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Six Ways to Fix These Painfully Embarrassing GOP Primary Debates

The "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 A debate was held on, as I recall, the issue "Resolved, Gus Hall's Invitation to Address the Union Should be Withdrawn."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 Hall's invitation was accordingly withdrawn.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, healthcare, 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 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.

Sometimes a bit of self-effacing humor works.

Nevertheless, usually it's best to focus on the guy who's actually causing the problems.

Focusing principally on President Obama, rather than on each other, would be quite useful, not only in deciding which is the Republican candidate most likely to win the election and ultimately to succeed in office, but also in setting out plainly how the various candidates satisfactorily embody Republican values. What are those values? The candidates should tell us what they think they are. The keynote speaker and the debating candidates could prepare more effectively than for the recent debacles debates, knowing the limited nature of the topic. A debate on governmentally mandated medical insurance, for example, would not likely devolve into arguments about something at best tangential to the subject, such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell or why one thinks himself the most capable candidate for unrelated reasons.

Although "winning" points in a debate is fun, that should not be the purpose. The purpose should be to express positions to the point that they can be understood by those watching; not characterizations of positions as expressed in short soundbites and bumper stickers.

Whoever is elected president will need great skill in formulating and articulating his positions, not in beating around the bush, not in mouthing platitudes, and not in elevating high sounding but substantively meaningless rhetoric over all discernible substance. A master of meaningless rhetoric, President Obama is a failure in formulating, articulating, and defending even unsound positions;  it shows in his declining relationships not only domestically but also with the country's allies and enemies. His multiple failures will ultimately be the most critical issues in the upcoming campaign and it will be important, now, to see how the candidates will respond to them and how likely they are to defeat President Obama. That should be a focus in the debates.

We need an effective candidate who best holds what most of us consider sound Republican values, who is the most likely to be elected, and who is the most likely to turn the country away from her current disastrous course. The current debate format does not permit that to be done adequately.

One note on Herman Cain:

I was delighted to see his recent rise in the polls, hope that progression continues, and that he is nominated.  Although it is said that his main expertise is in running a business, the microeconomic aspects of doing so have been largely neglected in recent years; the emphasis has been placed instead on macroeconomics; the results have been unfortunate and the economic outlook for the United States has suffered tremendously. I would sooner vote for Mr. Cain than for most of the others.  He has many virtues which outweigh his race.  The constant meme in conservative circles that he is black and that that is a good thing puts a false spin on why he should be nominated and elected.  A candidate's race should be considered irrelevant. To emphasize it is counterproductive and can give the appearance of legitimacy to the emphasis placed upon it during and leading up to the 2008 elections.

Thumbnail illustrating image courtesy of Catalin Petolea / Shutterstock