How We Improved the GOP Debates

Wall Street Journal
July 26, 2015

As the start of the Republican presidential-primary debates approaches next month, there has been a great deal of discussion about the formats. In the weeks since Fox News and CNN released the criteria for the first debates airing on their networks, the debates themselves have become a source of debate.

But let’s step back for a moment and add some context to the discussion. In 2008 there were 23 GOP debates; in 2012 there were 20, and the first debate of that cycle occurred in May 2011. Most observers concluded after the 2012 election that the packed debate schedule was a disservice to the candidates—and, more important, to the voters. The schedule kept candidates off the campaign trail, robbing them of time that otherwise could have been spent meeting with voters, listening to their concerns and trying to earn their support.

There was also frustration about debate hosts and moderators, some of whom had concocted bizarre and irrelevant questions.

So the Republican National Committee, where I work, decided to take action—to do what it could within the law to achieve three goals.

First, we sought to give the process predictability so that candidates would know the schedule in advance and could spend more time meeting with voters and taking part in other forums where they could engage in longer, more in-depth discussions. We succeeded in doing that with a schedule that includes one debate a month starting in August and then two a month beginning in 2016, for a total of nine televised debates.

Second, we wanted to add an element of conservative media to the debates. We have succeeded in that as well. NBC is partnering with National Review, CNN is partnering with Salem Radio, and ABC is partnering with the Independent Journal Review. This ensures that the concerns of grass-roots Republicans will be more likely to be addressed.

Third, we wanted to spread the debates into more states so that they were not concentrated in only a handful. We have done so. The nine scheduled debates will take place in nine different states, and that will bring more people into the process.

But now some observers, in and out of the campaigns, have expressed concern about the criteria used to determine who will appear onstage for the first two debates.

It is important to acknowledge that the networks and the networks alone are responsible for determining such criteria. Federal election law states that only two types of entities may host a debate: a 501(c)(3) organization or a media outlet. The Republican National Committee is neither. It is therefore up to the staging organization to set the criteria and the format. Those who call on the RNC to change the criteria misunderstand the law.

Such criteria must be clear, transparent, objective and neutral. No special exemptions can be made; special treatment cannot be given to certain candidates. Fox News and CNN have met these standards.

Right now the Republican Party suffers from an abundance of riches when it comes to the historic quantity of quality candidates: They can’t fit on one stage. The maximum of 10 candidates appearing on a debate stage for 2016 matches the highest for debates in either party. Fox News and CNN have taken it upon themselves to guarantee second debates for the declared Republican candidates not in the top 10. So to everyone who says “let them debate,” the top 16 candidates will debate. Is the arrangement perfect? No. It is, however, the most inclusive setup in history.

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