Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer recently suggested that staunch conservative media outlets should moderate the GOP presidential debates. He later clarified to Right Turn he was suggesting that conservative journalists without a dog in the race could be included in a debate panel. That’s a relief because the idea of one or more right-wing outlets “moderating” the debate should raise a red flag for Republicans who want the Oval Office back in Republicans’ hands. Others on the right, however, persist in calling for debates without MSM moderators. That’s a big mistake.
We have seen time and again the conservative media latch onto self-destructive ideas (the shutdown) and encourage the most extreme elements on the right that are not representative of the party as a whole (e.g. anti-immigration advocates). Egging on candidates to adopt the most extreme positions on various issues or to harp on issues most voters don’t care about is a recipe for disaster.
It would also fail to prepare candidates for the general election. In a general election, they will be forced to explain why their budget cuts won’t hurt the poor, why they want to end subsidies for “green companies,” why we need a robust military and why regulating abortion isn’t part of a “war on women.” The assumptions and questions in a general election debate will be entirely different from a “just us Republicans” affair, and the earlier the GOP begins thinking about the wide general electorate, the better.
Moreover, the idea that in the past mainstream moderators (including Fox reporters) set up the GOP candidates is a lame excuse. Candidates don’t have to answer preposterous questions and can reject the false premises of queries. They can refuse to play the “raise your hand” game or to answer complex questions with nothing but a yes or no answer. They can designate debates by topics, such as foreign policy, to keep the discussion more focused. And they can refuse to needle their opponents on non-substantive points. (“Isn’t Senator X’s high school transcript. . . “) There is nothing wrong with telling the questioner that the query is irrelevant to the presidential race or inappropriate (e.g. boxers or briefs?). But insulating candidates from even unfair and annoying questioning is no way to select the toughest nominee.
That is not to say that the 20-plus presidential primary debates in 2012 were a good idea. In fact, they allowed fringe candidates to hang on in search of more exposure, put a premium on verbal acuity over all other factors and often distracted candidates from critical tasks (e.g. working on policy ideas). A reasonable number of debates moderated by respected reporters (e.g. CNN’s Jake Tapper, CBS’s Jan Crawford, Fox’s Chris Wallace) and experienced conservative journalists should play a useful role in sifting through the candidates. And as time goes on, there is nothing wrong with slowly increasing the percentage of support needed to participate to insure that the candidates clearly in the running get sufficient time and scrutiny. At some point contenders who have won no races shouldn’t be included.
The party is right to take control of its own primary process. It, however, should not submit candidates to a circuslike atmosphere run by partisans either on the right or the left (no Chris Matthews, please). Better to have a rigorous workout and be in shape for the general election battles than to either forgo training or show up bloodied and bruised.