Want to Fix the Debates? Look to the Gipper

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You can’t pick up an op-ed page these days without getting whacked in the face with yet another idea for “fixing” the GOP primary debates. As Longtime Sharp VodkaPundit Readers™ know, and as my liver could tell anyone else, the debates are in serious need of a fix. The style of the 2012 debate cycle was to cram the stage with enough candidates to serve as an Electric Light Orchestra road crew, then have them repeat as many rehearsed talking points as possible in each 60-second response, in the cadence of a coked-up jackrabbit.

If ecstasy has an exact chemical opposite, I’m pretty sure it was in the bottled water at those “debates.”

The second-best fix I’ve seen is from Ben Domenech, who gleefully suggested one simple trick: “Shoot the moderator.” And in the wake of Stephanopoulosgate, who wouldn’t want to do just that? Here’s more from Ben:

Here’s how a debate would work if you cut that out: candidates would debate an actual topic for an extended amount of time – say three topics with three questions in a policy space over an entire 90 minute debate (for example, a foreign policy debate where the questions concern what to do about ISIS, what to do about Russia, and what to do about the NSA, or an economic debate about taxes, trade, and Too Big To Fail). With 12 candidates speaking in that time period, they’re still only going to get two and a half minutes on each topic – but without a moderator, candidates are more likely to be drawn into debates with the people on the stage who disagree with their views. In a more free-flowing debate, there is no Wolf Blitzer to cut things off, and the confrontations will be more extended – but I expect also more substantive, as arguments will be more extended, gotcha questions eliminated, and the need to have quick quips as a substitute for a point will not be as pressing.

This harkens back to the best American presidential debate I’ve ever seen: Bruce Babbitt vs Pete DuPont in 1988. Two men, two chairs, two glasses of water, and a 90-minute free-form discussion of issues between two serious and well-informed candidates.

When I say “best debate,” I mean that only as someone who enjoys watching real debates. It’s more difficult to determine how much good the format did for the actual candidates, because neither former President DuPont nor former President Babbitt would return any of my calls.

This brings us to Dan Henninger in today’s WSJ:

One answer, as so often, lies with Ronald Reagan’s template. In 1980, Reagan’s campaign paid for the New Hampshire primary debate. “I am paying for this microphone.” Reinvent the Reagan model.

In addition to the traditional debates, the candidates or their supporters should underwrite a series of smaller debate/conversations. Divide the 19 into groups of four or five candidates, randomly selected. Pick the issues, and go at it. Give voters a chance to see who these mostly interesting people are and how their minds work outside the confines of a 60-second timer.

The moderator’s job would be to break clinches. Other than that, let ’em have at it. People say they “like” Scott Walker for what he did in Wisconsin. Agreed. Let’s see how he handles himself over 10 rounds with three other Republicans before climbing into the big ring with Mrs. Clinton.

This is a lovely idea, although I’m not certain Henninger has taken it quite far enough. Yes, allow each candidate to “buy” their own debates — but also let each candidate determine their own format, location, and opponents. “I am paying for this microphone!” indeed.

I’d love to see Rick Perry or Ted Cruz host their own Super Tuesday-themed debate, with all the southern candidates invited. Even more interesting might be a Silicon Valley-based debate, hosted by Carly Fiorina at San Francisco’s Moscone Center and featuring younger, tech-savvy candidates like Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker. Thinking even further outside the box, perhaps the RNC could host a parallel series of debates, each limited to a rotating selection of five candidates — two A-list pols and three B-list candidates. The big names would draw in the viewers, while allowing the lesser-knowns to compete toe-to-toe without getting lost on a crowded stage.

And then there’s my ideal forum. Imagine Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and Donald Trump in a titanic three-hour free-for-all, moderated by John McCain and held on a giant cruise ship which would then be torpedoed several times by a Virginia-class nuclear attack sub lying in wait. Special Forces deep-sea divers armed with poison spearguns would be at the ready, just in case.

I know, I’m a dreamer — but I’m not the only one.

So what would you do to fix the GOP debates?