As we approach tonight’s Republican debate, sure to be a spectacle similar to the last three awkward attempts to manage the political equivalent of a starting football lineup, it’s worth mentioning that debates don’t have to be this way.
Late last week Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal challenged Senator Ted Cruz to debate Obamacare mano y mano in a response to the latter’s assertion that he would debate “anyone, anywhere”. Though the move was a clear attempt by Jindal to lash his sinking dinghy to the surging Cruz ship, he served the ball directly into Cruz’s court in such a way that the Senator’s response has the opportunity to flip the Republican debate process on its head.
But before I address that possibility, let’s step back and see how we got here.
In the wake of the last debate hosted by CNBC (read that phrase however you like), anger among both the candidates and the conservative grassroots resulted in a coup in which the candidates effectively cut the Republican National Committee out of the debate negotiation process completely. CNBC’s frustrated moderators reportedly had a rough flight home trying to figure out where things went wrong, and their performance was universally panned within the media world.
Meanwhile, the grassroots took to every possible media outlet to express their outrage at the handling of the debate process. Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a grassroots event put together for the purpose of relaying the mood of conservatives to attentive members of the mainstream media. Much of the discussion focused on the debates, as frustrated Republican activists from across the political spectrum condemned the “gotcha” questions foisted upon the candidates by liberal moderators who seemed to be infatuated with their own celebrity.
Unfortunately, nobody could agree on what to do about it. “Include more candidates,” “include less candidates,” “give candidates more time,” and “the whole debate was too long,” were all suggested by grassroots leaders who found much more agreement on the problem than on the solution.
Given the diversity of desires within the Republican rank and file, whom we already know to be split between establishment, evangelical, tea party, and the liberty movement, it seems that the basic problem with the structure of the RNC-sanctioned debates thus far boils down to a lack of consumer choice.
Enter Bobby Jindal.
Despite stronger polling in evangelical-heavy Iowa, Jindal barely registers a pulse in national polling, and his campaign organization is both cash-strapped and (reportedly) now delegate-strapped as well.
It is reasonable – expected, even – for the struggling Jindal campaign to challenge the upward-trending Cruz to a direct debate as the Governor teeters on the edge of lower-tier debate eligibility, and it makes no political sense for Cruz to accept – agreeing to effectively share his platform with a competitor seeking the support of the largest segment of Cruz’s base.
But for the good of the process, and for the continued strength and viability of the Republican party, it makes all the sense in the world to return to a simple and manageable debate format that places the candidates, not the moderators, in the spotlight. In fact, a return to small, issue-driven debates sparked by individual challenges might be the only way to preserve any semblance of intelligent national debate within the GOP.
The last three debates have witnessed a lot of fluff about personality, poll numbers, and of course, Donald Trump, but have allowed little substantive policy debate. This is not only the fault of the moderators, though they certainly bear enough blame to be deserving of the verbal beatdown they received at the hands of one Ted Cruz.
In all fairness, though, should we expect better from the media?
After all, it is not in the best interest of television networks to promote a two-hour snoozer in which long-winded and short-polling candidates engage in a deep discussion of policy specifics. They know – as we do – that nobody would watch it. That’s why part of the blame lies with us as well.
Sure, a handful of political junkies like myself and my wife will grab the popcorn and watch any debate. Heck, we settle in for the average Senate filibuster like we were watching a private screening of The Force Awakens. But let’s face it, we are not most Americans.
Most Americans do want to see Donald Trump peacocking center stage and spitting insults at his rivals. They do want to hear Jeb Bush absorb zinger after zinger about his brother and his family, to the neglect of a real discussion of his record. Most Americans do want to cry with Chris Christie as he recounts hugging the 9-11 victims, and laugh at the campaign missteps of the quiet and dignified Dr. Ben Carson. If these viewing tendencies were not the case, reality TV (and probably WWE) would be dead.
Most Americans, in fact, don’t tune in to the debates as currently structured to be informed, but entertained.
The blame also lies in part with the candidates, many of whom avoid specifics completely, choosing instead to spend their five-minutes-and-change airtime on peddling their campaign’s basic messaging and standard stump speech. While this is understandable for a number of candidates whose campaign coffers may not be able to otherwise reach the 20-million-plus audience that the debates have managed to rope in this year, it leaves conservative activists wondering why they should tune in to a three-hour debate to come away with the same information they could have picked from the candidates’ websites in ten minutes.
The solution is simple: cut out the middleman, and let the candidates debate each other on their own terms. The primary is, at its core, a matter of choice; so why try to pack every political candidate and their supporting factions into a single debate format? Why not allow candidates to challenge other candidates on their own bellwether issues, or have independent groups (read: groups not driven by ad purchases) invite candidates to debate on specific topics of interest to those groups and their constituent conservatives?
Take, for example, the Liberty Movement.
As a libertarian-leaning Republican, I have followed enough politics in the last few years to know that I have little interest in anything that moderately liberal establishment fixture Jeb Bush or politician-buying recent Democrat Donald Trump have to say. When it comes to policy positions,
I’m only really tuning in to hear Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and, depending on the day, Ben Carson. Why would I slog through hours of pointless platitudes and political soap opera to hear just five minutes from the only people I would consider voting for?
Now conversely, imagine Paul and Cruz decide to host their own debate focused entirely on liberty issues, while Jindal and Huckabee and Carson meet to debate social issues, and Bush and Rubio go head-to-head in a Florida primetime showdown.
A scenario like this benefits everyone. Each candidate becomes featured on a stage of his or her choice, appealing to the voters and activists they plan to draw the most from, rather than having to compete for time against a dozen other candidates with whom they have little in common.
The hosting organization is able to use the debates to build interest in their cause – rather than liberal media networks grabbing ad money with which to trash conservatives once the lights go down.
And best of all, concerned voters finally get a choice – a choice of what issues to engage on, a choice of what candidates to hear, and the ability to hear crucial but less-obvious policy differences that simply cannot be given justice in a 30 second rebuttal. When real policy discussions are on the line and voters have a choice about what they want to donate their attention to, their attention span inevitably lengthens. The Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted over three hours each and drew crowds of over 10,ooo people would would listen for the entire time, often without seats or benches – or a smartphone.
It’s a great first step that the candidates have broken through the RNC wall for the debate process. Now they just need to break through the recently-cemented norms of the formal debate structure, and give Republicans not just the debates we need, but the debates we deserve.