Republicans' Donald Trump Debate Mistake

The RNC limited the number of presidential debates to avoid a circus. Instead, they're accidentally setting up Trump to steal the show, while keeping serious candidates off the stage.

National Journal

After all the elaborate efforts that Republicans took to avoid the mistakes of the 2012 presidential nominating process, the party is confronting its worst nightmare — one that's partly of its own making. Despite the Republican National Committee's strict qualification rules, Donald Trump nonetheless threatens to be the skunk at the garden party when the first debate takes place in August.

This isn't what RNC chairman Reince Priebus envisioned when he cracked down on the unruly 2012 nominating process, where an endless number of debates (27) and a lengthy calendar forced Mitt Romney to limp to the finish line. Back then, the problem was a roster of not-ready-for-prime-time GOP candidates making it harder for the inevitable nominee to lock up support. But by fighting the last war, Republicans were blinded to the embarrassment of riches they have on their hands for 2016.

This year, the party's problem is the exact opposite — a talented roster of prospective candidates with whom too few voters are familiar. If Republicans wanted to coronate Jeb Bush as their inevitable nominee, a limited slate of debates would make sense. But given that other electable, establishment-friendly candidates are gaining momentum, the party's goal should be to get them more exposure — not limiting their opportunities.

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For the GOP, the name of the game should be to pressure-test its roster of appealing candidates to see who would match up best against Hillary Clinton. That's especially important, given that electability is a much higher priority for Republican primary voters than in past elections. Will Marco Rubio appear ready for the presidency when scrutinized on the national stage? Can Scott Walker demonstrate a facility with foreign affairs that assuages voter concerns? Can Bush present himself as a candidate of the future, or will he get sucked into battles over his family's past? Which candidate can best appeal to a conservative audience, while not harming themselves for a general election?

The way things stand now, voters won't be getting many satisfying answers to any of those questions. There will be only nine sanctioned debates for a crowded field of contenders to make their case. With a lineup featuring at least 10 candidates, that's precious little time for any single candidate to get heard throughout the process. There are only two debates scheduled after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests — when the field inevitably will be whittled down to the most electable candidates. (It's possible other debates will be added later, depending on the circumstances.) Even Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic front-runner, is expected to participate in six debates against several second-tier challengers.

But despite all the urgency in preventing the debates from turning into another circus, that's exactly what's happening. Trump is poised to steal the stage at Fox's inaugural debate in August. None of the most serious candidates will get much time to press their case in the early debates. Those who are left out have every incentive to attack the leading candidates in order to get some kind of media coverage.

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By reducing the number of debates, the RNC sought to limit the damage caused to their strongest candidates. But in reality, the nominating process could take longer because there weren't enough debates to pare down the field. Adding insult to injury, the party could end up excluding the one woman running (Carly Fiorina, who's generating buzz in Iowa and New Hampshire), a popular battleground-state governor (John Kasich), and an accomplished Indian-American governor (Bobby Jindal). Trump could make it on stage at their expense. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

There are plenty of creative options at the RNC's disposal. As others have proposed, they could divide the field for two rounds of debates, giving each candidate the opportunity to be heard and giving them more time to answer questions. They could raise the bar for inclusion by only allowing those hitting double-digits in a national poll to participate, ensuring that just the most likely nominees would qualify and giving them plenty of time to be heard. They could try to disqualify Trump, or at least call for certain standards to be met — like prohibiting candidates who gave money to Clinton's past campaigns — in order to take the stage.

The RNC's debate strategy has been a showcase of Republican cautiousness. Many party operatives worry that debates targeted at a conservative audience will hurt the party's image. Or that many of the candidates will utter an embarrassing gaffe, and harm the party in the process. But officials are neglecting the possibility that a new crop of compelling candidates — many still being introduced to the broader public — has the potential to improve the GOP's battered image. The debates offer as much opportunity for the party to recast itself as it offers the emerging candidates to stand out.

Party leaders diagnosed the wrong problem by focusing on reducing the number of debates instead of increasing the quality of them. Now they've got the worst of both worlds: Trump turning many of the scarce sanctioned debates into episodes of his glorified reality show. That undoubtedly will be good for ratings, but it's a looming disaster for the party's best interests.

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