It looks like the Republican National Committee might be planning to “limit the number of debates and taking steps so that the forum is friendlier.”
I think making the presidential debate forum “friendlier” is a mistake. A “friendly” debate allows snake oil salesmen to make impossible promises to an audience that can’t know the details of public policy. A “friendly” format would have made it tougher for candidates to point out that Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan was a middle-class tax increase. A friendly format would have made it tougher to expose Newt Gingrich as a fraud who supported cap-and-trade, and a federal health insurance purchase mandate while taking money from Freddie Mac. It was the toughness of the debates that revealed Rick Perry’s weaknesses in the areas of federal policy and national public opinion dynamics. Isn’t it better that we figured all of this out in the Fall of 2011 rather than the Fall of 2012?
I think the pre-Iowa debating process should be three to four months of sustained scrutiny. At the beginning of the process, most of the voters will know next to nothing about most (if not all) of the candidates. It is easier for a hopelessly flawed candidate to gain a following in the early stages. Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain both got significant followings at points in 2011. Both did not have what it takes to go the distance, but if the process had been short enough, and they had gotten hot at the right time, they could have won some delegate selecting contests. Give the primary voters some credit. Given time and scrutiny, they will figure things out. You just have to give them the time.
One potential argument against multiple and tough primary debates is that it leaves candidates damaged or pushes them toward the party’s extremes. It doesn’t have to do any such thing. Obama wasn’t damaged by a lengthy campaign against Hillary Clinton and Clinton was far more politically formidable than anybody Romney faced in the 2012 Republican nominating contest. If Romney adopted a too-harsh tone on immigration and proposed a huge and unhelpful across-the-board income tax cut, it was because of flaws in Romney’s personality rather than flaws in the process. Pity the frontrunner who is a tone deaf opportunist. Pity the party where the tone deaf opportunist really is the best candidate. Just don’t blame the debates.
I would make one change if I could. the debate process starts a little too early. Running for president becomes a full time job almost immediately after the midterm election. This gives a major advantage to candidates who don’t have serious executive responsibility. Look at the 2012 Republican field. You had a bunch of ex-governors, an ex-Speaker of the House, an ex-Senator, a couple of backbench members of the House of Representatives (who I don’t think were especially well regarded among their peers), a former pizza executive, and Rick Perry (who was still a governor.) That is a lot of “formers.” If you have to spend the first half of 2015 working with an independent-minded state legislature, preparing for Spring presidential debates is going to be tough. We would probably be better off if the first debate was in mid-September and there were no phony events like the Ames Straw Poll before the debate. That still leaves four months of intense campaigning before Iowa.
Still, a lot of this is sour grapes. The single biggest reason why the Republicans had a lousy field in 2012 is that the best candidates chose not to run because of a combination of family circumstances (Mitch Daniels) and the electoral calendar (Louisiana having its elections for governor in 2011.) Even if the RNC changes nothing about the debate calendar, we are likely to have a much stronger Republican field in 2016.