Op-ed: Cramped staging the debates

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, May 19, 2015 4:23pm
  • Opinion

What a dilemma for the Republicans. They’re holding their first debate later this summer, and they have some 20 candidates who have either officially declared or made it clear they’d like to. They are mostly prominent: governors, senators, brain surgeons, business executives, business executives who are publicity hounds and assorted others. Depending on your point of view, the GOP has either an embarrassment of riches or a lineup that’s an embarrassment. The question is, which ones do you dare cut?

Forget about relying on their ranking in the polls. At this point, most of these guys are way down in the single digits. Besides, I don’t care how low in the rankings she is, Carly Fiorina is a she. The same logic applies to Ben Carson, the lone African-American in the group. Even though that’s certainly not his primary claim to fame, lopping him off would be terrible optics. The fact of the matter is that he’s showing up relatively high in the polls, even though Dr. Carson has discovered that brain surgery ain’t politics. Politics is way more challenging. For starters, in brain surgery, most people want you to succeed.

It’s always possible, of course, that party leaders would decide to include all of them and switch venues. Instead of a stage in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the first debate could take place on the building’s basketball court. The problem would be coming up with a format for a 90-minute time allotment where each of the candidates would have a chance to engage in the usual give-and-take. According to Reuters, with just 10 contestants, each gets about 4 1/2 minutes. Twenty? Do the math.

That’s not necessarily fatal. Frankly, these political debates are always remembered for one sound bite, one moment. Those of us in media play it in a continuous loop, ignoring all else. So forget the give-and-take, and just focus on give. Let’s give each candidate a little over two minutes to say whatever he or she wants. No interruptions, no dialogue. The winner will be the one who utters the most memorable snippet of thought. Call it a battle of the banal.

There has been a lot of controversy over moderators. That’s the beauty of this. Who needs a moderator to ask questions? Certainly Jeb Bush would prefer it that way, considering how he botched his answers about Iraq and the snitty inquiries about his relationship with his brother, George W.

A big bugaboo for Jeb is the relentless attention to the fact that he is a son-of and brother-of. Let’s face it, though — he wouldn’t even be in the crowd if he wasn’t named Bush.

Of course we could say basically the same thing about Hillary Clinton. She and the Democrats have the opposite problem. They will have trouble filling the stage. Oh, sure, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley would be hanging out on the left side, and Elizabeth Warren would be heard off stage, heckling. They’d be seeking some reflected glory, but this is really Hillary’s march to the nomination. Before anyone suggests that she appear alone and simply take questions from a reporter, she apparently has decided that she doesn’t respond to questions. That’s been her strategy so far; ignore the uncomfortable issues — like her emails and the dubious contributions to the family foundation — and maybe they’ll go away.

They won’t. Each and every one of the Republicans seems to be outdoing him- or herself to trash Hillary Clinton. The rest of the time they’re sticking it to Barack Obama. Whatever he’s done, they’ll do the opposite.

So maybe they don’t really need any debates; they already agree on the main points. But we can’t not have them. The various networks, the ones the GOP has deemed to be sufficiently friendly, are clamoring for them. So are the potential viewers. Dozens of them.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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