This past week the Republican National Committee announced its preliminary debate rules for the 2016 Presidential election. The RNC wants the networks to limit the number of contenders on the stage, asking the media to focus more on the “real contenders” and not on the dark horses or long shots. The only gauge offered in determining who might be a real contender and who might be the long shot is each candidate’s standing in the national polls immediately before the scheduled debate. This is a terrible idea, and counter to a free and open election.
This is not just a Republican issue, but one that will affect all future elections. Granted we cannot have 20 people up on the stage at one time, nor should we allow those candidates that are only focused on the theatrics of running for president (I’m looking at you, Vermin Supreme). Debates are one of three clear opportunities in which the voters have control over the decision process for selecting the next president of the United States. To surrender our responsibility to an undisciplined and often unreliable national media is foolhardy. To rely so heavily on the edicts of the party apparatus and a compliant media will only serve to further alienate the people from the process.
The other danger in this process is that it weakens the vital role that New Hampshire plays in the presidential election. New Hampshirites have served the primary process well, asking hard questions and pushing candidates beyond the sound bites. If we allow the national media and national political parties to seize more control over the primary process, candidates will run their campaigns to increase their national name recognition, foregoing retail politics and crucial face to face encounters with the voters, which are the real difference makers when determining who is best suited to move into the White House.
Accepting the RNC debate rules, or for that matter the Democratic Party’s debate rules that limit the number of debates, is as dangerous as eliminating the electoral college. Small states become insignificant, while the fate of the primary process falls to the whim of the campaigns that can mount an effective advertising blitzkrieg to increase their name recognition. At the same time campaigns will feel the increased pressure to escalate a negative campaign approach against the opposition. How is this in any way good for our electoral process? The answer to this rhetorical question is clear: it is not.
No offense to Wolf Blitzer, Brett Baier, Candy Crowley, or every other potential moderator, but we voters have allowed the media and the political parties to dictate too much control over this process. During each election cycle, the political parties spend more time trying to protect their candidates, while the media introduces more exaggerated gimmicks (love the Youtube Snowman!) in an effort to appear fresh and relevant. Additionally, there is a disconnect because each media entity has almost free rein to determine the content of the debates. Each media conglomerate tries to upstage the other. What we as viewers/voters walk away with is soundbite politicking. Substance is lost because instead of having each debate focus on one topic, media outlets try to cram all the topics into each debate (which often includes their own pet peeves — policy biases). Enough is enough. Now is the time to rethink the debate process, and deliver the debates back to the voters.
My first suggestion is to get rid of the notion that all the candidates have to be on the stage at the same time. The content of the answer does not diminish due to the quantity of people on the stage. The content of the answer is diminished because of the quality of the time allowed. Short of Lincoln-Douglass style debates (which are not only doable, but awesome), you can divide the candidates into small roundtable groups. The roundtable groups would be comprised of a random selection process. The random selection could be designed so that what some perceive to be the top tier candidates and those identified as dark horses would be co-mingled for each roundtable debate.
My second suggestion is to let the local media play a larger role in the debate process. New Hampshire has a strong local media presence. Big media names are a distraction, but the New Hampshire press is better suited to lead the debates because they are on the ground every day listening to not only the candidates, but the voters. The Seacoast Media Group (publisher of this paper), WMUR (TV), NH Public Radio, WBIN (TV), iHeart Media (WGIR), The New Hampshire Union Leader, Concord Monitor and Garrison City Broadcasting (WTSN) are more than capable of working together to present a series of debates that are not only more focused on all the candidates and their polices, but the needs of the voters.
Ronald Reagan once said of political parties, “Any organization is in actuality only the lengthened shadow of its members. A political party is a mechanical structure created to further a cause. The cause, not the mechanism, brings and holds the members together. And our cause must be to rediscover, reassert and reapply America’s spiritual heritage to our national affairs.” The cause of the primary should be that which is determined by the people, of all political persuasions, not the Democratic Party, the GOP, or the national media.