Politics & Policy

The Debate Mistake

The semiotic search for the racism beneath Newt’s food-stamp line. The dismissal of “the Constitution” in haughty air quotes. The wasting of primetime minutes pondering which wife would make the best first lady. The obsessive deposing of Romney on the legality of condoms. The condescending identity politics of carting out a token Latino to ask an immigration question. The dings. The bells. The buzzers. The Google Chat notification tones. The frightful specter of Donald Trump’s coiffure lurking around the next corner.

#ad#These are just some of the lowlights of the umpteen Republican debates thus far. And with the exception of The Donald’s ill-fated quest to moderate, they were all brought to us by the mainstream media. That’s the same media that daily carry water for the Obama administration, approach the tea parties as anthropological curiosities, and persistently skew the public discourse leftward in ways large and small, conscious and unconscious. So why on earth should conservatives trust them to play any substantial role in the selection of our presidential standard-bearer?

The answer, of course, is that we should not. Not again.

Sure, the debates have had their strong moments. But it is telling that a disproportionate number of them came when conservatives and conservative institutions were most involved, such as during the foreign-policy debate cosponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute; and when the fire of the candidates (particularly Newt) was trained on the moderators and the media itself.

Watching Gingrich savagely skewer moderators has been, at times, richly satisfying. But it is satisfying in the same way that having ice cream instead of eating your vegetables is satisfying: Neither is salutary in the long run. While dismantling the presuppositions of the political media is surely a skill a conservative president would do well to acquire, it does not rank with the ability to clearly and persuasively articulate a conservative policy vision for solving America’s most pressing problems, or with the ability to display fiscal sobriety, strategic acumen, and strong instincts toward liberty when presented with new challenges, foreign and domestic. These abilities — and not the ability to cleverly parry liberal inanities — are what the primary debates are meant to test.

But getting substantive answers requires moderators interested in asking substantive questions. And with few exceptions, none of the current lot have shown themselves to be up to the task.

Therefore, Republicans should work to improve the quality of the debates by building on the model of the AEI/Heritage debate. To this end, we favor the plan recently floated by Hugh Hewitt. Come the 2016 election season, the RNC should set the number, dates, and locations of debates. They should be fewer in number than the 20-odd we will see before this year is out, so that they are not so unduly agenda-setting. And the party should partner with local party officials, conservative think tanks, alternative media, tea-party groups, and grassroots organizations to determine formatting and questions. For broadcasting purposes, the participation of mainstream media may still be necessary, but they should be relegated to the status of junior partners. There can be no more George Stephanopouli asking sideshow questions premised on making conservatives look weird and driving up ratings.

Primaries are, in the best sense of the word, parochial affairs. So it is only right and reasonable that they be organized in the best interests of the party. The alternative is to hope MSNBC and CNN come into the flock between now and 2016. Don’t hold your breath.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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