Six Ways to Fix These Painfully Embarrassing GOP Primary Debates

September 27th, 2011

By Dan Miller

This really needs to be the last electoral cycle where MSM leftists receive such a perfect perch to land their cheap shots.

William F. BuckleyThe “debates” among Republican candidates have been poorly structured and have offered insufficient substance. High in calories, they have offered little nutritional value while promoting spoiler advocacy.  Some of the candidates have seemed unprepared and often the questions asked of them have been inane, meeting with inane responses. In addition to “gotcha” questions posed by media personalities evidently seeking to embarrass the speakers, of whom far too many have been on stage at the same time, and to invite them to trip over their shoelaces while making the media personalities look cool, there are other, related problems.

I still at least vaguely recall a 1962 debate at the Yale Political Union. Gus Hall, the head of the United States Communist Party, had been invited to address the Union. A debate was held on, as I recall, the issue “Resolved, Gus Hall’s Invitation to Address the Union Should be Withdrawn.” It was an eminently debatable resolution, tightly worded and limited in scope. The debate followed Bill Buckley’s keynote address; both were good and well focused. The thrust of Mr. Buckley’s remarks was, “We can no more collaborate with him to further the common understanding than Anne Frank could have collaborated with Goebbels in a dialogue on race relations.” Prior to Mr. Buckley’s keynote address, it had been very generally assumed that the resolution to dis-invite Mr. Hall would fail. It passed and Mr. Hall’s invitation was accordingly withdrawn. Mr. Buckley “won” the debate.

The current candidate “debates” are neither of manageable scope nor do they offer the viable candidates adequate opportunities to prepare and then to make their positions on specific topics both clearly understood and difficult to distort.  If they are to become meaningful in the candidate selection process, substantial changes are needed.

How about this as a format for a candidate debate:

1. Select one reasonably narrow topic such as “Resolved, Illegal Immigration is Bad for the United States,” or “Resolved, Governmentally Mandated Purchase of Medical Insurance is Inappropriate in Our Free Society.” Perhaps each of the top ten or so candidates in recent polls could submit and then vote on topics other than the one he had himself submitted. Presumably, the votes of each of the other candidates would be based on his own perceptions of his talents in debating the topics. At a subsequent debate on the first topic example (illegal immigration),  Representative Bachmann could argue in support of the proposition and Governor Perry could argue in opposition.  Both could clarify perceptions as to where they stand.  Is Governor Perry really soft on illegal immigration? Maybe not.  The problems faced by Texas, with extensive Mexican borders and lots of illegal immigrants, are different from those faced by Massachusetts and most other states. Also, Texas seems to have done much to keep them out.  Beyond that, the courts have held their exclusion to be essentially a function of the federal government with which the states can’t interfere because under currently popular legal theory the matter has been dealt with by the federal government; it is doing a rotten job of it.  Governor Perry needs to explain his position better, in a well focused debate.  On the second example, health care, has RomneyCare been good or bad for Massachusetts?  If a state can do it, does that mean that the federal government can or should?  As Bryan Preston commented here, “poorly thought out statements … can come out of Obama’s mouth and do him no harm at all, but every Republican will be held accountable for every word they have ever said.” He was commenting on an ill advised statement by Rick Santorum, but it applies to all.

2. Select a keynote speaker to frame the debate and probably to state his own views on the topic.  The candidates delivering the keynote addresses should be rotated in subsequent debates to give all or most that opportunity.  By setting forth his own views in succinct fashion, the keynote speaker would have an excellent opportunity to make them clear, well beyond soundbites to be mischaracterized later by his opponents and by the media. There would be no requirement that the keynote speaker support the proposition to be debated, provided that he address it and it only — for, against or perhaps to argue that some intermediate ground is better.

3. For each debate, select two, and only two, candidates as debaters — preferably those who seem to have the most divergent as well as cogent views on the selected topic. This would, in effect, mean three candidates on stage and, it is to be hoped, able and well prepared to present their views. Adequate preparation for any debate is essential, and its absence has been obvious. To avoid an appearance of unfair advantage, the candidate who submitted the resolution selected for debate could be neither the keynote speaker nor one of the debaters on it.

