Friday, October 30, 2015

Do We Really Need More Republican Debates?

The ratings are in and the CNBC Republican Debate scored much lower than the previous two debates. Maybe it was the World Series competing for the same time slot. Or maybe, with the holiday season just around the corner, voters are taking a break from politics. Who knows? In any case, after Wednesday night's debacle is it really necessary to have more debates?

What was billed as a debate about the economy, turned out to be the latest media attempt to ridicule and incite fights among Republican candidates. The debate was disorganized, unprofessional, the moderators made up in arrogance what they lacked in competence. Plenty of articles are floating around the internet about how CNBC was the real loser of the night and there is no need to add one more.

Reince Priebus can complain and pretend to be outraged all he wants, it doesn't negate that he is responsible for negotiating the terms of the Republican debates. After 2012, the RNC concluded that the main reason Mitt Romney lost was too many debates. A conclusion not based on facts. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had more debates in 2008 and yet the Democrats went on the win handily. The reason the GOP lost in 2012 was a candidate with no political skills, uncomfortable in his own skin with a policy mix that expired about a decade ago.

After placing the blame where it didn’t belong, the RNC took charge of the debates. They determined the number, the media outlets, dates, locations. All in the name of preventing the biased media from hurting GOP prospects in November. Yet Republicans find themselves in the familiar place of being frustrated with the media’s treatment of their candidates. Here is a suggestion I made almost three years ago that would make a difference: fire Priebus.

CNN is reporting that several of the campaigns will meet "this Sunday to discuss plans for wresting more control of the debates from the Republican National Committee”. Others have suggested that we return to the Lincoln-Douglas format featuring no moderators. Ted Cruz proposed that conservative talk radio hosts moderate Republican debates. Everyone is brimming with ideas regarding one aspect of the campaign season that, frankly, makes very little difference in the long run.

The myth that debates decide elections began many years ago. According to the legend, Richard Nixon lost in 1960 because he refused to wear stage makeup for this television debate against John Kennedy. In reality, the reason Nixon lost was the Daley Chicago and LBJ Texas political machines delivering votes for Kennedy.

Interestingly, there were no more general election presidential debates until 1976 when Gerald Ford faced Jimmy Carter. And that’s when the myth picks up steam with the tale that Ford lost the election for insisting that Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union. Actually, pardoning Nixon sealed Ford’s fate more than anything he said during the debate. Reagan was on track to win in 1980 long before delivering his famous question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

In more recent history, Barack Obama did not delivered outstanding debate performances and yet he comfortably won two elections. Newt Gingrich was the best debater during the 2012 Republican primary and he still did not get the nomination. Rick Perry’s campaign imploded because of his stance on illegal immigration and his famous “oops” moment was just the cherry on top of an already baked result.

But the cable news networks want the public to believe that every debate is a make it or break it moment. That’s how they drive up the ratings and cash in. This year, the networks have raked in record advertising rates because of higher viewership.

Republican candidates have no obligation to make networks richer. And there is really no reason to attend the upcoming debate on November 10th when the same ten candidates are likely to appear and be asked the same questions. Certainly, there is no reason to hold another undercard debate. If a candidate can’t get traction after three debates and seven months of campaigning, more “kid’s table” events won’t make a difference.

Having another crowded stage where candidates get 30 seconds to explain their tax plan will not serve voters at all. Once again candidates will answer a question and then disappear for half an hour as the other nine are also given a chance to speak. Besides, after three debates, the voters know where Trump stands on immigration and trade. They know that John Kasich’s father was a mailman and Marco Rubio’s was a bartender. They know that Chris Christie wants to reform entitlements while Mike Huckabee does not. Do we really need another eight debates covering the same ground?