Commentary Magazine


Topic: Republican presidential debates

Debate Cut Will Make for a Long, Hot GOP Candidate Summer

It turns out Fox News and CNN agree on something. The two cable news networks announced the rules for the Republican presidential debates they will be sponsoring respectively in August and September, and each will employ the same rule for determining who will be on the stage. Both have decided that the huge field of GOP candidates must be winnowed down to ten and that the criteria for determining their identity will be the average results of national opinion polls of the race. With the field expected to grow to as many as 19 candidates, those who don’t make the cut will be relegated to a debate of their own. Such a choice was inevitable since having them all on together would be a television nightmare as well as too unwieldy to let any of them have much of an impact. But in a race where the debates will likely be crucial to determining the course of the campaign, this will place a premium on activity during a period when most presidential candidates often lay low. That means that for those following the Republicans, it’s going to be a long and probably extremely hot and contentious summer.

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It turns out Fox News and CNN agree on something. The two cable news networks announced the rules for the Republican presidential debates they will be sponsoring respectively in August and September, and each will employ the same rule for determining who will be on the stage. Both have decided that the huge field of GOP candidates must be winnowed down to ten and that the criteria for determining their identity will be the average results of national opinion polls of the race. With the field expected to grow to as many as 19 candidates, those who don’t make the cut will be relegated to a debate of their own. Such a choice was inevitable since having them all on together would be a television nightmare as well as too unwieldy to let any of them have much of an impact. But in a race where the debates will likely be crucial to determining the course of the campaign, this will place a premium on activity during a period when most presidential candidates often lay low. That means that for those following the Republicans, it’s going to be a long and probably extremely hot and contentious summer.

As I wrote earlier this month, in a primary race with so many credible candidates the debates will be as important as they were during the 2012 cycle. Though the Republicans have cut them down from a mind-numbing 20 to a more manageable 11, the volume of candidates is going to make it harder for any of them to expand their appeal beyond core constituencies. That means scoring points in the debates will be just about the only way for them to make headway.

With not quite so many debates happening one after another as they did in the fall of 2011, the series probably won’t have the feel of a reality show series that it had last year. But the impact may be similar. Those who stand out, as Newt Gingrich and, on occasion, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum did last time, will see their standing rise. Those that fail on stage, as Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann (who got a boost from the debates but then faded amid her goofy claims about vaccines) did, will see their candidacies crash and burn.

But in order to make your mark, you’ll have to get onto the main stage, giving new meaning to the term “first tier” to distinguish the real contenders from the also-rans. Not getting into the first debates will be an effective death sentence for those in the second tier show. That will be the result not just of the smaller audience for the b-list candidates but because the loser label affixed to those who don’t make the cut will be difficult if not impossible to shake off.

What’s interesting about this is that if the debates were held now, the average of polls according to RealClearPolitics.com would leave relatively big names like Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham and John Kasich on the outside looking in. Rick Santorum is currently in the crucial tenth spot with 2.3 percent support while Kasich at 2 percent, Fiorina, Jindal and Graham all at 1.3 percent.

Those standings may not hold up as candidates jump in or opt out (as Kasich might). This could create a rather odd dynamic that will alter the usual way candidates behave. Rather than spending the summer of 2015 raising money and laying low, all of the candidates, including those like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker who have been mislabeled as frontrunners, are going to need to do everything in the power to boost their poll ratings. Rather than campaign activity starting slowly and then building in intensity, we may see a surge at the very start as candidates vie to get into the first tier debate.

This should be nerve-wracking for the candidates and exciting for the press and political junkies. But it should also provoke some anxiety among Republican leaders. There are candidates that may not have much chance to win but who are viewed as essential elements in building the Republican brand that may get left out. Fiorina is a classic example of such a candidate. The last thing the GOP wants is to have a top debate for the right to run against Hillary Clinton to be deprived of the one female Republican candidate, especially since Fiorina has specialized in torching the former First Lady. But unless Fiorina can somehow elevate her game in the next couple of months, she is a prime candidate for the b-list.

This also ought to deter some candidates with slim chances who are still dithering about running. Starting late used to mean not declaring until the end of the year before the presidential election. Now with a premium put on winning in early polls, it may be that anyone who hasn’t gotten in yet has simply waited too long.

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Debates, Not Money Will Winnow GOP Field

This is the week when an already crowded Republican presidential field really starts to fill up. One by Mike Huckabee will soon follow today’s announcements by Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Before long they will be joined by Governor Scott Walker and eventually as many as 20 candidates will be running for the GOP nomination. Not all of them are likely to be serious possibilities and the members of this week’s trio are all assumed to be long shots. But the cavalry charge of candidates heading to Iowa and New Hampshire creates a situation that renders moot much of the commentary we’ve been hearing about the race in the last six months. It’s no good talking about Jeb Bush or even Walker as frontrunners in a contest in which no one can boast of even 20 percent of the support of Republican voters and which most of those jumping in can raise enough money to stay in until the early states vote. For all of the necessary focus on who is doing the best at raising funds, it will be the debates and not the affections of big donors that will winnow this group down to the real contenders that will battle for the nomination next spring.

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This is the week when an already crowded Republican presidential field really starts to fill up. One by Mike Huckabee will soon follow today’s announcements by Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Before long they will be joined by Governor Scott Walker and eventually as many as 20 candidates will be running for the GOP nomination. Not all of them are likely to be serious possibilities and the members of this week’s trio are all assumed to be long shots. But the cavalry charge of candidates heading to Iowa and New Hampshire creates a situation that renders moot much of the commentary we’ve been hearing about the race in the last six months. It’s no good talking about Jeb Bush or even Walker as frontrunners in a contest in which no one can boast of even 20 percent of the support of Republican voters and which most of those jumping in can raise enough money to stay in until the early states vote. For all of the necessary focus on who is doing the best at raising funds, it will be the debates and not the affections of big donors that will winnow this group down to the real contenders that will battle for the nomination next spring.

