For all the second-guessing and armchair quarterbacking associated with presidential elections, there’s no debating that the Republicans’ ambitious schedule of primary debates turned into a headache for the party out of power in 2012.
At various times, stages were over-crowded with candidates all jockeying for air time, second-tier hopefuls received artificial lifts thanks to the free national exposure, and the party’s frontrunner found himself in the awkward position of balancing the competing interests of red-meat in-studio audiences and the less folks watching back home on the small screen.
In all, the GOP held 20 sanctioned debates in the 2012 cycle. But add in other venues where rivals gathered and the actual count is 27 debates over the course of 43 weeks. The first gathering was the first Thursday in May of 2011, with only five Republican hopefuls in attendance. The last “debate” was on the first Saturday in March of the following year – the third of the so-called “Huckabee Forums” hosted for the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate.
That may not sound so awful – one debate, an average of every 11 days. Only, it didn’t work that way. Five Republican debates occurred during a 17-day span in November 2011. Another four transpired over a 12-day stretch in December 2011, with yet another four going down during a nine-day stretch in January 2012.
In simplest terms, it’s overkill. And kind of nonsensical, as Stuart Stevens (Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012) has noted: “We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve?”
The GOP isn’t at a point where it’s officially cut back on the number of debates. But it has decided who all can participate. At last week’s Republican National Committee gathering in Boston, delegates resolved to boycott any 2016 presidential debates sponsored by CNN and NBC should those two networks go forward with projects on the life and times of Hillary Clinton – in the RNC’s words: “extended commercials promoting Secretary Clinton.”
Moreover, the RNC said that it would require future Republican debates to have “appropriate moderators and debate partners.” As to what happens to those candidates who buck the edict is anyone’s guess – it could be anything from a slap on the wrist to Dean Wormer’s double-secret probation.
While the focus has been on the potential boycott of the two networks, the hope here is the RNC goes a step further – and pushes the reset button on the entire debate process. In addition to CNN and NBC, toss out the rest of the national news organizations that had a role in 2012 debates: Bloomberg, CBS News, CNBC, CNN, CNN en Español. Instead, leave the debates to local media. Too many of them hunt and think in packs – and, though they’ll never admit, don’t like the GOP agenda.
Second, devise a more modest schedule – something along these lines:
Debate 1: Have all announced candidates gather at the Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library to discuss their priorities. With all due to respect to the nation’s other fine Republican presidential libraries, every Republican hopeful wants to be “the next Reagan”, so why not have the conversation on the same grounds as the great man’s resting place?
Debate 2: As the GOP field will have its differences over what it means to be a Republican in 2016 – the size and reach of government, our commitments overseas, rejuvenating the party, etc. – take the conservation to the one-stop shop for all things Great Emancipator: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Here, have that talk about where the party of Lincoln stands 150 years after his passing.
Debate 3: After two forums contrasting their differences, let’s give the candidates a break and let them takes swinging at the same piñata: the awfulness of Washington. The RNC can sponsor such a debate, as it’s its backyard. Viewer’s note: of all the debates, should there be a GOP winner in the fall, this one will produce the most failed promises.
Debates 4 & 5: The goal of the man or woman who holds the most important job in America: to keep us safe and help us become more prosperous. So let’s devote one debate strictly to foreign policy – perhaps at a service academy. As for economics-centric debate, why not the Detroit Economic Clubgiven that city’s recent bankruptcy and the debate over the reasons for that tragedy?
So that’s five debates, which could run every other week, from the third Tuesday in October 2015 (Oct. 20) to the third Tuesday of the following month (Dec. 15).
After the holiday season and the calendar turning over to 2016, the RNC could bring the early primary states into the mix. But with the following caveats: (1) each state gets one debate; (2) sponsorship is limited to local state party and local media; (3) no state can hold a debate more than a week or 10 days before it votes; (4) debates are limited to one a week (the RNC deciding on a first-come basis); (5) after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, to debate state is off limits to candidates who failed to finish at least third in any of the contests.
Potentially, this could address two concerns. First, it would force the RNC to move back the Iowa vote from the same early start as in 2012 (Jan. 3). Second, a back-loaded debate schedule minimizes the impact of those one-percenters that gummed up the party’s works in 2012.
Would such a system actually work? Probably not. Media and interest groups would do their best to lure candidates into unsanctioned forums (in Iowa, that would be The Family Leader). Besides, candidates starving for money and/or attention probably would risk incurring the RNC’s wrath in exchange for the free publicity.
Still, the Republican National Committee has to realize it has a problem – and it’s time to go on a diet. There were seven GOP primary debates in 1988. Eight years later, the nearly doubled, to 13. In the 2012 cycle, the total soared to 20 sanctioned debates (actually, 27 candidate encounters – nearly quadruple the number in 1988).
That’s runaway growth in a candidate entitlement program. For the party that espouses less government, why not less debate exposure?
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen