Erick Erickson Has a Great Idea for Presidential Debates

Conservative author instructs GOP speakers at his event to drop attacks and focus on 2020 (not a typo).

President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after the debate at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
May 12, 2015, 5:16 a.m.

Er­ick Er­ick­son, the Red­ ed­it­or who The At­lantic called “the most power­ful con­ser­vat­ive in Amer­ica,” has a bril­liant idea. For his an­nu­al Red­State Gath­er­ing in At­lanta, he is­sued strict in­struc­tions to GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates ad­dress­ing the group. 

I have asked each of the 2016 can­did­ates to fo­cus on one thing: If they be­come pres­id­ent, their reelec­tion would be in 2020. I’d like them to present their 2020 vis­ion for what the na­tion should look like after their first four years. We do not need Obama-bash­ing. We need to know what they would do dif­fer­ently and how they would shape the na­tion. They should be elec­ted not on their abil­ity to bash the op­pos­i­tion, but their abil­ity to sell a vis­ion for the fu­ture that res­on­ates with the base and the na­tion as a whole.

It’s a great concept—and or­gan­izers of the gen­er­al elec­tion de­bates should steal it.

Force pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates to dis­pense with their but­ton-push­ing talk­ing points and face the chal­lenges of 2020 and bey­ond. Put them on re­cord with first- and second-term prom­ises. Chal­lenge them to think through and ar­tic­u­late the mul­tiple stages of prob­lem-solv­ing. Make them pub­licly grapple with ten­sions between short-term gains and long-term needs. En­cour­age them to de­scribe their the­or­ies on lead­er­ship and man­age­ment.

Size them up—not just as ath­letes in a horse race, but as what they aim to be: Pres­id­ent.

The Com­mis­sion on Pres­id­en­tial De­bates should set aside one match­up in which the can­did­ates can’t at­tack each oth­er. In­stead, play by Er­ick­son’s rules. “We do not, right now, need a 50-point plan,” he said of his Au­gust 6 through Au­gust 8 gath­er­ing. “We need to know what they see as the areas that need fix­ing and how their fixes will re­shape the coun­try.”

The com­mis­sion needs a fresh idea or two. Over­see­ing gen­er­al-elec­tion de­bates since 1988, the pan­el of 17 re­spec­ted pub­lic fig­ures chaired by Re­pub­lic­an Frank Fahren­kopf and Demo­crat Mike Mc­Curry is ac­cused of side­lin­ing in­de­pend­ent can­did­ates.

Non­ma­jor-party can­did­ates must re­ceive 15 per­cent sup­port in five sep­ar­ate polls con­duc­ted shortly be­fore the de­bates to earn a spot on­stage, un­der CPD rules. A new na­tion­al cam­paign, Change the Rule, wants to lower the stand­ard, open­ing de­bates to a can­did­ate who gets on the bal­lot in states with a total of 270 elect­or­al votes.

If more than one can­did­ate hits that tar­get, Change the Rule would give the nod to the per­son who amasses the most sig­na­tures as part of the bal­lot-ac­cess pro­cess. The bi­par­tis­an group of more than 40 cur­rent and former elec­ted of­fi­cials es­tim­ates a can­did­ate would need at least 4 mil­lion sig­na­tures to hit the threshold.

The CPD rules are too re­strict­ive. They per­petu­ate the ma­jor-party duo­poly. The Change the Rule pro­pos­al is the start­ing point of a com­prom­ise that should open the de­bates to a can­did­ate out­side the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties, whose fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are now at re­cord lows.

“Be­cause the cur­rent rule af­fords in­de­pend­ent can­did­ates no change to get in­to the de­bates,” Change the Rule or­gan­izers wrote to the com­mis­sion, “it dis­suades men and wo­men with ex­traordin­ary re­cords of ser­vice in this coun­try from run­ning for pres­id­ent.”

And now, thanks to Er­ick­son, we’ve got a new ap­proach to the de­bates them­selves: Force the can­did­ates to shed their scrip­ted at­tacks and ad­dress this na­tion’s un­cer­tain fu­ture.

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