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Double Take: In Debates We Trust?

Double Take: Two writers. Two views. One issue.

 Are all of the Republican debates good for the party?

Reality Check

One can scarcely turn on any of the major news networks without seeing Donald Trump’s or Marco Rubio’s face plastered on the screen. America has been consumed by debate maniae. Republican primary debates are watched with a flippancy normally reserved for reality television, which, one would think, is of less import than the choice of our next president—and are televised with a similar frequency, too.

Possible Real Housewives and Bachelor jokes aside, at first glance, the number of debates might be taken as a positive sign of greater democratic participation, especially in an electoral cycle where a top complaint on both the right and left is the self-serving nature of party elites. In theory, they allow for extensive treatment of the complicated issues facing voters by the many candidates vying for the nomination.

In reality, however, the open hostility that surfaces again and again in these debates lays bare that the GOP is not one party. Rather, it is a tenuous union of two principal factions: the establishment and the grassroots. Their present relative strength can be seen in the popularity of the candidates that represent them: Trump and Ben Carson have dominated the polls, while John Kasich and Lindsey Graham have struggled to appear on primetime stage (indeed, Graham dropped out of the race late last month). The existence of these factions is not unusual per se; rather, what makes them dangerous to party unity is the crucial lack of leadership the GOP has faced since the days of Reagan. True, there are (a few) moderate Republicans committed to the classically conservative principles of middle class growth, small government, practical foreign policy, tolerance, and mutual respect. But these values, and those who espouse them, have been marginalized in the party’s rhetoric in favor of fear mongering against foreigners, never-ending military adventurism (and concomitant soaring defense expenditures), a push for intrusion of evangelical values into every part of private life, and the preservation of the right of the rich to get richer while the livelihoods of the middle class fall behind. This was not the choice made by a fringe few. The GOP consistently elected to do so for private, short-term gains at the ballot box, but in so doing, has released a populist force even it cannot contain. This force is seen every time Trump opens his mouth, and is greeted by cheering crowds.

The point is not how many debates the GOP organizes. There could be four or forty. But if the party does not confront the alienation of its grassroots voters not by pandering to right-wing extremists, but rather by reaffirming a commitment to true conservative values and exhibiting strong and moral leadership, then the reality shown will be that it is the Republican party that will lose its debates.

Simon G. Jerome is a political development specialist working at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

Debater in Chief

The RNC is planning on running fewer primary debates in this election cycle than it did in the last (nine, down from 27 debates in the leadup to the 2012 GOP Convention). If that seems surprising, it’s likely because this round of GOP presidential debates have easily brought in the highest ratings in debate history—the most-watched, held this past August, drew in 24 million viewers. In the months to follow, mainstream interest has not waned. The CNN debate in December attracted 18 million viewers. And the attention doesn’t subside when the debates end. From Trump’s “Wall” to Cruz’s censure of CNBC moderators, soundbites from debates are everywhere.

Is that a good thing for the GOP’s presidential prospects? That depends on your candidate of choice. And while there has been plenty to suggest that the debate divide is between the establishment and the fringe candidates, the true division is between those who can hold their own as articulate and effective orators and those who, well, can’t.

In the 2016 GOP cycle, the art of debate matters. Frontrunners Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump are all clear examples of this. In their own various styles, all three have been able to exploit their orating skills to galvanize their base and gain national traction.

Marco Rubio, the surging Florida Senator (and, it should be noted, an “establishment” candidate), has greatly benefited from this debate format. He’s been able to quickly shed accusations of inexperience through his charisma, diligent command of an array of issues, and candidness with the public. In a poll, Marco Rubio won three out of the debates thuse far with self-identified Republicans and did particularly well with “undecided” conservatives. As a result, he has steadily risen up through the polls after every debate, and is now poised to perhaps make noise in Iowa later this month.

Meanwhile, over on the fringe side of things (though whether a sitting senator is really anti-establishment is perhaps another question for another time), sits Ted Cruz. Dubbed a debating “god” by college course mates, Cruz’s illustrious orating skills have clearly been critical in his Iowan ascent. The Texas senator has smoothly and very skillfully targeted timely issues in debates that resonate with the far-right in general and with evangelicals in particular. These include spotlighting mainstream media’s alleged liberal bias, Islamic terrorism, and refugee resettlement.

And, finally, there’s The Donald. No debate coach would keep him on the team. But, in the same way that he has proven a good politician, he is a good debater. However bellicose and erratic Trump might seem, he has appeared emphatic, unresolved, and, when pressed by moderators on unfamiliar issue areas, has reverted back to lines that get him applause—his audience loves a good wall and/or joke at Jeb Bush’s expense.

And those who haven’t made the debates work for them have found themselves creating more opportunities for “gotcha” moments and can spotlight a candidate’s vulnerabilities, personally and professionally. Despite leading the pack in funding and political notoriety, Jeb Bush’s stage presence (or lack thereof) has badly hurt his presidential ambitions. The numerous debates continued to brand the Florida governor as averse to confrontation, uncomfortable, and unpresidential. Ben Carson’s vagueness and inability to effectively and clearly outline foreign policy strategies in the Middle East, for instance, underlines the gaps that a debate can spotlight in policy issues. Despite her obvious and considerable speaking skills, Carly Fiorina’s inconsistency on stage from the second to third/fourth debate and her subsequent rise and fall in the polls further reinforces this point. Debates can hurt as much as they can augment primary campaigns.

There is surely a theoretical argument to be made that a large number of debates would be positive for conservatives, allowing voters ample opportunity to become better acclimated with candidates’ personalities, policy platforms, and experiences. But the issue is that there aren’t only many debates—there are also many candidates. The large candidate pool has drastically reduced each contender’s time to explain his or her vision for the presidency. And so we’re left with not good and bad candidates, but good and bad debaters—good and bad television.

I struggle to see how that can be good for anyone in the party, save, perhaps, for those candidates who have learned to keep viewers from changing the channel.

Adam Stahl is a fellow with the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the views of which he does not represent here. Follow him on Twitter.


Simon G. Jerome is a political development specialist working at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

Adam Stahl