We Need Better Primary Debates

The second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla. June 27, 2019 (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The current format serves the networks, but not the voters or candidates.

If you’re a Republican, so far the 2020 Democratic debates look like they’ll be a hoot. Front-runners and top-tier candidates share a crowded stage with obscure congressmen, a tech executive, and a spiritual guru. The number of questions and the amount of speaking time each one has make the debates wildly lopsided in favor of the big names. Trailing candidates jump in and interrupt, desperate to have some viral moment. Heated moments often devolve into incoherent crosstalk.

Most candidates fume that the format is unfair and biased, with some contending that their microphones were disabled, a charge NBC denied. The first two “debates” turned into a bidding war tailored to the tastes of the angriest and farthest-left activists. The most dramatic moment, Kamala Harris jabbing at Joe Biden over his opposition for forced busing in the 1970s, involved her slamming Biden for opposing a policy that Harris doesn’t actually support.

We on the right are going to have our laughs during this primary season. But one way or another, in 2024 we’re going to be in a similar situation to the one in which Democrats find themselves today. Either a reelected President Trump will be term-limited or Republicans will be trying to beat a Democratic incumbent. Without any changes to the way these debates are organized, Republicans will probably be facing the same headaches four years from now. The GOP may or may not have the 24 (!) candidates — Eric Swalwell quit, but Tom Steyer joined — of the Democrats, but the incentives for longshots and gadflies to run are increasing, not decreasing, and there still aren’t enough disincentives to pulling an Eric Swalwell and failing to register even 1 percent for many consecutive polls.

Like moths to a flame, the narcissistic and delusional figures in the party ranks will convince themselves that the American people are calling for them. (If they did call, it was a wrong number.) Trump’s victory in 2016 already convinced several people who have never run for office before that they’re ready to be the next commander-in-chief — Yang, Williamson, Howard Schultz, Steyer. Inevitably, a lot of GOP senators and governors and congressmen will consider a bid in 2024. You’ll probably get a bunch of lesser-known executives, television personalities, celebrities, single-issue activists, and assorted gadflies jumping in as well. If nothing else, they’ll see it all as a path to a book deal, paid television gigs, and better opportunities in the future.

If the Republican National Committee wants to avoid this kind of expensive, messy, circus-like demolition derby in 2024, they probably ought to start thinking ahead to what they want the next round of Republican presidential primary debates to look and sound like — and what factors would help the best candidate to rise to the top.

First, the RNC should announce early that they’ll set a serious threshold for participation in the debates, much higher than the DNC’s initial “anybody with 1 percent and 65,000 donors” rule. Set it at 3 percent or perhaps even 5. The Republican party has every right to tell candidates that they can no longer count on the televised debates to build their national profile. If you want to be president of the United States, people outside your home state ought to have heard of you. If they haven’t heard of you, go out and accomplish more significant things before you tout yourself as qualified to be the next president.

If those of us watching from home really want to learn more about the candidates, we and the candidates would be better off without the audience in the hall. The desire for a viral YouTube moment drives almost every candidate on stage to lunge desperately in attempts to deliver a memorable zinger or applause line. (This cycle’s most cringe-inducingly awful offender: Swalwell pledging during a speech to be “bold, without the bull” and then waiting for applause that never comes.)

Despite Swalwell’s making it look difficult, getting applause from an audience of party officials and activists is easy  — just promise something the people in the hall want to happen. Or throw together some combination of the words “America,” “victory,” “future,” “hope,” “better,” “tomorrow,” “children,” “values” in some random order. If all else fails, talk about a personal tragedy or quote a beloved president of the same party. A night that turns into a contest to see which candidate can deliver the best applause line isn’t really all that illuminating.

Candidates, you’ve been asked a question, just answer it as clearly as you can. This isn’t your nomination-acceptance speech, your inauguration-day speech, or the State of the Union.

Some might argue that NBC’s time limits — 60 seconds for an answer, 30 seconds for a rebuttal — impeded serious discussion last month. Any candidate worth his salt can offer generic answers for 60 seconds, and only some of the candidates seemed to find the verbal deadline to be a problem. While most of the candidates bulldozed through the time limits, Biden seemed weirdly determined to honor them every time (“My time’s up”), and Yang spoke only when he was asked a question, unless his claim that NBC silenced his microphone is true. The current time limits allow candidates to hide behind glib, rehearsed answers and vague generalities. If the RNC is going to have about a dozen primary debates, as in previous cycles, for at least one night a network should mix up the format and give candidates three or four minutes to answer.

Let the moderators offer follow-ups. “How are you going to pay for that?” should be a common one. When a candidate makes a vague, easier-said-than-done promise such as “I would get our allies to assist us more,” interrupt and ask him how. If a presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders insists his plans will pass once the Senate eliminates the filibuster, ask him what power the president has over Senate rules. Far too many presidential candidates discuss future plans as if like-minded congressional majorities were guaranteed. The last president who never dealt with a house of Congress controlled by the opposition party was Jimmy Carter. Stop allowing candidates to live in fantasy land.

The time limits are in place because the networks are trying to figure out how to handle too many candidates to have on stage at one time. Once again, the process might run smoother if debate organizers had the guts to show a little tough love to those asterisk candidates. Maybe instead of 20 candidates over two nights, only ten candidates should make it, so that five get to debate each night.

Would today’s Democrats really be ill-served by a debate that left out Amy Klobuchar, Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, Bill de Blasio, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tim Ryan, and John Delaney? If you’re running for president and more than half the time in the polls you’re coming in at zero, then your lack of an invitation to a nationally televised debate is not an injustice. Nobody’s entitled to a space on that stage. You don’t get to be treated like a major presidential candidate just because you chose to run.

Already certain Democrats are complaining that the DNC’s thresholds are unfair. Pull yourself together, man. This is the presidency we’re talking about. The next person to sit behind the Resolute desk is going to face much bigger problems than hitting 2 percent in multiple polls and attracting 130,000 individual donors.

If you’re complaining about the difficulty of running for president and meeting the minimum threshold to qualify for a debate, you’re probably not prepared for the difficulties of being president.

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