The idea was to prevent chaos. Instead, efforts to control this season's Republican presidential primary debates have injected greater uncertainty into an already volatile process. With the first debate just a couple of months in the offing, and with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 candidates jockeying for position, the upcoming series of jousts is already beginning to resemble a survival-of-the-fittest reality show.
Here are five questions to consider as the Republicans gear up for what promises to be a debate season to remember:
1. How many debates are too many?
The driving factor behind this year's "reforms" was to reduce the number of debates -- and, by extension, to reduce the damage candidates do to each other and to the Republican brand as they clash before millions of viewers for months on end. In an effort to rein in the schedule, the Republican National Committee has called for a maximum of 12 party-sanctioned debates between August and next March. The RNC has said it will punish candidates who take part in non-sanctioned debates by barring them from the sanctioned events.
But are sanctions enforceable when it is the television networks, not the parties, that issue debate invitations? And even if sanctions could be enforced, would they deter candidates from grabbing whatever opportunities they can? Running for president means single-mindedly pursuing one's self-interest. The goals of the RNC may not square with the goals of individual contenders, particularly those in the lower tier with less to lose. Moreover, offers from potential media sponsors will abound, tempting office seekers who crave the coverage. Twelve debates would appear insufficient to accommodate the vast array of personalities in question.
2. How many candidates are too many?
For the first debate on Aug. 6, only 10 individuals will be allowed onstage. According to the Fox News Channel, which will sponsor the event, candidates must place among the top 10 in five national public opinion polls in order to be included. CNN, the sponsor of the second Republican debate a month later, has announced a different approach: a two-pronged debate, one part featuring the top 10 and another for those with lower poll standings.
Clearly, the Republicans face a mathematical challenge. When the pie must be split among multiple candidates, even a 90-minute debate allows for only thin slivers of exposure. Capping the numbers may somewhat control candidate sprawl, but as the months unfold and the winnowing process plays out, debate sponsors will be looking for reasons to reduce the cast of characters even further. This happens in every primary cycle -- the difference now is that the herd is being culled so early.
3. Does the new system privilege publicity hounds over serious contenders?
At this preliminary state of the game, making the top 10 is largely a matter of name recognition. This benefits celebrities like Donald Trump and Ben Carson at the expense of lesser-known but more plausible figures -- sitting governors and senators, for instance. If debate inclusion hinges on media visibility, there's a good chance that the also-rans will be tempted to do whatever they can to commandeer the spotlight, both as a way onto the debate stage and as a means of remaining there. In 2012 we saw how performance artists like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann siphoned attention away from the more serious candidates. The 2016 rules would seem to incentivize an even higher level of outrageousness.
4. What role will moderators and live audiences play?
Republicans squealed mightily about the journalists who moderated in 2012; already they have claimed the scalp of news personality George Stephanopoulos, whose donations to the Clinton Foundation have disqualified him from moderating ABC News' 2016 Republican debate. But apart from that unexpected takedown, the RNC seems to have backed off its previously expressed demand for conservative-friendly questioners. And appropriately so, if these events are to have any credibility.
At this point it is unclear how on-site audiences will factor into the 2016 equation. The lynch mob spectators of 2012, who booed a gay soldier and cheered the prospect of patients dying for lack of health insurance, lent a creepy, extremist flavor to the Republican presidential debates. It appears that the decision to feature live audiences will be left to the sponsoring networks -- and because live audiences can add narrative conflict, these sponsors will undoubtedly insist on their inclusion.
5. As a result of the changes, will the eventual Republican nominee emerge any less battered?
Party leaders believe that Mitt Romney's endurance run of two dozen primary debates in 2012 left him bloodied and debilitated heading into the general election campaign -- damage sustained by friendly fire. Of course, a counterargument can also be made that Romney's primary debate experience provided excellent preparation for going toe-to-toe with President Obama. Romney's decisive victory over Obama in their first encounter underscores the value of toning one's debate muscles in advance of the main event, however unpleasant the task may be.
In the final analysis, it isn't the number of debates that determines a nominee's strength or weakness. It isn't the number of men and women on the stage, or the moderator's questions, or live audience reaction, or format details. What matters are the candidates themselves: their words, their comportment, and their ability to thrive in the inherently unstable environment of a group debate. Republican attempts to wrap the debaters in a security blanket may be understandable, but the live, unscripted nature of the beast will invariably triumph. That's why we watch.
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