Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Primary Election Debates: New Format Needed?

What's the opposite of looking forward to something?

I'm looking... backward? ... to tonight's Republican debate in New Hampshire. Is it the 4th? The 9th? I don't know. Will I watch it? Heck no. I can read about the gaffes and the gotchas tomorrow morning.

But here's what I would watch. A kitchen-table debate, featuring two, three, or four of the candidates, and a few well-known personalities from the host state, with maybe a random outside voice thrown in. So South Carolina could host a televised forum with candidates Romney, Bachmann, and Cain, plus local GOP leaders Gov. Nikki Haley (a conservative), Sen Lindsey Graham (a moderate), and somebody more local - a state rep or a mayor - plus an outsider like Gov. Mitch Daniels (Indiana). In a separate forum, maybe a week later, other candidates - Perry, Paul, and Santorum, say - could sit down with Rep. Tim Scott (tea party), Sen. Jim DeMint (conservative), a moderate local, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

A forum like that would put intelligent questions into the discussion, with real critiques. The local GOP leaders, especially if they haven't endorsed anyone, would want to bring out quality. They'd want to probe enough to see if the candidates have depth, but not play "gotcha" games or ask softball questions, as media moderators are wont to do.

The smaller setting would allow us to get to know the featured candidates in a setting which is a little more realistic. Rick Perry looked awful at dealing with the stand-up debate banter. But how does he do talking about substantive issues with genuinely inquisitive fellow partisans? I want a candidate who can create consensus in his own party, not one who's an expert marksman in debates. The issues discussed would tend to the local, and would force candidates to show some specialized knowledge and state-specific preparation. At the same time, televisation would mean that candidates couldn't pander shamelessly, as they probably do in informal settings with state figures.

The primaries are important because they determine the quadrennial standard-bearer of a party. However, none of those running for president is ultimately as central to being Republican today as some of the leaders who chose not to run - men like Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels. Let's give a voice in the nominating process to those who know how to govern, how to legislate, and how Washington works. In return, they would benefit us by bringing real substance out of the candidates.

In a year without a Democratic incumbent, this would work just as well on the left side of politics. The Obama-Clinton nomination was decided almost entirely on style; voters would have been served by a real investigation of the candidates' substantive differences.

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