Debate advice for the GOP

George Stephanopoulos

George Stephanopoulos
(Ida Mae Astute/ABC Photo)

Rush Limbaugh entertainingly declared that he is “too famous” to moderate a GOP debate. He’s right — the debate should be about the candidates and not conservative celebrities — but his remark should prompt some serious thinking among Republicans about the debates.

Reince Priebus hit gold (and got Chuck Todd to dump on his employer) by threatening to exclude NBC and CNN from debates, highlighting the degree to which the cable networks are heavily invested (and investing) in the Hillary Clinton bandwagon. Still, the GOP shouldn’t get carried away. A few words of caution are in order:

Sooner or later, the GOP nominee will need to face the national media and/or have debates with his opponent; sheltering the candidates will only leave them less prepared when they go into the lion’s den. The Republican National Committee would make a grave error in coddling its candidates and shielding them from intense questioning.

One of the better debates in the last cycle was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. Conservative experts asked the questions (unfortunately, they weren’t allowed follow ups). That was a smart concept and should be revisited for one or more of the primary debates.

The 2011 Palmetto event in South Carolina in which the presidential candidates appeared one by one to speak at length and then answer a similar list of questions was tougher in some respects than a cookie-cutter debate. Getting the candidates to talk at length rather than in 30-second sound bites is a worthwhile endeavor.

The GOP should not seek to avoid hard-hitting journalists. Frankly, the more outlandish the question, the more opportunity for candidates to show their mettle. The problem of irrelevant questions designed to make the candidates look foolish (“How many of you believe in evolution?” is the classic case) can largely be solved by having a debate on single topic (e.g. national security, health care).

Part of the blame should be placed on the candidates. Any candidate who answers idiotic questions on evolution or participates in “raise your hand if you disagree” stunts gets what he deserves. Candidates should not be puppets; those who meekly follow the puppeteer shouldn’t complain about how they come across.

The height of bias would be to allow as moderators conservative talk show hosts who have already declared their favorites and designated their mortal foes (e.g. Mark Levin has made it his life’s mission to defeat the most popular Republican in the country, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie). The goal should be to avoid selecting moderators with a motive to sabotage one or more of the contenders.

There were really good debates last time around with solid moderators. Chris Wallace was very tough but fair; rehire those people and discard the rest.

Once the field gets down to just a few contenders, there is nothing wrong with a debate without a moderator. Agree on time limits, invite an audience and let the candidates loose to answer questions and mix it up.

The real problem in 2008 was that there were too many debates. Instead of 21 have five or six spread out over a year or so. In doing so, the incentive for moderator stunts, gotcha questions and assorted maneuvers to keep interest going may diminish.

Stop inviting fringe candidates as soon as possible. The threshold after one or two debates should be high — 5 percent support is a reasonable standard. Narrowing the field to viable contenders keeps the debates manageable and allows for more meaningful discussion.

And finally, stop complaining about the moderators and the media. Whining about how mean the press is to candidates makes candidates into wimps and victims. The real grown-up candidates should say, “Bring it on!”

 

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