now entrenched paradigm, get out in front of it. Set up a schedule of early debates and have them hosted by people who aren’t instinctively looking to destroy the candidates. Offer events hosted by Hugh Hewitt, Jim Geraghty, Al Cardenas… hell, let’s have Ed Morrissey and Erick Erickson host a couple. And change the format entirely. Why do we need eight people at eight podiums fighting with each other in the first place? Take a page from Newt Gingrich’s playbook instead. Have two chairs, one for the host and one for a single candidate. Give each of them fifteen minutes. Ask them the same questions on general policy issues, mixed in with specific questions for each candidate on proposals they have made or areas where they haven’t provided a solid plan yet. You could fill up the same two hours and give the voters a clear, uninterrupted look at where each of them stands without turning it into either a softball love festival or a planned attack by hostile, liberal guard dogs. Toward the end of the process, after – hopefully – a number of long shots drop out, maybe have the final two or three together in their own chairs for a Lincoln – Douglas style discussion… no moderator questions required, just a ref watching the clock.

And once you set that up and flood the schedule with them, let each of the candidates know that these are the best opportunities each of them have – no matter who much money they’re sitting on – to reach a vast audience in a fair environment. Get them to sit down together and jointly agree not to participate in the usual media mud slinging circus, not because you’re telling them not to, but because it’s in their collective best interest. The networks will show up to televise the events – even if they grumble a bit – because it will be the only show in town.

This debate situation is a problem to be sure. But it’s not a problem without a solution. We just have to be smarter than the people who are causing the real problem in the first place.


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Jazz thinks Stuart Stevens is a serious person. Bless his heart.

steebo77 on April 6, 2013 at 11:39 AM

Your idea is stupid too… the problem isn’t who is moderating the debates but the idea that debates need moderators to begin with.

Just set a debate topic and let the candidates speak on their own… and then let them ask questions to each other.

ninjapirate on April 6, 2013 at 11:40 AM

So far the Rs are proving to be LESS SMART on so many levels.

CoffeeLover on April 6, 2013 at 11:41 AM

The 2016 primary is a bit unusual in that there is a clear top-tier of candidates (whoever runs from the Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie group.) As a result, it’s likely to be easier to control the debate process if they can be convinced that’s in their best interest to limit appearances.

Mister Mets on April 6, 2013 at 11:42 AM

Nevermind… I just skimmed over and I thought your entire idea was have Hugh Hewitt et al moderate the debates…

I think we need to just do Lincoln Douglas the whole way though… just have random drawings to keep the debates small at the beginning.

ninjapirate on April 6, 2013 at 11:42 AM

Just set a debate topic and let the candidates speak on their own… and then let them ask questions to each other.

ninjapirate on April 6, 2013 at 11:40 AM

That’s a great idea. I’d also say that each candidate should be given equal speaking time, to use as they wish – give them a button to activate their microphone, and cut it off permanently when they’ve run out of allotted time. If one guy wants to talk for 10 minutes on a single topic and then have no time for any other exchanges, let him.

Inkblots on April 6, 2013 at 11:44 AM

And change the format entirely. Why do we need eight people at eight podiums fighting with each other in the first place? Take a page from Newt Gingrich’s playbook instead. Have two chairs, one for the host and one for a single candidate. Give each of them fifteen minutes. Ask them the same questions on general policy issues, mixed in with specific questions for each candidate on proposals they have made or areas where they haven’t provided a solid plan yet. You could fill up the same two hours and give the voters a clear, uninterrupted look at where each of them stands without turning it into either a softball love festival or a planned attack by hostile, liberal guard dogs.

How is this any different from a series of interviews? Presumably, the candidates will be engaging in more than enough of those?

The emphasis on policy proposals is a bit problematic since it ignores other things that will determine whether someone can be an effective President, such as their accomplishments in the past. In a discussion that is just about policy, there’s nothing to distinguish a failed state legislator from a popular Governor.

Mister Mets on April 6, 2013 at 11:45 AM

I say run a tournament of one-on-one debates.

Count to 10 on April 6, 2013 at 11:50 AM

Imagine Candy Crowley moderating the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and therein lies the problem…

Khun Joe on April 6, 2013 at 11:50 AM

I think we need to just do Lincoln Douglas the whole way though… just have random drawings to keep the debates small at the beginning.

ninjapirate on April 6, 2013 at 11:42 AM

Sounds good.

