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“The Wrong Lessons Are Being Learned”: Stop Calling Them ‘Debates’. They’re Game Shows

After the bloody mess made by holding nearly two dozen debates in the 2012 election cycle, RNC chair Reince Priebus made reforming the Republican debate process one of his top priorities for 2016. It hasn’t worked. Why? Because these events are not debates at all. They’re game shows.

In 2011-12, attention-hungry candidates jumped at the chance to hold more and more debates, thinking the spotlight would help their candidacies. Instead, all those debates gave the media extra opportunities to find gotcha sound bites that damaged the party’s chances of winning against Barack Obama. Priebus pledged to keep that from happening this time around, by taking control of the debates, limiting their number, and pushing campaigns out of the strategy loop.

That didn’t work out so well.

Wednesday’s debacle on CNBC has infuriated the GOP’s 2016 presidential candidates, and has the RNC backpedaling. But the wrong lessons are being learned — and the candidates seemed poised once again to open the door to another 2012-style free-for-all.

Most observers agree that the CNBC debate was a disaster from start to finish. Seasoned journalists without a partisan ax to grind expressed their amazement and disgust at the spectacle. “Biggest loser of this debate isn’t JEB,” Ron Fournier tweeted during the debate. “It’s MSM. We’ve earned this bashing.” Even former DNC chair (and current governor of Virginia) Terry McAuliffe called the CNBC debate “an absolute farce … a joke … an embarrassment to our country.”

And so Republican candidates gathered this weekend to find a way to change the trajectory of the debates — and ended up making the problem even worse. The Ben Carson campaign argued that the debates needed to be severed from their network “sponsors.” A number of other campaigns didn’t want changes made to the format at all. The result was a series of “tweaks,” as Byron York put it, to be implemented after the upcoming Fox Business Channel debate on Nov. 10, which was deemed too close to change.

Even that modest outcome didn’t last a day. By Monday afternoon, the tenuous confederation of Republican candidates blew apart as frontrunner Donald Trump repudiated the agreement. Instead of coordinating between campaigns and broadcasters, Trump declared that he’d negotiate his own terms with the “sponsors,” and that the other candidates could either follow along or not. That threatens to return the GOP back to the 2012 dynamic, where candidates jumped at the chance to appear on television and dragged the other FOMO-plagued candidates through a gauntlet of televised debates.

The candidate confederation failed because all of these campaigns are competing with each other. The reason the RNC stepped into this role was to prevent exactly what Trump and his team want to do, which is to have 14 free agents negotiating with broadcasters.

But the reason the RNC’s original reforms failed is this: The RNC attempted to reform the wrong part of the process. The issue isn’t really how many debates take place, but the nature of the debates themselves, and the risk any one of them poses to the GOP.

These events are not debates in any substantive sense. The game-show format and the number of candidates on stage make substantive debate all but impossible. These are sound bite and gaffe contests, not a forum for sharp, honest arguments about the future of our country and party.

Nothing of substantive value emerged from two hours of wasted air time in the CNBC debate; indeed, all we have learned in nearly 14 hours of debate is how well the candidates can launch zingers. That might be valuable if we were electing the next Borscht Belt headliner, but hardly useful for choosing the next leader of the free world.

This is a failure of imagination more than a deficit of competence. We need to truly rethink debates themselves, and not just squabble over a hopelessly broken process. The RNC needs to put an end to both network sponsorship and the game-show format. If 14 candidates make the grade for a debate, then use a format that allows all 14 to make arguments for their policy choices. Offer a set of identical questions on a policy area to every candidate individually and give them each 15 minutes to answer, providing equal time for every candidate. That would require three and a half hours. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, it’s still shorter than the undercard + main event of each of the three previous debates.

When the field comes down to a manageable number — say, six or fewer — then a two-hour debate has a chance to offer substantive discussions that can frame Republican and conservative policy in an attractive manner.

If networks don’t like that format, they can cover the forums from the sidelines. In fact, with the proliferation of broadband internet, the media partnership model should be an anachronism, not a tradition. Carson’s campaign is absolutely correct about the need to cut the network strings. Presidential forums will get plenty of coverage regardless of whether they get broadcast by an alphabet-named media outlet; filing rooms fill up with reporters from all media organizations for every debate. By taking ownership of the entire event, the RNC can select moderators who display objectivity in their reporting, or even better yet, choose media figures who know the Republican voters that candidates need to reach in the primaries. Priebus deserves credit for pushing the envelope already by involving media groups on the right (including my employer, Salem Media Group, as a partner in the CNN debates), but the reform needs to go all the way toward self-sufficiency.

The Republican Party learned a hard lesson last week about the game-show format and the ability of media figures to exploit it, especially in a crowded primary. Until they change the debate format itself and replace it with a format that rewards depth and substance, they will continue to get caught with their pants down — even if the RNC or the campaigns delude themselves into thinking they’re in control.

 

By: Ed Morrissey, The Week, November 4, 2015

November 5, 2015 - Posted by | GOP Primary Debates, Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee | , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Did they learn the lesson? Really??

    Like

    Comment by lrfalstad | November 5, 2015 | Reply


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