Millions of Americans watched CNBC Wednesday night, expecting a debate between the top ten Republican presidential candidates. Unfortunately, there was very little legitimate debating. What we saw instead was an amateurish verbal scrum.
Most—though not all—of the blame goes to the CNBC moderators who were snarky and poorly prepared. The moderators aimed most of their questions on demeaning the leading candidates or pushing them to attack one another. A few other questions were trite nonsequiturs that had no relationship to presidential qualifications.
As the program progressed, the moderators lost control, as the candidates united against them. The audience cheered the candidates, and occasionally booed the moderators.
Who’s to blame for this “epic failure?” The moderators themselves probably deserve 75 percent of the responsibility. But the Republican National Committee also deserves a few lashes. The RNC is responsible for selecting a network to carry each Republican debate, and for negotiating all arrangements. Since these negotiations aren’t public, we don’t know how much latitude the RNC had in defining the debate format and rules. In the future, they need to insist on format specifics. Apparently the DNC, their Democrat counterparts, had control over the Democrat debate on CNN. Moderators of that debate stuck to issues and were respectful to all candidates.
As the political committees set up future debates, they need to reset the process. The purpose of a candidate debate is to provide the voting public with an opportunity to know the candidates, and to decide which one deserves their vote. The purpose is NOT to build network ratings, and NOT to further the reputation of the moderators. The moderator’s role is to ask questions that will contrast the candidates, comparing them to one another.
To make debates interesting and useful, the networks and candidates should promote each program as a series of hiring interviews. As voters, we deserve a say in hiring a candidate to serve us.
Each voter should decide what attributes are most important, and then measure each candidate against those attributes. For example, my list of attributes would be:
3. Foreign Affairs experience
4. Business experience
6. Record of past accomplishments
What would your attribute list include?
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