A political debate is supposed to be an opportunity for candidates to outline their public policy views, challenge the other candidates’ positions, and win over supporters to their respective cause. Unfortunately, the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates have continued a growing trend in recent years where political debates have been as much about the debate moderators and their conduct as they have been about the actual candidates and their views. It’s time to reassess the purpose of these debates, and find new people to moderate them.
In 2012, CNN’s Candy Crowley decided it was not enough that Barack Obama debate Mitt Romney. Crowley moved from the moderator’s chair to debate participant by claiming Romney was wrong and Obama was right about how the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya had been characterized by President Obama shortly after the attack. In doing so, Crowley delivered a two-for: She violated the rules of the debate, and later admitted that Romney was, “right in the main.”
This presidential cycle’s controversy started in the first Republican debate when Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked her now infamous question of Donald Trump concerning his alleged derogatory statements about women, and how those comments might be used against him by Democrats in the future. It’s a fair question, but it’s not for Kelly to ask in that format, unless she is the one set to debate Trump and the other candidates.
Kelly’s question to Trump seems quaint in comparison to what the moderators at the CNBC Republican debate put forward this past Wednesday night with their consistently hostile and obnoxious questions of the candidates. From the moderators’ equating Trump’s candidacy to a comic book character, to their condescending lecture to Marco Rubio on managing his personal finances and having the nerve to run for president in the first place, to challenging the basic math skills of Ben Carson, to rudely interrupting Chris Christie, and much more; a viewer of the debate would be excused for thinking they had tuned into a version of Hell’s Kitchen, the Beltway Chronicles.
The conventional critique in the media of the CNBC debate moderators has been that while tough and probing questions are expected, the particular questions and the manner in which they were asked were too often out-of-bounds. This analysis assumes that “tough questions” are the appropriate standard, but this fundamentally misses the point of a debate. A debate is not a probing interview, and the role of a debate moderator is not to display a command of the issues evidenced by questions designed to leave the candidates baffled and the audience breathless.
A political debate is supposed to be between the office seekers. The moderator’s job is to enforce the rules of the debate, ensure the participants have an opportunity to be heard, and keep the proceedings moving for all involved. Voters tuning into a presidential debate do not care what journalists or pundits serving as moderators think on the issues. When sparks fly it should be between the candidates, and not between the candidates and the moderators. When the latter happens, the moderator has failed to do the job.
Having debated homeland security issues on various college campuses, I can say that a great debate is one where the participants and what they said and did are the next day’s story, and no one even remembers who the moderators were. Unfortunately, it may be too much to ask of today’s celebrity media personalities to abide by that view in political debates, but there is no edict that political debates must be moderated by journalists.
During the primary debates let each political party set the ground rules and topics and choose the moderators. It is, after all, an event designed to help the party select a nominee for the general election. To the extent cable news or other outlets wish to broadcast the proceedings they can do so, but broadcasting should not be seen as a license to demand moderating the event.
This year the Republican debates in particular have been television ratings bonanzas. With that comes leverage for the Republican Party to make changes in the formats of televised debates. Both the Trump and Carson campaigns used that leverage to ensure the recent CNBC debate was 2 hours in total, and not 3 hours, by threatening to boycott a 3 hour show. CNBC wanted the extra hour for advertising revenue. Going forward, if a media outlet refuses to accept changes, simply stream the debate live on You Tube and other means, and cut the press out of the process completely.
For the general election it will be a tougher issue to change the status quo. Democrats are less likely to agree to changes as they have far fewer problems with the media during debates, and in general, since most journalists are Democrats or at least liberals/progressives. But it takes two to tango, and come the 2016 presidential debates next fall, the Republican nominee has to do a better job of negotiating who the debate moderators will be, or risk having to debate two people instead of one come game time. When picking those potential moderators, candidates from both parties should not limit themselves to those from the fourth estate.