According to an internal e-mail intercepted by Politico, the Republican National Committee is hoping to sponsor its own series of primary debates during the upcoming 2012 presidential campaign. The principal motive appears to be financial: by requiring participants to attend party fund-raisers in conjunction with each debate, the cash-strapped RNC sees a way to monetize its candidates' efforts. The secondary motive is control: by staging the programs themselves, the party gets to determine the number of debates, their length and format, the participants, moderators, and all other pertinent details.
On both counts, this is a supremely bad idea. For starters, debates represent one of the few aspects of modern presidential campaigns free from the taint of money. Linking these events with fund-raising undermines the traditional role of debates as civics lessons, designed with the intent of helping voters make informed choices. Political campaigns are already too financially oriented; let's keep our presidential debates about ideas, not cash.
The prospect of RNC-sponsored debates is troubling in another way. Successful debate sponsors must bring two qualities to the table: independence and clout. The party may have clout with its candidates, but its utter lack of independence poses major problems. Letting Republican apparatchiks produce their own debates reeks of self-serving state-run television at its worst. The goal will not be to create superior debates for viewers, but rather to protect the candidates and the party from being cast in an unfavorable light.
Sponsorship is always a tricky issue in campaign debates, because organizing any such high-profile contest is inevitably fraught with peril. As a rule, candidates do not like to debate, which means their advisors go to ridiculous lengths to ensure ground rules that minimize risk. A debate sponsor must be strong enough to push back against these attempts to micromanage. With the RNC as sponsor, the negotiations would be more collaborative in nature than adversarial.
Since Kennedy and Nixon first went before the cameras in 1960, American presidential debates have taken place under several types of sponsorship arrangements. For general election match-ups, the independent Commission on Presidential Debates has led the charge since 1988. Over time the Commission has strengthened its position vis-à-vis the campaigns, minimizing the problematic "debate over debates" that rears its ugly head each election cycle. During the primary campaign season, debates are typically sponsored by media outlets, sometimes in partnership with other news organizations or political, academic, or civic organizations.
Each arrangement offers its advantages and disadvantages. Media outlets usually have enough power to negotiate as equals with the candidates, but network-sponsored debates too often become about showcasing in-house talent instead of highlighting the candidates. When news organizations sponsor debates, the aim is to generate sound bites, not sustain an enlightened, long-form political discussion. Remember the obnoxious ABC News debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, the one in which the audience booed the moderators for fixating on irrelevant personal questions?
Yet party sponsorship is an even worse idea. In an RNC-sponsored debate, who would ask the questions: that hard-hitting journalist Sean Hannity? Master interrogator Glenn Beck? Ann Coulter? Joe the Plumber? What would the topics be? Safe Republican talking points, or controversial but important issues? How much spontaneity could possibly exist when the people producing the debate are also in the business of promoting the participants?
In a field of contenders that has yet to come into focus, as with the 2012 Republicans, the public relies on debates to differentiate among candidates. Voters deserve to see these would-be presidents in a legitimately competitive setting, defending their positions, responding when challenged, distinguishing themselves from their rivals. What voters don't need is a debate sponsor with a direct stake in the outcome of the race.