The Republican National Committee has decided that limiting the number of presidential primary debates is a top priority for 2016. This is a good idea, but an incomplete idea.
My memory of the 2012 series of Republican primary presidential debates is a cross between the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley and running the gauntlet in Last of the Mohicans: battered, bruised and exhausted candidates stagger across the finish line after being roughed up by the media for months.
So limiting the total number of debates is an excellent first step. Fewer debates will increase the importance of each encounter and in turn should boost viewership. But two other reforms need to be made if the 2016 campaign is not going to simply be a repeat of 2012.
Second, debates should no longer look like roll call during boot camp at Camp Lejeune. I fondly remember a time when panelists at presidential debates outnumbered the candidates. But in 2012 the debates were so crowded that in many instances it would have been more entertaining to just have a show of hands after the question.
Lesser–known candidates value the exposure debates give them and as far as they’re concerned the more the merrier. As the Washington Times pointed out, “[Rick] Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proved the value of debates and forums in the 2012 primary, using the exposure to power Mr. Santorum to a win in Iowa's caucuses and Mr. Gingrich to victory in South Carolina's primary.”
But that crowding detracts from the amount of time individual candidates have to answer a question. It rewards brief, snappy talking points at the expense of reasoned answers. To avoid cries of censorship and exclusion, the state party where the debate is to be held should conduct a brief poll the week before. Any candidate registering 10 percent or more support is invited. Less than 10 percent and the candidate is a spectator.
The third reform is composition. In the past the RNC sat idle while the panels are packed with leftist reporters who try and make Republican candidates look out of touch with mainstream America.
For these reporters access to birth control, mass Mexican roundups and pistol–packing pre–schoolers are the real issues facing voters. They either attempt to pin Republican candidates down on issues emanating from Democrat talking points or in the general election they side with the Democrat against the Republican nominee.
A perfect example is the last campaign’s debate held at my father’s library. The moderator was MSNBC’s Chris Mathews. It would be harder to find an individual with a more implacable, long-term record of opposition to first Ronald Reagan and second Republicans in general. Yet there he was setting the agenda for the debate.
I’m sure that more than one of the candidates thought this was a terrible choice for moderator, yet if one campaign had complained the other campaigns would have taken the short–term, low road and accused him of cowardice.
This is where the RNC role is crucial in standing up for candidates and the party as a whole.
The first debate of the 2016 campaign is once again at the Ronald Reagan Library. This is a beautiful and symbolic venue for the initial debate of the cycle, but in this instance, as in all instances, content trumps venue.
The RNC should insist on selecting all the panelists for this debate.
I can’t predict the response of the library and debate organizers. They may well feel they can refuse this reasonable request secure in the knowledge they have the upper hand. But if that is the case the RNC should walk away and make it a point of content before venue even if the headlines in the mainstream media scream “Republicans Reject Reagan.”
If they do stand firm, I want to offer an alternative. Replace the library event with a debate I’m willing to sponsor: The Ronald Reagan 11th Commandment Presidential Debate.
The RNC is free to select all the moderators — and I strongly suggest they be chosen from Newsmax, FOX News, conservative radio hosts and influential bloggers and tweeters. The only other rule is all candidates must observe my father’s 11th commandment: Do not speak ill of another Republican on stage during the event.
Instead of petty sound bites fights, candidates will concentrate on telling viewers what they think and what they will do as president.
No venue and certainly no panel should overshadow the candidates during the presidential debates. The RNC owes it to Republican and independent voters to create a series of substantive debates that truly showcases our candidates.
© Mike Reagan