Count to 10 on April 6, 2013 at 11:51 AM

I agree with Jazz, Republicans are running to be the Republican NOMINEE not the DEMOCRAT Party nominee. I don’t get why they want to appear on Democrat news. If they want to go on ONE big cable news it should just be Foxnews moderated by Hannity and Erick Erickson.

Rush should also have his own debate forum. Republicans should just stick with going on blogs and conservative places like Glenn Beck.

No MORE going to debate hosted by Marxist.

BroncosRock on April 6, 2013 at 11:52 AM

Imagine Candy Crowley moderating the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and therein lies the problem…

Khun Joe on April 6, 2013 at 11:50 AM

From what I remember, the moderators of Lincoln-Douglas debate don’t get to ask questions. It’s a strait up one-on-one point and counterpoint about a single topic.

Count to 10 on April 6, 2013 at 11:53 AM

Rush should also have his own debate forum.
BroncosRock on April 6, 2013 at 11:52 AM

How about a radio debate on Rush’s show?

Count to 10 on April 6, 2013 at 11:54 AM

How about duct taping the mouths of the leftard moderators and let the candidates talk?

Old Country Boy on April 6, 2013 at 11:55 AM

A new way to handle primary debates…..


Don’t listen to ANYONE connected to the failed gop that has had anything to do with any national election since 1988.

Limited government Conservative values haven’t been on the ballot since 1984 (and to be honest that wasn’t really smaller government). It at least had the veneer of having someone at the head that preached it constantly (and appeared to believe it).

PappyD61 on April 6, 2013 at 12:02 PM

View the DOTUS and all his glory (his fundamentally transformed United States of America) here.

http://glennhenson.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/image001-obama.jpg

2017 here we come.

PappyD61 on April 6, 2013 at 12:11 PM

I would love to see mark levin moderate a debate.

karenhasfreedom on April 6, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Surprised no one suggested the Republican candidates stand silently on the stage while the liberal media debates how bad each Republican candidate is compared the the Democrat running for office.
;-)

albill on April 6, 2013 at 12:12 PM

PappyD61 on April 6, 2013 at 12:11 PM

Awesome picture. That needs to be used in campaign ads next year to help dethrone Reid in the senate.

karenhasfreedom on April 6, 2013 at 12:14 PM

It is about time the GOP did what the Democrats do. Hire moderators that share the philosophy. We simply are not interested in Stephanopolis’s delusional presumptions.

pat on April 6, 2013 at 12:16 PM

Nice article Jazz Shaw..You made some very valid points..:)

Dire Straits on April 6, 2013 at 12:30 PM

This debate situation is a problem to be sure. But it’s not a problem without a solution. We just have to be smarter than the people who are causing the real problem in the first place.

Hear!..Hear!..:)

Dire Straits on April 6, 2013 at 12:31 PM

We just have to be smarter than the people who are causing the real problem in the first place.

You’d think this would be the easy part, but no…… *shakes head*

GWB on April 6, 2013 at 12:41 PM

Given the recent trajectory of events, the first debate we see in 2015 will be sponsored by MSNBC, hosted by Chris Hayes, and feature the opening question, “Show of hands… which of you will do the least damage to the country if you somehow manage to steal this election?”

A version of this scenario is what we saw over and over ad infinitum in 2012. If Republicans allow this outrage to be repeated … They. Will. Lose. Again. And deserve it.

marybel on April 6, 2013 at 12:49 PM

The first thing I would do is refuse to have any debate on CNN. After Candy Crowley set Mitt Romney up there is no reason to give that network any recognition until such time as they recognize the harm they did and rectify the situation.

bflat879 on April 6, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Stuart Stevens (of Romney campaign fame shame) understandably feels that the circus has made far too many stops in the same town.

No political circus would be complete without Mr. “Etch-a-Sketch,” Stevens, Andrea Saul, Mike Murphy, Kevin Madden, Alex Castellanos, Ed Gillespie or the rest of the clowns from Team Romney.

bw222 on April 6, 2013 at 12:59 PM

There have been some watchable formats that differed greatly from the ‘stand around the stage as targets’ venue.

