The Republican National Committee (RNC) thinks they have a cure for their party’s debate problem. In their Boston meeting earlier this week, they called for fewer primary debates and asked for moderators who openly support the Republican Party.
The 2012 presidential debates certainly hurt the Republican Party, but like the medieval practice of bloodletting, this cure is worse than the disease.
Last election’s debates made the candidates look foolish, with Rick Perry forgetting which cabinet department he wanted to eliminate, Herman Cain answering every question with a slogan about his 9-9-9 tax plan, and Mitt Romney making a $10,000 bet.
Even worse, they sometimes looked crazy: Michele Bachmann claimed vaccines made children mentally disabled, and Ron Paul blamed American foreign policy for the 9/11 terrorist attacks while supporting a return to 19th banking practices.
To undecided voters watching at home, this embodied every negative stereotype about conservatives. For front-runner Mitt Romney, the constant debates gave public exposure to his opponents and extended the primary process, costing the campaign time and money. Obviously, Republicans would be wise to avoid repeating these mistakes during the next election cycle, but the RNC’s reforms are among the worst ways to change the debate process.
Ideological moderators – the RNC has suggested Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or Sean Hannity – would only worsen the major problems of Republican debates. The RNC thinks it is a good idea because they blame "gotcha" questions and biased moderators for the debates going so poorly. Whether this is a serious proposal or just a way for the RNC to curry favor with activists is an open question, but far right moderators would only exacerbate the party’s problems. (Imagine the questions Rush Limbaugh would ask in front of a national audience.)
The problem in 2012 wasn’t the moderators, it was the candidates. "Gotcha" questions were few and far between. No candidate was asked a loaded hypothetical, such as in the 1988 election, when Michael Dukakis was asked if he would support the death penalty if his wife were murdered.
Inane pop quizzes about current affairs have also become less popular. Republican debate moderators didn’t ask candidates about the names of foreign leaders or capital cities, or expect candidates to prove they were in touch with “regular Americans” by knowing the price of a gallon of milk.Thankfully, these kind of questions – designed to embarrass candidates – were rare in last election’s debates. The cringeworthy moments weren’t caused by malicious moderators, but by bad candidates who were unprepared for the bright lights of the national stage. Even the friendliest moderator couldn’t have helped Rick Perry when he forgot what he wanted to say.
Better candidates would have entered the debate with memorized talking points and been ready to pivot away from an unexpected question. Better campaigns would have known how to pander to primary voters without being tied to unpopular positions, as Mitt Romney was with his pledge to make life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they would “self deport.”
The RNC is correct that having fewer debates would be better for the presidential hopefuls, since even the best candidate can make a mistake given sufficient opportunity. However, turning back the clock to the good old days of 1980, when there were only six primary debates, will prove impossible.
Presidential primaries have lots of debates because it benefits almost everyone involved. Candidates who aren’t front-runners want debates because they provide large-scale exposure for free. Leading candidates might want to skip the debates, but doing so would make them look frightened and arrogant. News networks will always broadcast debates, no matter how many, because the confrontational setting guarantees high ratings.
These trends are not going to change any time soon, so a tightly packed debate schedule will continue to plague presidential campaigns.