Fewer Primary Debates Is A Good Idea, But Probably Not Achievable
When it released it’s much publicized “autopsy” last month, one of the reforms that the Republican National Committee recommended was to bring the primary debate season under better control, and to limit the number of debates that actually take place before anyone actually starts voting. On it’s face, it seemed like an entirely reasonable proposal. After all, by the time voters actually went to the Iowa Caucuses in early January 2012, the candidates for the Republican nomination had met in nearly 20 multi-candidate debates that were, to be completely honest, usually less than helpful. One memorable CNN debate included a segment where the candidates were asked to choose “Coke v. Pepsi,” and where Herman Cain was asked about his favorite kind of pizza. To the extent that they generated any news at all, it was usually because of a verbal gaffe of some kind or another, whether it was Michele Bachmann’s idiotic comments about Gardisil, Mitt Romney talking about “self-deportation,” or Rick Perry’s multi-debate meltdown that may or may not have been influenced by the back surgery he had in July 2011. The debates themselves were made worse by the fact that nearly all of the attention was given to the candidates who were leading in the polls at the time, or who were likely to say something outrageous, meaning that perfectly reasonable and qualified candidates like Jon Huntsman and Gary Johnson, to the extent they were even invited, were basically left to languish at the far corners of the debate stage hoping that the moderators would through them a scrap at some point before the evening was through.
Stuart Stevens, who was one of Mitt Romney’s closest advisers during the campaign, agrees with the RNC’s conclusions:
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
The RNC report recommends cutting the number of debates in half and shortening the debating season. That’s a good start. But I think we should go further. To improve the quality of the debates and eradicate the commercial toxicity tainting the events, news organizations should get out of the business of sponsoring debates.
Let’s don’t kid ourselves. These “debates” have become phony entertainment spectacles not serious news events.
Here’s how Wolf Blitzer touted the Republican primary debate in September 2011, hosted by the Tea Party and CNN:
“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The Tea Party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”
This is how World Wide Wrestling is promoted. The only thing accurate about this breathless hype is that, yes, there was one stage. But there wasn’t “one chance” (for crying out loud, there were three debates in less than three weeks), it wasn’t remotely “groundbreaking” and every fifth grader watching knew that neither Tea Party support nor Republican nomination weren’t remotely on the line.
Newt Gingrich for one won’t hear any of it:
WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich says the idea that the Republican National Committee should reduce the number of primary debates in 2016 is “a total waste of time.”
“I liked the debates,” the 2012 GOP presidential candidate acknowledged to reporters Thursday during a breakfast organized by the National Review.
Gingrich — while saying he very much supports “the general direction” of the review — said he disagrees with the notion that there were too many debates during the 2012 primary. He pointed out that Republicans in 2012 only debated one time more than then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did during the 2008 Democratic primary.
“The point is to win the general election,” the former House Speaker said, arguing that the televised showdowns in the primary are important because they prepare the GOP nominee for the general election.
As for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Gingrich added: “I think he was probably strengthened by having debated.”
Howard Kurtz, meanwhile, pushes back against the idea of taking control of the debates away from the news networks:
Stevens complains that the likes of MSBNC, CNN, and Fox reduced the face-offs to a “great, cheesy reality show.” And it’s true that the 2012 events got juiced up with a bit of showmanship and music and the occasional gimmick. But by and large, the moderators asked solid and substantive questions of the people who wanted to be president (or at least bask in the spotlight for awhile).
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.
Stevens is wrong about the tone and production values. Last year’s debates did well in the ratings precisely because they were good television, even when the talk about taxes and health care and immigration turned wonky. Someone has to invest the money to pull off these programs, and if they admittedly serve as branding exercises for the networks, well, that’s the free enterprise system that Republicans are always praising.
In the end, Kurtz has a very good point here. There was nothing stopping any of the candidates, many of whom had campaign spokespeople who would go on television and complain about the endless number of debates, from saying no to a particular debate. Indeed, several of them could have done so together. One event that proves that are the “Lincoln-Douglass” style debates that Newt Gingrich organized and tried to get his other candidates to agree to. While he was able to get Jon Huntsman to appear for one in New Hampshire, largely because Huntsman was basically living in New Hampshire at the time and needed all the free media he could get, none of the other candidates took Gingrich’s bait, least of all frontrunners like Mitt Romney. When it came to the “big” debates, though, none of the candidates ever had the guts to say that they would not appear, even though there were rumblings that this might happen during the later months of 2011 from both the Romney and Perry campaigns. The reason for that Kurtz mentioned, none of the candidates could afford to turn down the invitations to these debates, because then the story would become why they were afraid of “debating,” even though what these events are isn’t really much of a debate.
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. Remember, there was only one debate in the 2012 cycle that ended up getting canceled when the candidates announced they wouldn’t participate in it, and that was the Newsmax debate that Donald Trump was invited to host. (The fact that this debate was scheduled just weeks before voting in Iowa and New Hampshire was likely another reason it never got off the ground.) All of the other debates had absolutely no trouble finding candidates to participate, and I’m betting that future debate sponsors would have the same level of success.
That doesn’t mean that the RNC and Stevens don’t have a point here. Justin Green sums it up quite well, I think:
[F]ewer debates with fewer candidates in the early stage of the campaign is a must for the GOP. There is no reason we need more than 3 or 4 debates prior to the first primary.
And… was Romney really strengthened by having debated? Perhaps, but if so, not enough to overcome the problems of a lengthened pre-primary process.
The greatest damage to the GOP field was that candidates like Romney had to out-conservative an already conservative field. When it came time to appeal to the moderate electorate of the country, we saw how that turned out.
These are all well-taken points, but unless the candidates start turning down debate invitations that simply isn’t going to happen.