Huckabee did a very good job with the candidates and they each got to answer questions but on their own, no back and forth, just state your position without knowing what anyone else had said before that.

The Value Voters Summit is, perhaps, one of the best venues that has happened and is a very good format style as a table-talk discussion not a ‘please indict yourself for the moderator’ junk we normally get.

Then there is always the strange concepts of asking the campaigns to each submit moderators and put their names into a hat and pick out two and then go to an online venue for this stuff.

Or ask Brian Lamb to host them on CSPAN with someone on the clock to cut off microphones.

Anything but the last two go-arounds all over again.

ajacksonian on April 6, 2013 at 1:02 PM

Jazz thinks Stuart Stevens is a serious person. Bless his heart.

steebo77 on April 6, 2013 at 11:39 AM

But, does anyone think Jazz is a serious person? Doubtful.

bw222 on April 6, 2013 at 1:03 PM

Offer events hosted by Hugh Hewitt, Jim Geraghty, Al Cardenas… hell, let’s have Ed Morrissey and Erick Erickson host a couple. And change the format entirely.

Geraghty and Erickson are the only ones from that list that aren’t total RINOs and Erickson is a complete jerk.

bw222 on April 6, 2013 at 1:08 PM

I’ve always been a proponent of the Lincoln-Douglas format with moderators serving only time-keeping functions. That just isn’t practical with eight debaters. Jazz’ suggestion of 15-minute segments would yield far more substance than the current system, but I wonder if the lack of confrontation would cause the networks to lost interest in covering them.

It is insane to allow the media to control the selection process for the Republican nomination. They are not neutral brokers, but active enemies of our side and agents for the other side.

Adjoran on April 6, 2013 at 1:14 PM

Here’s an idea: how about having real debates that force the candidates to actually answer the question by ADDRESSING THE ISSUE?! And stop allowing them to drone on and on about anything but the issue. O/T a bit, but how about fielding candidates with iron balls instead of the shriveled little ones the dweebs we now see seem to possess? And clear the field of ANYBODY who was even the slightest associated with the last election. Fresh meat is what we need.

HiJack on April 6, 2013 at 1:50 PM

At this stage the only near-”absolute” I think that needs to be corrected is a new way of picking moderators.

No more hostile lib/pro Dem questioners who live for the chance to embarrass and marginalize GOP candidates…ever. And no wire hangars either!

Sacramento on April 6, 2013 at 1:53 PM

Nein, nein, nein

Schadenfreude on April 6, 2013 at 2:20 PM

HiJack on April 6, 2013 at 1:50 PM

+1

Schadenfreude on April 6, 2013 at 2:21 PM

There need to be some debates.You can’t let candidates just get away with spouting their ideas unchallenged.And debates are good practice for the 3 in the general against the Dem candidate.Under no circumstances should any GOP candidate agree to appear onstage with a liberal moderator,and this should be insisted upon in advance by having each candidate take a pledge not to do so.If the networks want to host a debate they will provide a conservative moderator.Lastly,the sheer number of debates was ridiculous.Limit them to one each on economic policy,social issues,and foreign policy.

redware on April 6, 2013 at 2:30 PM

Maybe your problem is the answers, not the questions.

If your argument is sound, why should it matter how it gets asked… a candidate is interviewing to be president of the united states, and they’re afraid of MSNBC?

triple on April 6, 2013 at 3:32 PM

I would love to see mark levin moderate a debate.

karenhasfreedom on April 6, 2013 at 12:12 PM

…someone should insist on it!

KOOLAID2 on April 6, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Maybe your problem is the answers, not the questions.

If your argument is sound, why should it matter how it gets asked… a candidate is interviewing to be president of the united states, and they’re afraid of MSNBC?

triple on April 6, 2013 at 3:32 PM

I think the moderators should be Michelle and Hussein official jock holders from the white house staff.

fair and balanced

tom daschle concerned on April 6, 2013 at 4:35 PM

I am thinking we should bring back “Win Ben Stein’s Money” to weed out the unprepared.

Jimmy Kimmel can’t be any more partisan than Candy Crowley, and far more intelligent and easy on the eye’s to boot.

Snowblind on April 6, 2013 at 4:52 PM