Should Rush Limbaugh Moderate the Republican Presidential Debates?

by Jonathan Bernstein | November 17, 2010

Fascinating exchange today between Andrew Sullivan and Alex Massie about Republican presidential debates, which are coming way sooner than you think -- just a few months from now, in fact. 

In response to Hugh Hewitt’s suggestion that conservative talk show hosts act as moderators for the first debate, Sullivan was unimpressed: “It’s like Stalin being grilled by the Politburo.” Massie, however, thought it might be fun, besides that it would be a good chance to see candidates fail to stand up to Rush or Hannity, and the resulting obsequiousfest would mean that

Hewitt’s notion could produce a debate that might actually reveal something useful and even important about the field. Just not, perhaps, in quite the way he imagines. 

I think they both have decent points. On the one hand, there’s really no shortage of chances to have Republican candidates play up to the world view of Republican talk show hosts -- they’re all going to go on Rush, Beck, Hannity, and Hewitt, and we all know in advance that none of them is going to dare contradict any goofy thing that those hosts ask them. On the other hand, that’s a good reason for Republicans to avoid that sort of debate, because it’s not clear what it would accomplish that normal interviews wouldn’t also produce.

To step back a bit: what’s the point of these pre-primary debates in the first place? Surely not to amuse bloggers, as much as I hope that they’ll do so.
No, for the parties, the point of debates is, in part, to test whether the candidates are up one aspect of the fall campaign; and, in part, to pressure candidates to go on record on issues that matter to important party groups or factions. The party also wants partisans, rank-and-file voters and activists, to learn about its candidates In addition, the debates are, at least potentially, a general advertisement for the party to those who are not serious partisans.

The debates certainly are not a competitive event in which the party seeks to crown a winner. Nor are they, from the point of view of the party, an opportunity to subject their leading candidates to tough grilling and its sad but common cousin, gotcha questioning. The latter might be costs the party is willing to pay, but they aren’t goals the party holds.

So, what gets a party to its goals? For passing information along to party activists and voters, it doesn’t matter who the moderators are; you want to maximize ratings among those groups, so the question becomes a pragmatic one of whether partisans are more interested in watching Rush and Hannity or Brian Williams. 

For advertising the party to independent or marginal voters, I assume that the best plan is partisan moderators serving up softball questions -- although, again, if that drives away marginal voters, a party might have to think of the tradeoffs involved.

For getting candidates on record, reliably partisan moderators have the advantage of (perhaps) having a better sense of what key party groups care about. If I were a GOP leader, however, I’d be careful to limit this to solid hacks; you don’t want to further empower rogue conservative hosts who have their own agendas which may not match that of the party in general -- or give the moderators a platform for whatever idiosyncratic issues boost ratings, whether or not key party groups care about them. Of course, that can be a problem with the neutral press, as well.

For showing the candidates’ ability to deal with questions from the neutral press and to handle the general election debates, it’s pretty obvious that moderators with no partisan affiliation are best. I can say that were I a Republican leader thinking about which candidate(s) to support, I would want some reassurance that Sarah Palin is now capable of dealing with a Wolf Blitzer type without sounding like a complete idiot. 

On that last point: Massie says that “Lord knows, there will be plenty of opportunities for Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams and the rest to ask dumb questions,” but that’s just Sullivan’s point: it’s not at all clear that GOP presidential candidates in 2012 will give what were once standard interviews with the nonpartisan press. Once upon a time, the nonpartisan press controlled such a large share of the information market that candidates had no choice but to submit to whatever interviews those outlets demanded. That’s no longer true. Party leaders would be well advised, I think, to take steps to avoid the party’s tendency towards closed information loops, and the debates offer an opportunity for that.

Looking at the various party goals, it seems to me that there are advantages for both approaches -- and since there are typically quite a few debates, there’s plenty of room for variety. The truth is that it’s just historical happenstance that outside reporters moderate these things and not, say, formal party officials (it’s not unusual for local party organizations to host candidate fairs before local election primaries, nor does anyone think that strange). 

So sign me up for Hannity on the Republican side, and Maddow the next time the Democrats have to do it, at least as part of the mix.

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