Unintended (and Terrible) Consequences of GOP Debate Format
Peek's POV

Unintended (and Terrible) Consequences of GOP Debate Format

With 17 you get scrambled eggs. At least that's what it feels like when you add yet another candidate to the 16 Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination. 

The Fiscal Times

Excellent news: there is yet one more GOP candidate in the 2016 presidential contest. To paraphrase Dickens describing there once being two popes in Europe, “As if 16 were not enough.”

Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore has entered the race; we’ll call him 17. My guess: he will not qualify for the Fox prime-time debate scheduled for August 6. But, he can still try. By the terms of the event, if Gilmore can become one of the top ten highest-polling candidates by 5 pm on August 4, he will be onstage at 9 pm. With The Donald almost sure to attract crowds hoping for a Nascar-type smash-up, and some viewers actually interested in the candidates’ policies, the debate will draw a big crowd, offering GOP hopefuls rare national exposure.

Related: Just What the GOP Needs—a 17th Presidential Candidate

Number 17 is probably too late. Unless he shimmies up the flagpole of the CapitolBuilding naked, he will remain a relative unknown. However, if he could pull off a high-profile stunt, like maybe challenging Donald Trump to a duel, he might make the cut.

This, indeed, is the problem with how the Republican debate has been arranged. Who knew that by selecting only the top-polling candidates on a certain date Fox would encourage the kind of outrageous and in some cases damaging behavior we have seen? That The Donald would be rewarded by making offensive comments about Senator John McCain, or that Ted Cruz would try to bolster his standing by calling President Obama “a  sponsor of terrorism,” as Politico framed his remarks about the Iran deal? Or that Mike Huckabee would score big by saying that Obama’s Iran deal “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

In our cluttered media landscape, it takes more than a dignified speech on fiscal priorities or education reform to break through. One reason that Donald Trump has soared to the top of the leaderboard is that he has not had the rough edges buffed smooth by decades of political life, where every comment is weighed and measured for its impact on various interest groups. His followers love his unbridled speech, because it is so different from conventional (real) politicians.

Related: Distrusted by Most Americans, Trump and Clinton Still Lead in the Polls

Over time, it is likely to emerge that his thinking is just as undisciplined as his words. No one who has supported Hillary Clinton in the past, or who is a fan of a single-payer health system, is a conservative. This will become apparent, and Mr. Trump’s popularity will fade as he has to weigh in on actual policy issues that require judgment and knowledge. (This may be why recent polls show him losing in theoretical match-ups with Hillary and even Bernie Sanders, unlike Jeb Bush, for instance, who tops both possible rivals.)

Subtlety is not much fun, but most questions confronting our country are not easily resolved with one-liners. For the time being, though, the debate formula is rewarding our most belligerent, out-there candidates, and that is not good.

Here’s an alternative plan, for the next time around. Instead of having one major prime-time confrontation, why not schedule two or three, and draw names out of a hat to see who appears on which date? Limit the number of participants to five or six, so that some meaningful discussion can take place. If there are 17 people in the race, as there are today, there could be 3 events, each with 5 or 6 debaters. At the least, the candidates would be left to campaign as they have historically, speaking to the issues that voters care about, rather than trying to score the biggest headlines.

This clearly might be expensive for a TV network; it would also serve the public good. Electing a capable, thoughtful leader is one of the most important tasks our country faces, and one at which we have failed of late.