Stuart Stevens is a writer and Republican political consultant.
In the category of words I never thought I’d write, I feel the pain of the Democratic National Committee and its chairman, Tom Perez. Debate season is upon us. There are enough Democrats running for president to field two baseball teams, and if you happen to catch Kirsten Gillibrand’s video of her quite impressive skills with a bat, you might think that might actually be the best hope for some of these candidates. They love baseball in Cuba, so Bernie Sanders should be happy.
But the problem facing the DNC and the candidates is how to put 20-plus pounds in a five-pound bag. There are no good answers. But as someone who has suffered every one of Dante’s circles of primary-debate hell through five presidential campaigns, I have a bit of advice for the Democratic candidates and their campaigns: Don’t do it.
Don’t submit yourself and your candidacy to a system that is nasty, brutish and long. Really long. Credit is due to Perez for trying to bring some semblance of fairness and order to a process that resembles a NASCAR race mixed with “The Bachelorette,” but he is trying to tweak a system that is fundamentally broken and corrupt.
Let’s start with the obvious: Why are news organizations sponsoring debates? The logical and proper role for the news media is to cover a debate, just as it covers every other event in presidential politics. Between the staging and promotion of the debates, sponsorship by a large corporation in the news business starts to look a lot like sponsorship by any large corporation.
That’s fine when Home Depot puts its name on a racecar and the employees and folks who love Home Depot can cheer for their car at the track, but why should there be an “MSNBC/CNN/name-a-news-organization” sponsorship of a serious, noncommercial endeavor such as a debate to help select the next president of the United States?
Over the years I’ve had these discussions — okay, arguments — with various news executives, and the most common response is that it is expensive to host a debate, and who will pay for it? This is nonsense on every level. Probably the best debate in the 2012 Republican primary cycle was one at Dartmouth College moderated by Charlie Rose, with the candidates sitting at a table. Those same executives eat at restaurants that charge more for dinner than it likely would have cost to stage that event.
And anyway, why in the world are news organizations involved with increasing the production values of political events? Should we go to a campaign-finance model of product placement, with news corporations paying for super-cool rallies that will draw more viewers? (I suppose we are close to that with Fox News and Trump rallies.)
The Democratic campaigns should take control of the process. Candidates have one bit of power in this process, and that’s the decision whether to appear in a debate. You’re Democrats — form a union! Call it the United Future Presidents or the Save Our Dignity Federation. Get together and decide on some ground rules of mutual interest: Debates will be held by serious organizations — how about a university? — moderated by serious people who will ask serious questions.
Admit the reality that having 10 people in an hour-long or even two-hour-long debate is like speed dating for a president more than a thoughtful discussion of issues. Limit the number of participants in any debate to four, and agree that the four will be chosen at random. The host university probably would be glad to have a Debate Week with a different set of candidates every night.
Who would watch it? Who would broadcast it? We have this thing called the Internet now, and in a world in which potential voters will go online to watch Beto O’Rourke get a haircut, how hard should it be to get people to watch him go at it with Sanders? Let news organizations make the same judgment call they would for any event in determining how much airtime to give a debate.
Skeptical? Here’s a simple test: What candidate has benefited the most from the primary debate process this century? The answer: Donald Trump, and that’s because he was happy to be the loudest clown at the clown competition. In the general-election presidential debates, it took Democrats’ and Republicans’ mutual frustration with the League of Women Voters, who once sponsored debates, to bring both parties together to form the Commission on Presidential Debates. Are the general-election debates flawed? Sure, but the primary debates make the Commission on Presidential Debates events look like Plato’s Cave.
Over the next year, Democratic candidates on the stump will be reminding voters every day that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” You’re right, it doesn’t. Take your own advice and change the primary-debate system. You’ll all be winners.