Sunday, May 11, 2014

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: 2016 Presidential Debates

The Republican National Committee (RNC) has just acted to
reclaim control of the 2016 presidential television debates.

The 2012 debates were fascinating, but there were clearly
too many of them, and the media which hosted them
unfairly too often acted more like a prosecutor than an
impartial body of moderators. There was no contest for
the Democratic nomination in 2012, so all of the debates
took place on the GOP side.

Since their outset with the now legendary 1960 Nixon-Kennedy
debates, these events have served to introduce the candidates
to large audiences. More recently, the TV debates have not
only included the formal confrontation of the two (or
occasionally three) major party nominees, but also have
included the major contestants for the presidency during the
primary and caucus season leading up to the general election.
As well, a more recent addition has included the vice
presidential nominees in debate.

In 2016, there will be no incumbent president running, so
there will be an open contest in each party.

The 2012 debate experience included about 20 debates.
Lacking the major funding for his effort until very late in
the campaign, former Speaker New Gingrich dominated
most of the debates (except the vital Florida debate) and thus
put himself in serious contention, particularly in the debate
just before the South Carolina primary.

But Gingrich aside, the debates were too long and too many.
As Texas Governor Rick Perry discovered, one slip in his first
TV debate became so magnified he could not recover.
Sensational issues in the debate were not often the most
serious issues to be discussed. Frontrunners appeared in one
debate and faded in the next. Sometimes, it appeared more as
a soap opera, especially as biased moderators often intruded
in the debate.

Mr. Gingrich debate ascendance was no accident. He was a
student of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and in 2007
he organized a debate between himself and former New York
Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, at Manhattan’s Cooper
Union, the site where Lincoln had made a speech that
catapulted him to the Republican nomination in 1860. (In
full disclosure, I worked with Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Cuomo and
the debate staff in organizing that occasion.)

Perhaps more than any other aspirant in 2012, Mr. Gingrich had
the skills and the understanding of the psychology of TV
debates to perform best, and to emerge during them even
though he was not the frontrunner (as Mitt Romney was), or an
early caucus/primary winner. Another previously unknown
candidate, Herman Cain, also had early debate success, much
of it attributed to his personality.

Whatever I say about the RNC action, incidentally, equally
applies to the Democrats and their national committee.
Although Hillary Clinton is a heavy favorite at this time win
her party’s nod, there will no doubt be at least one or more
significant other Democratic presidential aspirants by the time
2016 arrives, and they, too, should be in discussion with the RNC
and the networks, about control of the debate calendar.
Furthermore, each party should have veto power over the
selection of the moderators of each debate, thus avoiding the
excesses of 2012.

Mr. Kennedy won the 1960 TV debates by a close shave, as it were,
and considering how close was the subsequent popular and
electoral vote that November, there can be little doubt that
presidential debates are important. In 2016, they might also be
critical to the outcome.

In an article I wrote with Mr. Gingrich for Real Clear Politics
in 2008, we argued that debate format also is very important.
The word “debate” is not really accurate in the formal sense
when TV presidential debates are discussed. They bear little
resemblance to formal debates of the past, including the
iconic Lincoln-Douglas debates. Of course, the environment
of television would not support classical debate formats, but
that does not prevent each party’s national committee insisting
on rules that will enhance the public awareness of 2016’s most
important issues, and how the individual candidates stand on
those issues.

Kudos to the RNC and its chairman for taking an important
first step to make the 2016 presidential debates fair, interesting
and useful. It is not insignificant that Mr. Gingrich, now the
emeritus leading expert on presidential debates, has endorsed
the RNC action (with the proviso, however, that the ability of a
lesser known, lesser funded candidate’s opportunity to emerge
from them be preserved). He also says, “The next step will be
for the two parties to eliminate the federal debate commission
and hold the Fall debates on their own terms.”

Mr. Gingrich also points out that the primary/caucus debates
are valuable in preparing the eventual nominee of each party
for the “tough” general election campaign. Although he did not
win the election, I think it is fair to say that Mitt Romney was
a much better candidate for his experience in the debates that
preceded his nomination.

This is precisely the moment for each party to act on and sort
out the issues of the presidential debates, and put an effective
and useful system in place in time for 2016.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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