4. Allow the keynote speaker five minutes for his address. If well prepared and succinct that should be adequate.  Then the selected proponent of the resolution would have fifteen minutes, of which he could reserve no more than seven minutes for rebuttal. The opponent of the resolution would then get his fifteen minutes, to be followed by the proponent in his rebuttal.

5. Following the formal debate, permit a limited number of questions from the remaining candidates. These should be limited to the scope of the issue being debated. Neither the keynote speaker nor the debating candidates would be permitted to ask each other, or other candidates not on the stage, questions — they could deal, should they wish, with what they perceive to be the views of others during their own times at the rostrum. The total time for such questions and answers should be limited to perhaps twenty-five minutes, making the total time (exclusive of commercial and other breaks) one hour. For a tightly formatted and well thought-out debate, that should be sufficient.

6. A timekeeper and a judge will be needed to enforce the time limits and to curtail off-topic discussions and questions. Neither would not be permitted to ask, or to rephrase, questions and neither should be a candidate.

Such a format would be more informative, albeit perhaps a bit less titillating and alternately doze-inducing, than the recent debates. It would permit the viable candidates to present their views in generally non-gotcha, substantive fashion while highlighting their differences from the likely Democrat Party candidate(s). They might even find ways to attack the views, statements, and actions of that (those) candidate(s) without acting as spoilers of the competing Republican candidates.

As noted in this IBD editorial on September 23,

Despite the “gotcha” sniping at Thursday’s debate, Republicans need to keep their eyes on the prize. The target for 2012 is not Santorum, Cain, Bachmann, Romney or Perry. It’s the current White House occupant. …

[W]e must understand that while the goal is the nomination, the prize is the White House. Lost in the brouhaha over tuition for illegal aliens and mandated vaccines is the fact we simply can’t afford four more years of President Obama.

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6 Responses to “Six Ways to Fix These Painfully Embarrassing GOP Primary Debates”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I’ve watched most of the debates, and I agree that they are embarrassing “gotcha” spectacles, both among the candidates and from the moderators to the candidates. There are too many candidates, the election cycle has become so long that it could be that none of them will be the nominee, and the charges they repeatedly hurl at each other will be used against the eventual nominee during the general election.

    However, as much as I agree with you on the problem, I’m not sure your proposed solutions would work. Too complicated, and the bunch of candidates who would have to agree would never do so. Here’s a possible solution: party rules and/or laws prohibiting campaign debates until two weeks before the first primary. If that could be done (big “if”), it would at least reduce the duration of the debacle and reduce the number of candidates involved (probably).

    I couldn’t agree more strongly that the most serious consideration should be “who is the most likely to be elected.” That’s the point, after all, for both parties. The debates are often counterproductive in producing a candidate who can win.

  2. Dan Miller |

    Thanks, Tom

    You say,

    Here’s a possible solution: party rules and/or laws prohibiting campaign debates until two weeks before the first primary.

    Party rules might work, but a law to that effect would probably offend the First Amendment’s alleged guarantees of free speech, press and whatever. In addition, that limitation would probably favor an incumbent, thus far not formally unopposed by his party (Damn. I almost typed “incompetent”).

    I threw out the suggestions in hopes that something better could be done than at present. It’s a mess and hurts the few viable opposition candidates. I was essentially fishing for better debate structure and looking for other ideas.

  3. Tom Carter |

    But what about laws and/or FEC rules that prohibited spending money on debates by candidates or any other person associated with the debates except under specified circumstances? An insult to the First Amendment, true, but it’s been done….

  4. Dan Miller |


    I’m not as familiar with the federal election statutes or the more specific FEC rules as I should be. Perhaps that’s why I don’t see the problem. However, some brief research indicates that funds used to sponsor debates are generally exempt from the political contribution rules, provided the debates meet specified criteria. Those criteria are set forth here. The FEC case linked above also suggests that (at least back when the decision was written in 2002) the FEC allows wide latitude in most respects.

