POLITICS
04/02/2013 04:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

Stuart Stevens Is Right: The Primary Debate System Must Be Destroyed Before It Destroys America

During the 2012 GOP primary season, which began sometime in the spring of 2011, there were a lot of candidate debates. We are talking something in the order of 20 candidate debates. It was an absolutely grim ordeal. And back then there was only one political party that needed the Hogwarts Sorting Hat to work out who its candidate was going to be. And it ended up being the candidate we all knew was going to win the nomination in the end.

In 2016, it won't just be the Republicans working through the process; the Democrats will be as well. This raises the question -- just how much abuse should we be expecting? Is it really reasonable to expect the nation to sit through 40 some-odd debates during the next election cycle?

No. That is some bulls**t.

Former Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, bless him, agrees that it would be just depraved to continue this trend:

This debate escalation is somewhere between silly and dumb and serves no public good. We pick a president with three general-election debates but it takes 20 debates to understand that maybe Ron Paul wants to blow up the Federal Reserve? Other important national questions are decided more expediently: it only takes 12 shows for The Bachelorette and The Bachelor to pick a mate.

The RNC report recommends cutting the number of debates in half and shortening the debating season. That’s a good start. But I think we should go further. To improve the quality of the debates and eradicate the commercial toxicity tainting the events, news organizations should get out of the business of sponsoring debates.

Now, I stop short of suggesting that "news organizations should get out of the business of sponsoring debates." I agree that it would be great if "a university, a think tank...partnered with state Republican parties or any voter group" took the reins of hosting and moderating the occasional debate, as Stevens suggests. But I still think there's a role -- if not a need -- for the media in the primary debating game.

My larger point is basically: SWEET MERCIFUL XENU, WE DO NOT NEED 20 OF THESE THINGS.

For the love of all that is holy, there is such a thing as the "law of diminishing returns," and in 2012, we kept returning and returning and returning to greater and greater diminishing. So, even if I part ways with Stevens on his suggestion that the media get out of the debate game altogether, I acknowledge that the media has brought this criticism on themselves, because they relentlessly sucked at their jobs and put a puke-worthy product on the air, again and again and again and again.

In 2012, there were network news debates and cable news debates. Weeknight debates and weekend debates. There were debates during the primaries, debates before the primaries, debates before Christmas, debates before Labor Day, and debates before the Ames Straw Poll.

ABC News hosted a debate on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in Manchester, N.H. Hours later, on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, NBC News hosted a debate in Concord, N.H. What was the point of this? Everyone was still processing the answers the candidates gave the night before! If only there was a moment when the people calling for debates realized that the whole thing had descended into a miasma of wretched excess.

The very first debate of the 2012 election season was May 5, 2011. This is who showed up: Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, wasn't even on hand. Three of those in attendance vacated the process before the primaries got cooking. Cain was widely held to have "won" the debate, which should tell you all you need to know about its overall utility.

There should never have been a debate that featured Tim Pawlenty, full stop. Pawlenty dropped out after he lost the Ames Straw Poll. The natural order of candidate-culling worked just fine. There was no need to put Pawlenty on a debate stage and trouble anyone in the world with the notion that he was a serious candidate.


Justin Green, who debates Howard Kurtz debating Stevens, in an all-Daily Beast free-for-all debate over debating, notes that the, "GOP field from 2012 can be fairly neatly divided into three camps: serious candidates, attention seekers, and cranks."

And the 2012 debate process actually impeded the serious candidates for the benefit of the opportunists and the hucksters, who used debate hype to temporarily balloon their poll numbers, and create the illusion that far more candidates were in contention than there actually were. All of those bubbles popped as quickly as they were inflated. That brief period of time where we thought Cain stood a chance at the nomination? That was a pure product of debate-induced hallucinations.

Oh, but debates should be inclusive, you argue? Every would-be candidate, no matter how obscure, should get a chance to debate? That might mean something to me if anyone was actually pursuing inclusivity. But as we saw, a number of fairly earnest candidates with decent political bona fides -- Buddy Roemer, Fred Karger, and, after a few brief appearances, Gary Johnson -- were simply excluded based on obscure, non-standardized "rules" involving poll results that seemed to change on a debate-by-debate basis.

But more to the point, what the debate cycle demonstrated was that inclusivity -- even the "select" inclusivity the debates used -- didn't actually reveal itself to be a virtue. What did we learn from Herman Cain, after the ninth time he offered his "9-9-9" incantation? What did we gain from Jon Huntsman being "included," beyond a quip about Kurt Cobain and the occasional demonstration of his facility with Mandarin Chinese -- a fact we could have simply divined from his Wikipedia page? If anything, the 2012 debate cycle made the case for exclusivity.

Stevens is absolutely correct when he says that the debates "have become phony entertainment spectacles" as opposed to "serious news events." And he goes on to rightly name the network that turned dumbing-down these debates into pop-art:

Here’s how CNN host Wolf Blitzer touted the Republican primary debate in September 2011, hosted by the tea party and the network:

“Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take part in a groundbreaking debate. The tea party support and the Republican nomination, on the line right now.”

