Have the Republicans had too many debates? Conservative pundit Byron York argues that “the sheer number of debates raises the question of diminishing returns,” which reflects Rick Perry’s understandable desire to avoid further opportunities to tie his tongue on national TV. And Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus exaggerated a little when he told The Wall Street Journal that “having 50 more debates in two more months is a little bit unreasonable.”
In Iowa, some Republican leaders are even urging GOP presidential candidates to skip a The Des Moines Registerdebate scheduled for December 19, although that has more to do with the newspaper, which is partnering with Iowa Public Television, PBS, and Google/YouTube. “I look at the field of people who are in the Republican groups of candidates and think, ‘OK, when one of these people gets chosen to run against Barack Obama, what are the chances that they will receive the final endorsement of The Des Moines Register?’ and the chances seem in the slim-to-none category,” explained state Republican Party treasurer Craig Williams. However, a signed letter from dozens of county GOP committee members in Iowa also complained about an “unrealistic calendar.”
When Iowans tell presidential candidates not to show up in their state just two weeks before the January 3 caucuses, people might be inclined to agree that there have been too many debates. But the truth is, we haven’t seen any debates. What we have had is too many game shows.
GOP primary voters have hungered for events that allow them to get to know the hopefuls. And the volatility of poll results (for candidates not named Mitt Romney) demonstrates that voters have been paying attention and that performance in the debates matters. But what have we really learned about the candidates, their policies, and their ability to run the executive branch of the federal government?
So far, we’ve learned plenty about Mitt Romney’s lawn, winced at Rick Perry’s inability to talk about Mitt Romney’s lawn, and discovered that government needles are apparently out to get our daughters. It took an economic proposal from the one non-politician on the stage to force a lengthy discussion of the economy and jobs.
Unfortunately, the format of these games shows – er, debates – doesn’t allow for any reasonable and substantive discussion of economic policy. This is a complicated and nuanced topic that doesn’t lend itself to solutions easily described in 60-second responses or 30-second rebuttals. The same is true for foreign policy, immigration reform, national security, and the role of the American military in the world. Instead, candidates compete to get the best zinger or chanting point, which would be a remarkably good process for selecting a late-night television comic, or perhaps a favorite columnist, but has little to do with establishing confidence that any candidate is prepared to lead the Free World. Free Mike Night at the local comedy club perhaps.
The RNC should take a lesson from two of its candidates. This weekend will feature a two-hour, “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate, sponsored by the Texas Tea Party PAC, between Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.
The debate will have moderators, but reportedly only to keep track of time; the candidates will speak at length on a number of topics and then rebut each other at length as well. The format will at least provide an opportunity for both Cain and Gingrich to explain their approaches to policy and leadership in a way that moves beyond sloganeering. The rebuttal periods will force both candidates to answer their opponent and move away from talking points to more nuanced explanations, without “time’s up” doorbell rings or G-mail chimes.
This format could be easily adapted for upcoming debates. Instead of having all eight candidates on stage at once, pair them off to conduct shorter “Lincoln-Douglas” debates on particular policy issues, rotating pairings in each event. (The November 22 debate is already scheduled as a foreign-policy debate, for instance.) Let the debate run for two hours; with eight candidates, each pairing could have 30 minutes. Give each candidate eight minutes for their statements, and then four minutes each for rebuttals and a minute for a buffer. The only rules would be that microphones would go dead when time expires and that candidates should refrain from discussing an opponent in a different pairing.
This format would give Republicans another advantage, one which the RNC and the candidates could have used from the beginning. Since the debates would not require dozens of questions being pitched from the stage, there would be no opportunity for media personalities to push the discussions in any particular direction, insert their own narratives, or -- most especially -- provoke the candidates into attacking each other. Journalists who want to ask specific questions have plenty of time to do so in one-on-one interviews, but a debate shouldn’t be a shotgun-style media interview. It should be a substantive exchange of ideas that gives voters clear insights into the depth of each candidate, the viability of their positions, and their skill at presenting them. The RNC should insist on revamping the remaining debates along these lines if it wants to build confidence in the eventual nominee
Would this format be as entertaining? No, but Americans need to see how candidates propose to govern. They don’t need to watch a new reality TV show called GOP Survivor.