Is There Any Hope of Fixing the Republican Debates?

GOP candidates are huddling to plan a revolt against the party’s rules, but the only real solution may be for the field to shrink.

Mark J. Terrill / AP

Updated October 30, 2015 1:04 p.m.

With Republican candidates already in open revolt against the Republican National Committee’s approach to debates, RNC Chair Reince Priebus has taken a dramatic step in an attempt to quell concerns. Priebus sent a letter to NBC saying the RNC is suspending its agreement to a debate on NBC News in February:

The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith. We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach. However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.

Priebus said the RNC intends to go forward with the debate, along with the already-announced conservative-media partner, National Review. The suspension seems like a rather dramatic overreaction to CNBC’s moderation. But as Dave Weigel points out, it’s not unprecedented—Democrats similarly pulled out of a Fox News debate in 2007.

Can’t somebody get some control over the Republican primary debates?

First, the Republican National Committee tried. But after what was widely regarded as a debacle Wednesday night, the candidates want to take a shot at handling it themselves. Politico reports:

On Thursday, many of the campaigns told POLITICO that the RNC, which has taken a greater role in the 2016 debate process than in previous election cycles, had failed to take their concerns into account. It was time, top aides to at least half a dozen of the candidates agreed, to begin discussing among themselves how the next debates should be structured and not leave it up to the RNC and television networks.

The event specifically excludes the RNC. It’s reportedly being organized by the campaigns of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham—a fascinating coalition of two outsider candidates who have benefited handsomely from the debates so far and two establishment candidates who have been mired in undercard debates so far. (Carson and Trump also led a charge against CNBC’s rules ahead of the most recent debate, forcing the network to make changes.)

The candidates complain, among other things, that the rules of the debates are unfair and that they’re being picked on by the liberal media. Some of you will be old enough to remember when the RNC was taking command of the debates to save the party and its candidates from, well, exactly these complaints. “Our debates will be good for our candidates and for voters—not a field day for the media,” RNC Chair Reince Priebus said in August 2014. He told The Washington Post that the 2012 primary debates were “a dog-and-pony show” and “an embarrassment and ridiculous.”

Among the changes Priebus oversaw ahead of this campaign: The RNC would limit the number of debates to six, rather than the 20 of the previous cycle, and it would demand control over who the moderators were. The RNC approved the new plan by a wide margin. At the time, the RNC said that prospective candidates had reacted generally positively, though few opted to say anything publicly.

Clearly the plan hasn’t worked as intended. In addition to the candidates’ gripes, which have been growing with each debate, the party’s last two nominees have spoken out against the system. Priebus, for his part, placed blame for Wednesday night’s issues on CNBC. (Democrats have had their own acrimonious battles over the debates this cycle, but they’ve been much less consequential—largely because there’s a smaller field and two obviously dominant candidates.)

But can the candidates really do better, or will it just be the inmates running the asylum? There’s precedent for candidates organizing debates; the earliest primary debates in the modern era, between Republicans Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey in 1948 and between Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver in 1956, were brokered by the candidates.

One reason it might not work so well this year is that while all the candidates seem to agree that the moderators are one problem, their diagnoses sharply diverge from there. Trump wants to limit every debate to two hours. Some of his rivals really want there to be opening and closing statements. The candidates who have struggled to get speaking time at the main debate—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, in particular—want equal exposure. The candidates who have been banished to the undercard debate want to be allowed into the main event—but of course adding more lecterns would be at odds with Bush’s desire for more time to talk.

Oh, and about those moderators they hate so much? Even if the candidates can agree amongst themselves, they would have to get the media outlets to agree to the changes. The Trump-and-Carson led charge forced CNBC’s hand, but they had some leverage because the front-runners demanded the changes so close to the event that CNBC largely had to give in. But the networks naturally want to maintain as much control as they can over the debates, and they have qualms about ceding editorial control to the campaigns. It’s not hard to imagine them balking at demands to change debates for which they’ve already agreed to terms with the RNC.

Here’s the heart of the matter: Given the choice between being asked tough questions and not being asked tough questions, candidates are always going to opt for fewer tough questions. Candidates are also always going to want more face time at huge nationally televised events. That’s particularly acute for the ones polling worse, and in fact those Republican candidates complained in 2012, and they complained in both parties in 2008. (Critics also assailed the media sponsors in 2008.)

What all four of these primaries share—Republicans in 2008, 2012, and 2016, and Democrats in 2008—are huge, widely varied, fractious fields. That explains many (though not all) of the complaints about the debates so far. It explains why the candidates’ revolt faces an uphill battle to succeeding. And it also likely explains why the only solution to the debate woes will be for the field to start shrinking.