Only “Top 10” GOP Candidates Get to Debate

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Much has been said about the GOP primary field this year, a growing, thriving collection of leaders with platforms that are a breath of fresh air for the party. But the sheer size of the field is creating some logistical problems when it comes to how the debates will be structured. Fox News, which is hosting the first debate in August, has created some rules for the debate that not everyone is crazy about.

On Wednesday, the cable channel announced that they would allow only the top 10 candidates to take the stage. They will judge the field by taking the average of the five most recent national polls. This decision puts considerable pressure on candidates who have yet to make their mark. Expect to see stragglers come out in force with more spending in the next few months to make sure they crack the top 10 before the final decision is made. For those official candidates who don’t make the cut, Fox will set aside airtime earlier in the day for these politicians to make their case to the American people.

Obviously, there are problems with this scenario, but there are no easy solutions. By inviting every candidate up onto the stage, you limit the effectiveness of the debate itself. That takes us in a precarious direction; it’s hard enough to wrangle substance out of these events. If you had 16 Republicans up on the stage, you would get a kind of low-grade noise that does no one any good. A political debate should feature more than a catchphrase or two from each candidate.

On the other hand, by limiting the field, Fox is giving more power to Republican Party leaders. Fox is usually pretty good about scratching beneath the surface, but there’s no reason to hold the primary at all if the candidate has already been chosen by the RNC.

What is the solution? CNN is taking a different approach for the September debate, splitting the field into two separate tiers. That gets everyone on TV, but it will be clear to viewers which debate is important and which one is just there to give the “B-team” a chance at the spotlight. In some ways, that’s even worse than the scenario Fox has chosen to implement.

This might be a good time for us to re-evaluate the way we use debates in this country. Are they really necessary? Do they contribute to the process? These debates are given quite a bit of weight, especially among undecided voters, but they tend to be judged on factors that have very little to do with who would actually be the best president. They favor smooth-talking candidates, one-liners, and politicians who happen to look good on camera. They are perhaps preferable to campaign commercials, but not by much.

If we want to really improve Washington, we would do ourselves a big favor by judging these politicians on substance and not so much on style. There is a place for head to head debate, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re electing a president, not a salesman.

That is, if there’s any difference anymore.