With no votes to count and polls being of little use in gauging interest in a plethora of candidates who are not yet household names, it’s understandable that most of the reporting on the GOP contest has centered on the question of who is raising the most money. That was the whole point of Jeb Bush’s decision to jump in early last December when he embarked on a “shock and awe” campaign intended to make it clear to possible challengers that they wouldn’t have a chance to compete with him in fundraising. Bush’s effort was largely successful. In fact, it played a significant role in convincing Mitt Romney not to try again in spite of what appeared to be a clear inclination on his part to make a third attempt at the presidency. But while Bush did lock up the lion’s share of big Republican donors, he soon discovered that the universe of contributors to GOP presidential candidates is bigger than he thought. After Bush’s initial push, there were still more than enough such givers to fund Walker as well as others such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Nor, despite mainstream media coverage that makes it appear that the Koch Brothers and/or Sheldon Adelson will be Republican kingmakers, will the ultimate destination of the money currently in their pockets decide things.

That is where the similarities and the differences between the 2012 and 2016 races come into play.

There were also a lot of possible candidates thinking about the GOP nomination this time four years ago. But the reason why Mitt Romney ultimately cruised to victory is that most where neither serious nor able to raise enough money to make it to the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, let alone beyond that point. That is not the case this year both in terms of the level of the candidates as well as their ability to attract donors. This time, even the potential outliers like Carson or Huckabee seem to have a lot more on the ball and will probably survive until next winter when the voting starts.

And that is why the debates — the factor that was most important in helping to shape the 2012 race — may again be decisive. As Bush learned, money may be necessary to run a credible enough but in such a crowded field, it simply isn’t possible to raise enough to dominate and or knock off so many varied opponents. In a contest with no true frontrunner, it will be the debates that will define the candidates for the voting public.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election cycle, Republicans agreed that there were too many debates in the fall/winter of 2011-12. Indeed, the debates began to resemble a reality show more than Lincoln and Douglas. But even with the trimmed down schedule now planned, there will be no way for any of the contenders to make a splash without doing well on the debate stage. Just as important, the debates will be the crucible during which gaffes and unpreparedness will sink candidates faster than the displeasure of a large donor.

That’s why all talk of framing the race must be predicated on the notion that it won’t really begin until August 15 when the first such debate takes place in Cleveland and is broadcast by Fox News. Until then, the field will grow no matter how much or how little any of the would-be frontrunners take in from wealthy friends.

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Romney’s Ability to Knock Rivals Off Stride

I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

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I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

A case in point: The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports this:

Rick Santorum suspects something is up between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum had a tough night at the 20th, and likely last, Republican debate, held here at the Mesa Arts Center. He took a lot of attacks from Romney and a few from Paul, and he noticed that Paul and Romney didn’t seem to go after each other. When it was all over, and Santorum met reporters, he didn’t try to hide what he was thinking.

“You have to ask Congressman Paul and Gov. Romney what they’ve got going together,” Santorum said. “Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.”

“They’ve got something going on?” a reporter asked Santorum.

“You tell me,” Santorum said.

That’s an unfortunate thing for Santorum to say. The reason he did poorly was that fairly or not, Romney in particular nailed him to the “Washington Insider” mast, forcing Santorum to explain his votes on earmarks, Title X, No Child Left Behind, and his support for Arlen Specter. By the time the debate was done, Santorum came across as a typical rather than as a conviction politician. The post-debate hints of Romney-Paul coordination and conspiracy aren’t terribly credible — and even if they were, (a) it wouldn’t be inappropriate and (b) Santorum shouldn’t be the person dropping the hints.

We saw a slightly different version of this happen with Newt Gingrich, who was also pinned to the mat by Romney in a key couple of debates.

If the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee, the ability to frustrate an opponent to the point that they slip up and begin to whine may well come in handy against President Obama in the fall, as Obama is unusually arrogant and thin skinned. If Mitt Romney can do to him what he’s succeeded in doing to Gingrich and Santorum, it can only help his chances of becoming our next president.

 

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The Debate Show Was Good for Democracy

Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

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Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

How else would we have known Tim Pawlenty was incapable of telling Mitt Romney to his face that his health care bill was the inspiration for Obamacare, had not the former Minnesota governor choked on the phrase “Obamaneycare” when offered the chance to say it in a debate?

Would we have caught on to Rick Perry’s superficial grasp of the issues and his inability to articulate his vision without being able to see his various “oops” moments? The same goes for Herman Cain and his simplistic tax plan that he never could explain to anyone’s satisfaction.

Without the debates, how would we have learned about Michele Bachmann’s penchant for foolish exaggerations such as her claims about Perry’s Texas inoculation program?

The ebb and flow between the final four during the last few months has also been instructive. The debates gave us the best illustration of Romney’s single-minded zeal to batter his opponents no matter how hypocritical his stances on the issues might be. They’ve also shown us the best and worst of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as well as providing the nation with more than enough proof Ron Paul is not the sort of person who ought to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

If it has not always been riveting and was sometimes repetitive, nonetheless, the series gave us a window into the minds of every candidate who stepped on the stage even if the questions they were asked were often foolish or off the point. If, as became apparent early on, the public’s view of the candidates was largely shaped by the debates, this was all to the good, because it was based not on campaign propaganda or spin but a real-time evaluation of their performances in a highly stressful environment.

The debates could have been spaced out a bit more, but their cumulative impact served to increase public accountability. That’s exactly what our democracy needs more of. Let’s hope that in 2016 we get more of the same on both sides of the aisle.

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