For some reason I actually thought we were done with the meta-debate over GOP debates this cycle. (A foolish hope in retrospect, I admit.) But with the first big Fox News Show of Shows scheduled for next month there are still last minute efforts taking place to get them to change. One of them comes from Liz Mair, who summarized her suggestions in a piece for IJReview last month.
On face value, there’s good reason for Republicans—and those who cover them in the media—to be miffed about the debate rules. Speculation has abounded that they could result in Donald Trump (widely regarded as an unserious person, and an unserious presidential prospect, to say nothing of a faux-conservative) being given a slot while former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Kasich, former Gov. George Pataki, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and others could miss out.
Policy wonks don’t like this, because they want Gov. Jindal’s smarts on the stage. Those who want to take the fight to Hillary Clinton hard, and early, as well as those who want a woman on stage and believe Fiorina has better prospects than polling shows don’t like this; they want Carly on the stage. National security hawks feel Graham could add value. Pataki backers (yes, they do exist) want their guy to get to say his piece. Unabashed social conservatives want Santorum to get his chance to air his views. And, obviously, Kasich backers want their man to get airtime, too.
That was just a portion of the introductory section laying out the case for making a change. I included that part of it only as an example. Before we get to the actual suggestions being touted, I just wanted to say that I can agree with a couple of points Liz makes and at least sympathize (but not agree) with others. The first point is that the current “solution” sort of stinks. I’m not happy with it and I’ve yet to talk to anyone who is really doing backflips and singing the praises of the format. There will be too many people shut out of the main event and relegated to the kiddie table at a time when we should be getting the full spectrum of proposals and pitches from aspiring nominees.
I can also sympathize with the laundry list of people who will be unhappy if Candidate X, Y or Z is not included on the main stage. I too would be very interested in seeing Carly Fiorina at the podium and I still think Rick Santorum holds a rather unique lane in the field which merits his having a full voice. Some of the others who will miss out I’m less thrilled with, but I know they too have their backers who will be upset. But a stage of nearly twenty is unmanageable and would probably be useless. I think it’s a compromise which might work, though like all true compromises it will leave many factions unhappy.
We’ve made progress on other fronts, though. The moderator choices are going to be vastly improved and we at least won’t be treated to 90 minute reality shows where Wolf and Candy take turns reading the last unpleasant thing Candidate A said about Candidate B and then demanding that Candidate B respond. That alone is a huge leap forward.
But I know some of our regular readers are also still unhappy with the result, so let’s be fair and take a look at Liz’s 3 suggested changes. (There is more at the link about each one. I’m only providing highlights to summarize here.)
1. Ditch the idea of one debate
As noted, the early August calendar is pretty packed already. But it would seem conceivable to, say, run three different one-hour debates, each featuring five or so prospective candidates…
2. Establish candidate pools for each debate using a lottery ball machine
This, too, would be controversial and probably subject to a certain amount of litigation from the contenders. Some of the guys currently polling at the front of the pack won’t want to appear on stage with the “dwarf” candidates, thereby “diminishing” their stature. Others may want to appear with literally anyone their campaign regards as crazy, stupid or a joker, in order to enhance the perception that they’re a credible, serious person, with voters, donors, would-be aides, and the media.
3. One moderator per debate
It is possible that one or more Republican candidates or campaigns has a deep and abiding hatred of Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, or Chris Wallace, but if that’s the case, a) it has not been sufficiently aired to knock any of them off the moderator list yet and b) tough (again).
In general, these are people who are trusted by Republican voters to do their job professionally. They are also among the most trusted voices at Fox News, where the media (yes, even those critical of Fox) are concerned. Give each of them one debate, and let them get on with it.
I’m not going to write a novel in response here as this is already getting a bit long so I’ll stick to the thumbnail version. For suggestion 1… no. I’m not saying they couldn’t do it and won’t freak out if they do, but it doesn’t solve any of the actual problems. One of those shows will still come off as “the big one” and the others will be varying degrees of kiddie table activity. And you don’t know how much real contrast and fiery debate on key principles will take place without having some of the biggest guns firing at each other.
Suggestion 2. That’s dumb. It solves nothing and treats the selection of the next POTUS nominee like a child’s game. Don’t even consider it.
Suggestion 3. I suppose, if you really want. The number of moderators doesn’t bother me… just the quality. But it does nothing to solve the real issues most of us have with the debate format anyway.
There you have it. If you wish to see some of Liz’s changes happen she has petitions up for the RNC and also for Fox News. You can click on the links and go sign them if you wish. (Just for full disclosure, I did not.)