Never before in the relatively brief history of televised presidential politics have debates been so important as in the current GOP campaign. Yet, through six lengthy debates precious little has been learned.
Consider three issues about which all Americans should be concerned: climate change, race relations and education. The two GOP frontrunners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have never been asked about any of them.
Here’s the boxscore: In the first debate Ben Carson and Scott Walker (who has since dropped out) were questioned about race. In two debates, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich were asked about education. And, over the course of three debates, questions concerning climate were put to Rubio, Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Such random, at times chaotic, questioning produces plenty of heat but little light.
With the seventh GOP debate scheduled for Jan. 28, a few days before the Iowa caucuses, perhaps hosts from Fox News Channel can find a way to deliver more substance. They should avoid the approach taken by CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla in the third debate when he began by asking each candidate to name his “biggest weakness.” The answers were breathtakingly meaningless (Trump: “I trust people too much”; Cruz: “I’m a fighter”).
The sheer number of candidates, coupled with the moderators’ desire to be topical and edgy, makes “debate” a misnomer. The events have been more like talk-show interviews, with questions tailored to each candidate - sometimes quite combatively.
In the first debate Fox’s Megyn Kelly went after Trump by saying, “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals’...Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president...?” By the third debate, CNBC’s John Harwood challenged Trump with such gusto that even some Democrats took exception. Harwood asked Trump if he was conducting “a comic book version of a presidential campaign.”
Moderators have often tried to pit candidates against each other. For instance, the first question in the second debate had CNN’s Jake Tapper asking Fiorina to respond to a statement made by Bobby Jindal about Trump. Moments later, Tapper’s first question to Bush was: “Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?” Each time Trump had to be given a chance to respond - pushing things farther off course.
In upcoming debates it would be wise to avoid confronting one candidate with the remarks of another. Also, hosts should shorten their questions (some, such as those by FNC’s Bret Baier, have exceeded 100 words).
They might also consider these format changes:
-Have opening statements focus on a single topic, such as the minimum wage.
-Drop all social media questions. Networks seem determined to prove they are connected to the social media scene, but the few questions that have made it on the air have tended to be forced, superficial and distracting.
-Close the candidates’ microphones 10 seconds after their time expires. Such action will finally keep them on the clock, while also curbing the many unwelcome interruptions.
-Abandon the “you were mentioned” rebuttal rule. While it seems fair to give candidates a chance to defend themselves when mentioned by an opponent, the rule is being abused and wastes too much time.
-Use one moderator and two fact-checkers. A single host can ask the questions while two colleagues monitor backstage. For the final 30 minutes, have them take over the questioning, with factual challenges to what was said earlier.
In this election cycle the GOP has already accomplished the difficult task of piquing voters’ interest. Now, much would be gained if candidates and moderators put aside the brass knuckles and got down to brass tacks.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker