At a Sunday evening meeting of most of the GOP presidential candidates’ representatives the campaigns agreed to take back from the Republican National Committee the debate negotiations with the networks. This in and of itself should not matter to the average voter. It was only in this cycle that the RNC took on the negotiating role; having it now revert to the campaign is not objectionable.
However, what the campaigns then demanded should concern the voters. It is one thing to insist on meaningless opening and closing statements (as the candidates seem to be insisting) or even an equal number of questions for each candidate; it is however quite another to spare the candidates from tough and even combative questions.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a brief interview on Sunday with MSNBC observed, “I am not one of these guys that’s going to sit around and complain about this, ok? If you can’t take it on the stage, no matter whether it’s fair or unfair – and I thought there was a lot of unfair stuff the other night – but if you can’t take it, then how are you going to take running against Hillary Clinton and how are you going to take negotiating for America around the world?” This morning on Fox and Friends he reiterated that message — in essence, telling his competitors to stop complaining. That is exactly right.
Candidates should not give the appearance they are delicate flowers, needing shelter from big, bad reporters. While some minor changes may be in order the notion that all campaigns need to meet, wrest control of the process to protect themselves and make a to-do over this is a bit much to stomach.
Here then are a few suggestions:
1. For the November and December debates, split the candidates at random into 2 sessions of 90 minutes. It makes no sense to keep 10 people on the stage, and then deprive many of them time to make their case. Fewer candidates means more time for questions.
2. Actually have a debate. One candidate gets asked a question and 1 or 2 can respond. After time for a brief rebuttal you move on to the next candidate.
3. By abiding by #2 the role of the moderators is limited. Essentially they ask a question and then get out of the way, simply directing traffic and keeping time until the next question. We could go even further and let the candidates ask a question of any of his or her competitors, respond and then let one or two others respond. (The danger there is they all agree to throw softballs at one another and no one is really tested.)
4. Break up the debates by topic to force candidates to discuss issues in greater detail. It’s essential to have a serious debate solely on foreign policy.
5. Have one or more experts (e.g. a foreign policy expert, an economist) participate in the questioning.
6. If they thought CNN’s Jake Tapper and colleagues (including Hugh Hewitt) and the Fox News panelists acted appropriately, simply divide up the remainder of the debates between those two groups .
7. For the December debate raise the requirement to 3 percent in the national polls. (Using the RealClearPolitics national average that presently would include 7 candidates.) In January require a candidate be at 4 percent in either national polling or one of the four early state polls. Once primary voting begins take the top 5 finishers from the last couple of contests.
8. As currently scheduled there are four debates in February (the 6th, 10th, 13th and 26th). One or at most two debates should suffice.
What the candidates should not do is follow Dr. Ben Carson’s lead and ask for non-debating debates. There are plenty of groups hosting forums for candidates who can talk at length without interruption. The debates should push the candidates, challenging them on their knowledge of the issues and the soundness of their proposals. Christie is right insofar as the candidates do not want to look like weaklings. If the GOP nominee is ill-prepared to take on Hillary Clinton, whining about CNBC panelists’ dopey questions will be the least of the party’s concern.