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George Will favorably passes on Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’s plan to limit the number of Republican presidential debates in the 2016 cycle. Debates give “the oxygen of free publicity” to marginal candidates who have weak fundraising operations.”  Priebus thinks that six debates are optimal. Will best describes this point of view when he writes:

They [the debates] must not, however, be so numerous as to prolong, with free exposure, hopeless candidacies . Or to excessively expose the candidates to hostile media debate managers . Or to leave the winner’s stature reduced by repetitive confrontations.

I’m not sure this works very well as an interpretation of the 2012 Republican nominating cycle. If you look at the dates of the debates and the movement of the national opinion polls, you see something strange. The “hopeless” candidacies did at least as well in the early part of the debate cycle as they did at the end. Michele Bachmann’s national poll numbers peaked after the second debate. Herman Cain was already second in the polls and gaining fast even before the seventh debate. (I’m not counting the South Carolina forum where the candidates did not confront each other as a debate.)

This makes a certain kind of sense. The early part of the presidential nominating cycle sees a crowded stage and the candidates have very limited speaking times. That makes it easier for a candidate with no real chance to get the nomination to steal some attention by striking poses that are attractive at first, but would be fatal for a serious presidential contender. The best example would be Cain’s nine-nine-nine tax plan. It was more memorable than anything anyone else had to say, and it sounded good - until the plan’s distributional impact was revealed. But this is not a problem of too many debates. Even a few debates would be enough for these candidates to accomplish their goals of increasing their name recognition. The more debates, the more these candidates fade. The problem is too little scrutiny.

I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the 2012 Republican nominating cycle. The field was incredibly weak along so many dimensions. The frontrunner was an obvious opportunist about every policy issue. For some reason, Rick Perry chose to run without first preparing himself to answer detailed questions on national-level issues and without a sense of how the dynamics of national public opinion were different from those of Texas. The “populist” candidates were running more to increase their speaking fees than to be elected president.

There are ways to reform the Republican debating process. We could do with somewhat fewer debates. The most important thing is to maintain - and even increase - the scrutiny that the debates impose on the candidates. It is a good thing that the Republican presidential candidates have to answer questions from liberal journalists. They will have to answer questions from liberal journalists in the general election. Republicans can’t choose to avoid the “mainstream” media in the same way that Democrats can avoid Fox News and conservative talk radio. The asymmetry in media power means that being to slap down questions asked from liberal premises is a core skill for any Republican presidential nominee.

But there is more than one kind of scrutiny. How long would Herman Cain have lasted if conservative journalists and policy wonks had been pressing him on how his plan would have impacted a worker around the median income? We would be better off if about half of the Republican debates were hosted by policy-oriented right-leaning questioners. Such debates would involve hard (which is not the same as hostile) questions that liberal journalists would not consider.

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