AGAINST THE GRAIN

Republicans’ Donald Trump Debate Mistake

The RNC limited the number of presidential debates to avoid a circus. Instead, they’re accidentally setting up Trump to steal the show, while keeping serious candidates off the stage.

National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
June 23, 2015, 4 p.m.

After all the elab­or­ate ef­forts that Re­pub­lic­ans took to avoid the mis­takes of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing pro­cess, the party is con­front­ing its worst night­mare — one that’s partly of its own mak­ing. Des­pite the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s strict qual­i­fic­a­tion rules, Don­ald Trump non­ethe­less threatens to be the skunk at the garden party when the first de­bate takes place in Au­gust.

This isn’t what RNC chair­man Re­ince Priebus en­vi­sioned when he cracked down on the un­ruly 2012 nom­in­at­ing pro­cess, where an end­less num­ber of de­bates (27) and a lengthy cal­en­dar forced Mitt Rom­ney to limp to the fin­ish line. Back then, the prob­lem was a roster of not-ready-for-prime-time GOP can­did­ates mak­ing it harder for the in­ev­it­able nom­in­ee to lock up sup­port. But by fight­ing the last war, Re­pub­lic­ans were blinded to the em­bar­rass­ment of riches they have on their hands for 2016.

This year, the party’s prob­lem is the ex­act op­pos­ite — a tal­en­ted roster of pro­spect­ive can­did­ates with whom too few voters are fa­mil­i­ar. If Re­pub­lic­ans wanted to coro­n­ate Jeb Bush as their in­ev­it­able nom­in­ee, a lim­ited slate of de­bates would make sense. But giv­en that oth­er elect­able, es­tab­lish­ment-friendly can­did­ates are gain­ing mo­mentum, the party’s goal should be to get them more ex­pos­ure — not lim­it­ing their op­por­tun­it­ies.

(RE­LATED: What Don­ald Trump Sup­port­ers See That Nobody Else Does)

For the GOP, the name of the game should be to pres­sure-test its roster of ap­peal­ing can­did­ates to see who would match up best against Hil­lary Clin­ton. That’s es­pe­cially im­port­ant, giv­en that elect­ab­il­ity is a much high­er pri­or­ity for Re­pub­lic­an primary voters than in past elec­tions. Will Marco Ru­bio ap­pear ready for the pres­id­ency when scru­tin­ized on the na­tion­al stage? Can Scott Walk­er demon­strate a fa­cil­ity with for­eign af­fairs that as­suages voter con­cerns? Can Bush present him­self as a can­did­ate of the fu­ture, or will he get sucked in­to battles over his fam­ily’s past? Which can­did­ate can best ap­peal to a con­ser­vat­ive audi­ence, while not harm­ing them­selves for a gen­er­al elec­tion?

The way things stand now, voters won’t be get­ting many sat­is­fy­ing an­swers to any of those ques­tions. There will be only nine sanc­tioned de­bates for a crowded field of con­tenders to make their case. With a lineup fea­tur­ing at least 10 can­did­ates, that’s pre­cious little time for any single can­did­ate to get heard throughout the pro­cess. There are only two de­bates sched­uled after the Iowa and New Hamp­shire con­tests — when the field in­ev­it­ably will be whittled down to the most elect­able can­did­ates. (It’s pos­sible oth­er de­bates will be ad­ded later, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances.) Even Clin­ton, the over­whelm­ing Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner, is ex­pec­ted to par­ti­cip­ate in six de­bates against sev­er­al second-tier chal­lengers.

But des­pite all the ur­gency in pre­vent­ing the de­bates from turn­ing in­to an­oth­er cir­cus, that’s ex­actly what’s hap­pen­ing. Trump is poised to steal the stage at Fox’s in­aug­ur­al de­bate in Au­gust. None of the most ser­i­ous can­did­ates will get much time to press their case in the early de­bates. Those who are left out have every in­cent­ive to at­tack the lead­ing can­did­ates in or­der to get some kind of me­dia cov­er­age.

(RE­LATED: Here’s Why Don­ald Trump Will Ac­tu­ally Mat­ter in 2016 — and a Few Reas­ons Why He Won’t)

By re­du­cing the num­ber of de­bates, the RNC sought to lim­it the dam­age caused to their strongest can­did­ates. But in real­ity, the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess could take longer be­cause there wer­en’t enough de­bates to pare down the field. Adding in­sult to in­jury, the party could end up ex­clud­ing the one wo­man run­ning (Carly Fior­ina, who’s gen­er­at­ing buzz in Iowa and New Hamp­shire), a pop­u­lar battle­ground-state gov­ernor (John Kasich), and an ac­com­plished In­di­an-Amer­ic­an gov­ernor (Bobby Jin­dal). Trump could make it on stage at their ex­pense. Talk about the law of un­in­ten­ded con­sequences.

There are plenty of cre­at­ive op­tions at the RNC’s dis­pos­al. As oth­ers have pro­posed, they could di­vide the field for two rounds of de­bates, giv­ing each can­did­ate the op­por­tun­ity to be heard and giv­ing them more time to an­swer ques­tions. They could raise the bar for in­clu­sion by only al­low­ing those hit­ting double-di­gits in a na­tion­al poll to par­ti­cip­ate, en­sur­ing that just the most likely nom­in­ees would qual­i­fy and giv­ing them plenty of time to be heard. They could try to dis­qual­i­fy Trump, or at least call for cer­tain stand­ards to be met — like pro­hib­it­ing can­did­ates who gave money to Clin­ton’s past cam­paigns — in or­der to take the stage.

The RNC’s de­bate strategy has been a show­case of Re­pub­lic­an cau­tious­ness. Many party op­er­at­ives worry that de­bates tar­geted at a con­ser­vat­ive audi­ence will hurt the party’s im­age. Or that many of the can­did­ates will ut­ter an em­bar­rass­ing gaffe, and harm the party in the pro­cess. But of­fi­cials are neg­lect­ing the pos­sib­il­ity that a new crop of com­pel­ling can­did­ates — many still be­ing in­tro­duced to the broad­er pub­lic — has the po­ten­tial to im­prove the GOP’s battered im­age. The de­bates of­fer as much op­por­tun­ity for the party to re­cast it­self as it of­fers the emer­ging can­did­ates to stand out.

Party lead­ers dia­gnosed the wrong prob­lem by fo­cus­ing on re­du­cing the num­ber of de­bates in­stead of in­creas­ing the qual­ity of them. Now they’ve got the worst of both worlds: Trump turn­ing many of the scarce sanc­tioned de­bates in­to epis­odes of his glor­i­fied real­ity show. That un­doubtedly will be good for rat­ings, but it’s a loom­ing dis­aster for the party’s best in­terests.

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