    Section 100.7(b)(21) of the Commission’s regulations specifically exempts funds expended for the purpose of staging debates from the definition of contribution if such debates meet the parameters of 11 C.F.R. § 110.13.4 The parameters address: (1) the types of organizations that may stage such debates, (2) the structure of debates, and (3) the criteria debate-staging organizations must use to select debate participants

    Here is what I gleaned from the FEC rules:

    (a) Staging organizations. (1) Nonprofit organizations described in 26 U.S.C. 501 (c)(3) or (c)(4) and which do not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or political parties may stage candidate debates in accordance with this section and 11 CFR 114.4(f).
    (2) Broadcasters (including a cable television operator, programmer or producer), bona fide newspapers, magazines and other periodical publications may stage candidate debates in accordance with this section and 11 CFR 114.4(f), provided that they are not owned or controlled by a political party, political committee or candidate. In addition, broadcasters (including a cable television operator, programmer or producer), bona fide newspapers, magazines and other periodical publications, acting as press entities, may also cover or carry candidate debates in accordance with 11 CFR part 100, subparts B and C and part 100, subparts D and E.
    (b) Debate structure. The structure of debates staged in accordance with this section and 11 CFR 114.4(f) is left to the discretion of the staging organizations(s), provided that:
    (1) Such debates include at least two candidates; and
    (2) The staging organization(s) does not structure the debates to promote or advance one candidate over another.
    (c) Criteria for candidate selection. For all debates, staging organization(s) must use pre-established objective criteria to determine which candidates may participate in a debate. For general election debates, staging organizations(s) shall not use nomination by a particular political party as the sole objective criterion to determine whether to include a candidate in a debate. For debates held prior to a primary election, caucus or convention, staging organizations may
    restrict candidate participation to candidates seeking the nomination of one party, and need not stage a debate for candidates seeking the nomination of any other political party or independent candidates.

    Perhaps you could be a tad more specific?

  5. Tom Carter |

    I would add subparagraph (d):

    No debate may be held more than two weeks prior to the relevant party’s first state primary election for president and in no case earlier than January 15 of the year in which the general election is scheduled. No debate among candidates in the general election for president may be held more than 30 days prior to the election.

    Just to reinforce the point, I would add this sentence to the ObamaCare individual mandate requiring everyone to buy health insurance:

    In addition to the requirement to purchase health insurance, no person shall watch, listen to, read about, or discuss primary or general election debates before, during, or after their occurrence unless said debates occur not more than two weeks prior to the relevant party’s first state primary election for president or after January 15 of the year in which the general election is scheduled. Moreover and whereas, the same applies to debates between and/or among candidates for general elections for president which occur more than 30 days prior to the election. Violations of this sub subparagraph of paragraph ( ) of section ( ) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 are subject to penalties not in excess of those suffered by federal gunrunners who smuggle illegal weapons to Mexican gangs.

    Why the hell not? The first suggestion is consistent with the other FEC rules, and the second would be an example of clarity and reason buried within the reams of paper that contain ObamaCare.

  6. Dan Miller |


    I may not yet be awake but I haven’t been able to find the subparagraph (d) that you quote. Here is the link I used to find (a-c) and (d) is not there. Do you have a link?

    In any event, assuming it is still in the regs, it would have barred all of the debates thus far held because January 15, 2012 has not yet come.

    Generally, broadcasters are very attentive to regulations and reluctant to violate them; doing so or even getting too close to the line leads to increased legal fees and it is cheaper and easier simply to seek advice of counsel. During the election and pre-election seasons (and during the rest of the time as well), I fielded many questions asked by our broadcast clients on regulatory compliance and so did my partners. I generally tried to figure out whether a proposed action was blatantly, arguably, unlikely or not at all a violation. Clients tended to be very cautious.

    Assuming that subparagraph (d) is still in effect, it is silly in light of the current political situation when candidates for nomination are expected to announce early. Those who have not yet announced candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination are probably dead in the water.

    If subparagraph (d) did not bar the recent Republican debates, I can think of no reason why it should impact on the structural debate changes I suggested.

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