Much like everything else in the GOP primary, the candidate debates — the first of which is two weeks from tonight — are afflicted with a case of Trump-itis. The thought of Donald Trump getting onto the stage while more thoughtful candidates are stuck watching from home is causing consternation among party officials and glee among those who would rather watch Trump harangue the other candidates in primetime than see someone like Carly Fiorina or John Kasich get a mic and raise her/his profile.
The format for that first debate, to be aired Aug. 6 on Fox News from Cleveland, site of the 2016 GOP convention, was set to include the top 10 candidates according to an average of five national polls. Having described yesterday why national primary polls are pretty much useless, and while understanding why debate organizers wanted to limit the field to a not-completely-unwieldy number, I think that’s a shame, for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with Trump. The standard debate format — journalists ask a question which everyone on stage gets to answer, after a long-winded opening statement and before a long-winded closing statement, with a chance for rebuttals when one candidate attacks another — is unhelpful for much of anything besides the sound-bite politics everyone claims to hate. It lends itself to the politics-as-entertainment that has put Trump atop some opinion polls. I don’t know if it’s too late for that first debate, but in the debates that follow I’d much rather see the following format.
The 16 most-recognized candidates — sorry, Jim Gilmore — are all invited to a two-hour debate. They are divided into four groups according to the polls, but they are not set apart by tiers. Rather, each group has someone from the top four candidates, someone from the next highest quartet, and so on. That way each group has a mixture, and viewers keen to see all the top candidates will have an incentive to watch the whole event. As an example, you could have the following groups:
1. Trump, Benjamin Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina
2. Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal
3. Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Kasich, Lindsey Graham
4. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, George Pataki
(Tell me you wouldn’t want to see folks like Trump and Christie, or Bush and Paul, or Walker and Kasich, or Rubio and Cruz, together in small groups like those!)
There are no opening statements. Instead, each group is randomly assigned (well before the debate) a topic such as foreign policy or the economy, and each candidate gets to start (in an order chosen by drawing numbers) a three- to four-minute discussion among the group about a specific point or question within that topic. (I’m making a guess as to how much air time time there would be for each segment once commercials and the usual introductions were factored in.) Then each candidate would get one minute as a kind of closing statement. Go to commercial, get the next group settled on stage, and move on to the next topic. The moderators would be there only to intervene in the unlikely event the candidates couldn’t keep things going on their own.
That’s it. Ideally, you’d do three or four of these so that each candidate got a chance to address multiple topics against a variety of debate partners. With five debates scheduled before the end of the year, and six before the Iowa caucuses get the voting officially under way, I don’t know why that couldn’t happen. There would still be chances for all the top candidates to face off against one another, probably after the field had been thinned a bit to allow for a more familiar format (though preferably without the opening statements; I really hate those).
For the GOP, the result would be a way to show off the depth of its field while separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. If you want to do that in a way that elevates the discussion while minimizing the chances a few bad seconds can derail an otherwise promising candidacy — or a few good seconds can boost an otherwise dead-end candidacy — this is your format.