I’m not the biggest fan of debates in their current form, but they do give voters the chance to see candidates interact with each other and explain themselves. Debates can gives a sense of how well candidates understand their own policy proposals and the obvious objections to those proposals. Debates give candidates a chance to demonstrate how well they can defend their records and proposals under simultaneous pressure from journalists and rivals. The Republican National Committee is thinking about freezing out liberal-leaning journalists and having conservative figures moderate the Republican presidential debates. That is about half right. It would be better to have some of the debates moderated by panels of liberal-leaning-but-not-explicitly-partisan journalists (Bob Schieffer rather than Chris Matthews) and half moderated by conservative figures.
Having Republican presidential candidates answer questions from “mainstream” (in other words liberal-leaning) journalists is a good thing. The Republican nominee will have to do quite a bit of that in the general election. We might as well get an idea of how they handle questions asked from liberal premises before they get the nomination. The problem is not that liberal journalists ask silly questions (though they do), or that they pick questions designed to make Republicans as a group look bad (though they do). The problem is that liberal journalists who moderate Republican presidential debates make it too easy (in spite of themselves) on Republican presidential candidates during the nominating process.
Liberal-leaning journalists debate moderators are a real obstacle during general election debates. Everybody remembers Candy Crowley’s Benghazi intervention in the second 2012 presidential debate. What was less obvious that she allowed Obama to speak for four minutes longer while interrupting Romney twenty-eight times and Obama only nine times. The real Republican debate problem is that general election debates are a home game for the Democrats and the refs are selected from longtime fans of the home team. Sometimes the visiting team wins anyway (as in the first presidential debate), but it makes things that much harder for the Republicans.
The dynamic in the nominating contest is different. The Republican candidates aren’t trying to win over general election swing-voters. The candidates are trying to win over right-leaning voters – many of whom rightly resent the bias of the liberal journalists asking the questions. In the nomination process, the candidates can attack the moderator and get a cheer from the live (right-leaning) audience. The liberal journalists who are obstacles in a general election debate are target practice in a Republican debate. Still, it would better to see how the Republican candidates would answer those questions even if the answers that work in the primaries won’t necessarily work in the general election. The only suggestion I would make would be that the liberal-moderated debates not have a studio audience to cheer or boo. It allows the candidates to use the right-leaning audience as a weapon against the questioners and gives us even less of an idea of how the candidates would play to a general audience.
Not enough people appreciate that Fox News produced the best Republican debates of the 2012 cycle. The Fox News moderators knew enough about conservative ideology, conservative policy, and the dynamics of the Republican party to probe for the weak points of the candidates. When journalists from liberal-leaning organizations tried to ask “tough” questions, they often came off as obnoxious. The Fox News crew showed that tough questions don’t have to be hostile. And it wasn’t just Fox News. In Jim DeMint’s candidate forum, Robert P. George stumped Michele Bachmann when he questioned her contention that Romneycare violated the federal constitution. He was perfectly polite, but it was thoughtful and devastating.
Having half of the debates moderated by policy-oriented figures who are on friendly terms with the right would likely gives us a better sense of the candidates and the strengths and weaknesses of their policy proposals. My suggestions for the right-leaning debate panels:
Panel 1. Robert P. George, Ramesh Ponnuru, Peter Suderman
Panel 2. Reihan Salam, Henry Olsen, Artur Davis
Panel 3. Ben Domenech, Ross Douthat, Megan McArdle
Panel 4. Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, Stephen Hayes