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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