In fairness to Blitzer, he wasn't the one who actually used that line, as you'll see in the video below. But if anything, Stevens is letting CNN off the hook! Let's watch the way CNN introduced the CNN/Tea Party Express debate from September 2011:

It looks and plays like the introduction to a reality-television show, sure. But it's also straight-up nonsensical. As you heard, the voice-over narrator (and voice-over narration is perhaps the ultimate in unnecessary debate accoutrements) says, "Tonight, eight candidates, one stage, one chance to take place in a groundbreaking debate." Seriously? One chance? By this point, they'd all been afforded six chances. They would go on to receive 15 more. CNN would air five of those debates. This is all just breathless nonsense ... and whoever greenlit the Michele Bachmann copy, about her "acing an early test in Iowa" (she successfully put more supporters on buses and sent them to the Ames Straw Poll ... really SERIOUS test!) and was now a "top-tier candidate" should be forced to etch, "said Michele Bachmann was a 'top-tier candidate'" on their headstone.

And CNN's weird introductions never got better. Check out the first three minutes of two of its late-stage debates, and you'll see that the silliness, if anything, escalated:

But as bad as CNN's reality-show nonsense was, it's not like anyone else exactly covered themselves in glory. With all these debates on the schedule, the most revelatory thing was just how little imagination the debate moderators had in terms of the questions they asked. In the constant-debate environment, questions got pegged to the Gaffe Cycle. Two-day nonsense stories were treated as primal political events. Stuff got meta: "What are your thoughts about this thing that happened in this other debate?" Ron Paul was sort of treated like comic relief -- time after time, the only reason he was engaged by the debate interlocutors at all was to get Paul's crankery front-and-center, or to get him into easy foreign policy fights with the other contenders. That's not being probative -- that's exploiting easy conflicts for cheap show-stoppers.

Frankly, with 20 debates on the schedule, all the questions that really needed to be asked of the candidates were asked by the time the ball dropped in Times Square. One got the sense, as one network's anchors passed the baton to another network's anchor, that no one wanted to mine the depths of any candidate's policy preferences. Instead, it was like everyone just wanted to notch their bedposts. George Stephanopoulos got to get the same "asked Romney about health care" merit badge as John King. Why bother to do better? There were no incentives to actually deliver a good debate, and so, very few good debates were delivered.

So, what to do about it? Again, I'm not as severe in my verdict as Stevens. I'm fine if news organizations stay involved in the process -- though CNN belongs on probation until it gets up to speed with the contemporary world beyond "poop cruises." Generally speaking, I'm with Justin Green on this: "Fewer debates in a less sexy setting with a smaller number of invited candidates." Boom, perfect. But, if you want some specifics, here are my prescriptives. Let me be clear: If they are followed, everything will be fine. If they are not followed, primary debates will continue to suck canal water.

1. Have substantially fewer debates. This is obvious. We can't have 40 debates in 2016. This is just unacceptable and humiliating to everyone involved and harmful for humankind in general. Stevens notes that in "1988 there were seven Republican primary debates." If we keep to that standard, we would have 14 debates, potentially, for both parties in 2016. That's more than enough. We will have our fill of debates.

2. No debates until the actual election year. Give the candidates the entire year before the election to do their campaigning. Don't put them in a room together to debate until the first primary is drawing nigh. (Should the Iowa Caucuses get pushed to Jan. 3, I'm prepared to give a little leeway.) There are some big benefits to waiting. First and foremost, it will clear out the opportunists and the hucksters -- without the debate stage as a hype catapult, they'll probably shy away from a pretend-commitment. (Remember: The purpose of hosting a debate is not to enable someone to establish a "political brand.") More importantly, lessening the frequency of debates, especially at the outset of the campaign season, improves the chances that dumb news-cycle cruft -- the occasional gaffes, the one-day stories -- will get left out of the debates. Which leads me to the next point.

3. Keep that dumb news-cycle cruft out of the debates! This is a good way to end the "what about your gaffes?" system of political reporting. By having fewer debates later in the cycle, it will provide incentives to keep things substantive. Asking after an August 2011 gaffe in February 2012 will feel like the opportunity cost that it really is. Fewer debates will give the media the opportunity to practice some judiciousness. The story that seemed so important two months ago that didn't stick around for more than 48 hours doesn't need to be asked after. The misstatement du jour doesn't have to be held in the same regard as the candidate's position on tax reform. And for Pete's sake -- if that "gaffe" is just the result of a candidate in the heat of the campaign searching for the right explanation, making a semantic or syntactical error, and we can all reliably say that the resulting statement is a matter of missed intent, surely our debate moderators can manifest the maturity necessary to not "play dumb" and turn the discourse into an idiot plot.

4. Put some thought into your questions. Think about the fact that there are going to be at least six other debates during the primary season. What questions do you imagine will be asked by your competitors? If you can imagine them, write them down. Then, don't ask those questions.

5. Cut the production budget by half. These debates need not be as lavish in their presentation. A well-lit podium and an adequate number of lecterns in a clean, comfortable space is fine. Yes, debates should be "good television," but the money spent on debates in 2012 did not, in fact, create "good television." It created "super crappy television." "Good television" is what should result from substantive questioning and the resulting exchanges, not gimcracks. The reliance of schmance staging and fancy lighting and superfluous technology sends the message that you can't actually make "good television" from the moment without a mess of razzle-dazzle eyewash. In any election year, the money you are spending on TV frippery is always, always, always better spent on deploying actual journalists to do actual journalism.

Finally, never ever ask any candidate for president of the United States what style of pizza crust they favor, OK? I mean, Jiminy damn Crickets, people.

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