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Debating the Debates

Blessed (or cursed) with so many White House dreamers, Republicans are desperately trying to figure out how to conduct a debate purge.

May 19, 2015

Not since the days when cigar smoke wafted to the rafters of convention halls and every governor not under indictment fancied himself a favorite son candidate for president has a party been blessed (or cursed) with so many White House dreamers. The official Republican ballot for the Iowa Straw Poll lists 36 names with room for write-ins. A conservative estimate comes up with 15 likely GOP presidential contenders with serious political pedigrees or money. And that, mercifully, does not count Donald Trump.

With the first televised presidential face-off slated for Cleveland on August 6, the GOP is desperately trying to figure out how to conduct a debate purge. “I think there’s a consensus to cap it between nine and twelve,” said New Hampshire’s Steve Duprey, who heads the Republican Party’s debate committee. Late last week at the spring meeting of the Republican National Committee (RNC), there was talk of criteria for inclusion in debates like poll ratings, money raised (including by Super PACs) and even the number of paid staffers. As Sean Spicer, the spokesman for the RNC put it, “This is like splitting an atom. If it were easy, it’d be figured out already.”

In times of crisis, Republicans normally ask themselves, “WWRRD?” That is, “What would Ronald Reagan do?” But the Gipper’s message from beyond the grave is unequivocal: Be careful, very careful, when you try to exclude anyone from debates.

Republicans still thrill at Reagan’s line, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” But what has been lost in the mists of time are the circumstances that prompted this ad lib, which was borrowed from Spencer Tracy in the movie, State of the Union.

Before the 1980 New Hampshire primary, Reagan had agreed to meet his principal challenger George Bush in a two-man debate sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph. But when the Federal Election Commission ruled that renting the hall for just two candidates would be an illegal campaign contribution by the newspaper, the Reagan campaign agreed to pick up the $3,500 cost. So it was indeed Reagan’s microphone.

Nervous about excluding anyone, Reagan on the morning of the debate invited four other candidates (Howard Baker, Bob Dole, John Anderson and Phil Crane) to join him on stage with Bush. When Reagan tried to bring out the other candidates, both Bush and the debate moderator Jon Breen of the Nashua Telegraph objected. Breen, in fact, went so far as to order the technicians to turn off Reagan’s microphone. That led to his famous response line, although in his fury Reagan mangled Breen’s name as “Mr. Green.”

In the end, the Nashua Four (as the Washington Post dubbed them) were limited to making brief closing statements after Reagan and Bush debated. But the moral for today’s Republicans is how the furor over the excluded foursome dominated the press coverage of the debate. Anderson called the evening a “travesty” and Dole snarled, “George Bush torpedoed us tonight…He had better find himself another party.”

The RNC may try to skirt controversy by deferring to Fox News (the sponsor of the opening-gun Cleveland debate) over which candidates to include and exclude. But is it really in the best interests of both the Republican Party and electoral fairness to grant so much additional power to Roger Ailes’ network? A new study by Bruce Bartlett, who served in both the Reagan and (George H.W.) Bush administrations, stresses that Fox News already hurts the GOP by forcing it to the right by spewing partisan venom in the quest for ratings.

But resorting to rigid numerical criteria for debates is also a formula for disaster. Current polling would exclude two-term Ohio Governor John Kasich, three-term South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, long-time Texas Governor Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses and Mitt Romney’s most determined primary opponent. (The four of them could put on quite a rumpus at the debate site). It would also create a Catch-22 situation worthy of the novel: The only way to rise in the polls is to do well in the debates. But to participate in the debates, you have to rise in the polls.   

With many candidates waiting until June to announce, fund-raising totals (even small-donor giving) would be misleading. With candidates reporting to the FEC quarterly, there would be no reliable gauge of how much money was raised after June 30. Also, small donations tend to reflect poll numbers this early in the game, which makes them just another way to measure name identification.

Efforts to separate candidates into two neat piles marked “Serious” and “Frivolous” is a ridiculous exercise, especially when attempted months in advance of the Iowa caucuses. In October 2007, only John McCain and Mike Huckabee agreed to attend a debate sponsored by AARP in Sioux City, Iowa. The resulting story in the Sioux City Journal was headlined, “Top GOP candidates snub forum” and it began with a mournful opening line, “No Rudy Giuliani, no Fred Thompson, no Mitt Romney.” As for the two minor candidates who did show up in Sioux City, Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa caucuses and McCain swept to the nomination.

So what should today’s Republicans do with all the plausible candidates they reckon by the dozens?

No network, alas, would dare to embrace the ultimate free-market solution: Invite all the candidates to the debate and then after the introductions, the moderator would stroll off stage with these words, “I will be gone, but our cameras will be rolling for the next 90 minutes. Since you all see yourselves as leaders of the nation, you are invited to display your leadership skills by working out a fair way to debate the issues facing America.”

Another equitable, albeit limited, approach would be hold an all-candidate debate based on a single issue that would not be revealed in advance. Maybe the topic would be containing Iran or finding a Republican solution to the dilemma of Americans without health-care coverage. A skillful moderator might be able to prompt thoughtful answers without letting the candidates lapse into set speeches. To be avoided at all costs are gimmicks like, “Raise your hand if you want to drive a stake through the heart of Obamacare.”

The best alternative would be to create something called, “Debate Night in America.” Instead of the comic spectacle of fifteen contenders standing at dueling lecterns, the sponsoring network would hold shorter five-candidate debates. The trick here would be to guarantee that the five-way heats would be selected randomly rather than by TV ratings. It would be wrong if Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker all were debate at 8:00, while the late-night festivities would feature George Pataki and Bobby Jindal.  

But maybe we place too much weight on the importance of debates — particularly at the beginning of the race — in choosing a president. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who also served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, recalled that in all the 2012 GOP debates, he received exactly one question touching on China policy. As he laughingly told me in a recent interview, “And I had 30 seconds to answer.”

Twelve years before John Kennedy and a badly shaved Richard Nixon met in the studios of WBBM-TV in Chicago to make political history in 1960, more than 40 million voters tuned in their radios to hear the first presidential debate in American history. On the eve of the 1948 Oregon Republican primary, Tom Dewey and Harold Stassen debated a single issue: “Should the Communist Party be outlawed in America?”

Dewey, the New York governor and the 1944 GOP nominee, took the civil-libertarian position arguing that outlawing a political party would be “the surrender of everything we believe in.” Stassen, the former “Boy Governor” of Minnesota, called for banning the Communist Party on the grounds that “they are actually fifth columns, they are Quisling cliques.”

There was no studio audience for the debate, just a small group of technicians and campaign advisers backstage. That’s why one of the few people present at the creation of the modern debate tradition was Stassen’s top adviser on the Communist menace—Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy.

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.