There’s a nasty rumor going around, and I want to put a stop to it. Some people are spreading an untruth — that Republicans have had too many debates. We haven’t had any debates. We’ve had game shows, complete with doorbells and G-mail chimes. And unlike Jeopardy!, we’re not learning much from the debates except which candidates can deliver the best zinger, which is a great quality … for a late-night TV comic. Which politician can deliver the best policy outcomes? The debates aren’t telling us that at all.
In my column this week for The Fiscal Times, I challenge the RNC to stand up to the media outlets and produce a format that will inform voters rather than entertain voyeurs:
The RNC should take a lesson from two of its candidates. This weekend will feature a two-hour, “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate, sponsored by the Texas Tea Party PAC, between Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. …
This format could be easily adapted for upcoming debates. Instead of having all eight candidates on stage at once, pair them off to conduct shorter “Lincoln-Douglas” debates on particular policy issues, rotating pairings in each event. (The November 22 debate is already scheduled as a foreign-policy debate, for instance.) Let the debate run for two hours; with eight candidates, each pairing could have 30 minutes (or 25 minutes to accommodate commercial break). Give each candidate eight minutes for their statements, and then four minutes each for rebuttals and a minute for a buffer. The only rules would be that microphones would go dead when time expires and that candidates should refrain from discussing an opponent in a different pairing.
This format would give Republicans another advantage, one which the RNC and the candidates could have used from the beginning. Since the debates would not require dozens of questions being pitched from the stage, there would be no opportunity for media personalities to push the discussions in any particular direction, insert their own narratives, or — most especially — provoke the candidates into attacking each other. Journalists who want to ask specific questions have plenty of time to do so in one-on-one interviews, but a debate shouldn’t be a shotgun-style media interview. It should be a substantive exchange of ideas that gives voters clear insights into the depth of each candidate, the viability of their positions, and their skill at presenting them. The RNC should insist on revamping the remaining debates along these lines if it wants to build confidence in the eventual nominee.
One complaint regularly heard and seen from conservatives is the fact that the GOP allows media outlets to “moderate” these debates with loaded questions and attempts to pit candidates against each other. In the game-show format that has been adopted by every media outlet, there is little choice but to push for that, since the format won’t produce anything of substance anyway. Why not, then, turn the forum into a Colisseum instead and offer some gladitorial virtual combat?
The DNC should pay attention as well. They don’t have to worry about primary debates this year, but four years from now they’ll have to put their candidates through the same wringer. In that case, Democratic voters will end up being ill-served by the process, and the quality of their eventual nominee won’t be improved by it, either.
Let’s put an end to American Idol: White House and demand something better for American voters.