Masochist Trail: GOP presidential candidate debate follies

As the Republicans prepare to engage in their fourth formally sanctioned debate among their multitudinous candidates to be their presidential standard bearer, J. BROOKS SPECTOR puts the debates into some historical perspective, and observes the eerie spectacle of Republicans arguing with their own party about how to conduct these very debates.

Like many among the baby boom generation, one of this writer’s earliest memories of American politics came from watching the Kennedy – Nixon debates that took place during the 1960 presidential election campaign, in the autumn of the year. There were four debates in the series – and this was the first time political debates had been televised. The two men faced off against each other on a largely bare stage, while standing at podiums, while the moderator and other questioners sat at a table.

Watch: Kennedy – Nixon first presidential debate, 1960

On television, especially on black and white television, the difference between the two men was startling. John F Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, almost literally exuded that eagerly embraced term of his campaign: vigour. His advisors had scheduled the candidate’s debate preparation in Florida where Kennedy had freshened up an already healthy looking tan. By contrast, Richard M Nixon, the Republican candidate, and the nation’s incumbent vice president, was suffering from a bad cold and a knee injury, and, having eschewed television makeup as unmanly, looked distinctly pallid and pasty, especially since he had chosen a light grey suit for the evening.

The resulting contrast, most especially in that first, most crucial debate, where the tone was set for the entire sequence, could not have been starker. Kennedy was a broadcast embodiment of youth, vitality and energy. By contrast, Nixon appeared wan and sallow, as well as shifty looking by virtue of that pallor, and a very distinct five o’clock shadow of beard. Kennedy’s words, extolling his pledge to “get the country moving again”, and his vigorous defenses of freedom, seemed as one with his appearance. Nixon’s relative reluctance to commit the nation to defend every single square inch of non-communist turf (such as the minute Taiwanese islets of Quemoy and Matsu located just off the Chinese mainland coast, now a virtually forgotten issue) seemed to match his bland appearance, as he faded into the backdrop in the TV studio. Television viewers generally agreed Kennedy had come out on top, although those who had heard the debates on radio had somewhat different interpretations of who had delivered the stronger presence throughout the debates.

Regardless of one’s political views, from that point onward, the importance of appearance as a factor in shaping US political debates was never in doubt again. Similarly, in succeeding political campaigns, and most especially for presidential debates, the centrality of television has become increasingly obvious.

In recent years, the need for quick repartee, greater clash between candidates and their interrogators and between candidates, a breezier, flashier flow to the event, and various versions of audience interaction – all hallmarks of reality, game or celebrity chat shows – have virtually taken over the debates. Given the importance candidates place on the debates, the candidates and their media advisors, and senior staffers have willingly played right along with these developments, in order to ensure the audiences flock to their televisions to watch the fun. There is a real payoff it seems. At least one of the GOP candidates’ debates this year has already reached a larger audience than one of the country’s most watched, national sports events.

These current trends would seem to be a world away from the first candidates’ debate that had captured the nation’s attention. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln squared off against Stephen Douglas over a race to become the senator from Illinois. Douglas had been a nationally prominent politician for years, including being the incumbent in that position, while Lincoln was the candidate of the newly formed Republican Party, and he was generally regarded as an unpolished, inexperienced politician.

Their debates became lively public entertainments in every city and town, wherever the two men faced off against each other. Throughout the campaign they debated seven times, and in each either Douglas or Lincoln would open with an hour-long speech (they alternated as to who would get to go first). The other would then speak for an hour and a half, whereupon the first speaker was given a half-hour’s time to rebut the other candidate’s points.

True, Douglas won the election, but, by virtue of his performance in these debates, Lincoln’s national reputation was secured, making him the logical candidate for president by the Republicans, just two years later. In that election, he defeated Douglas and two other candidates.

At this point in the current presidential election cycle (we are still months away from the first primary or caucus vote), the televised debates are still between candidates for the respective nominations of the two major parties, rather than between the final two major party nominees in the election. The Democratic Party’s first intra-party debate already helped sweep away two candidates – leaving only Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley as declared candidates. On the basis of Clinton’s performance in that first debate, as well as her very strong appearance for an eleven-hour stretch before a congressional select committee that was purportedly meeting to examine the tragedy in Benghazi two years ago, Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming the ultimate nominee have improved significantly from where they might have been a few months earlier, when she was widely believed to be faltering in her second run for the office.

Right now, at least, the real action seems to be among the Republicans. After four debates (including one not officially sanctioned by their party, but broadcast on C-Span), each carried by a different television broadcast or cable network, the Republican candidates have started to whinge, moan, and groan about the terrible unfairness of it all.

They have been complaining about pretty much everything. They have objected to the questions (in comparison to those supposed softballs tossed at the other Republicans, or to the Democrats, depending on which one of the complainers one listens to); the snarkiness of some of those moderators towards the candidates; the unequal time distributions between that baker’s dozen-plus worth of candidates; the arbitrary rulings over who gets to rebut whom, and for how long; the unflattering camera angles; those diabolical reaction cutaway shots to moderators and audiences; the comments on who is not yet back at their respective podium after a comfort break, and pretty much anything else they can complain about. Also among the litany of laments have been cries of the unfairness of who has been allowed onto the main events, versus who has been relegated to the undercards for candidates, and who have been singularly unable to achieve even a modest degree of favour in the polls.

The amazing irony, of course, is that the very rules, the distribution of debates among the various networks and cities, and probably even the colour coordination for the various backdrops on the respective sets were all decided in great detail by the Republican National Committee (RNC) itself, in collaboration with the various television networks broadcasting these bun fights. After all, it isn’t as if some malevolent being imposed the specifics of this marathon on an angelic, unsuspecting gaggle of candidates. These people are – or certainly should be – accustomed to the rough and tumble of real life. Nevertheless, as a result of this general grumbling and complaining, representatives of virtually all the Republican candidates met over the weekend at the instigation of Dr Ben Carson (after his public complaints about those evil “gotcha” questions he had to endure), in their very own secret coven to try to seize control of this whole debate business, away from their own party’s national committee and the various networks, and thereby impose their own conditions and arrangements on this increasingly untidy beast that is threatening to wreck their personal, and their party’s chances.

Or, as ABC News reported on the meeting, “ ‘We agreed to interject ourselves in the process more than we have been,’ Carson campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said as he departed the meeting at a northern Virginia hotel. Bennett, a GOP consultant who has advised Ohio Senator, Rob Portman, was a driving force behind the meeting. He said all campaigns agreed on the following: Candidates must be allowed a minimum of 30 seconds for opening and closing statements; debate moderators will post an equal number of questions to all candidates; debate hosts must agree to an on-screen graphic approval process for candidate biographical information.

Bennett said broadcast sponsors will receive a joint letter in the next 48 hours asking them to answer a 40-question questionnaire. The campaigns will then schedule a conference call on the format and the candidates will decide individually on whether they will participate. Carson’s campaign said they coordinated Sunday’s meeting with the campaigns of Jindal, Donald Trump and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. (Their low poll numbers relegated both Jindal and Graham to the so-called ‘undercard’ debate last week).

A source in the room told ABC News that there was a lot of consensus around other logistical issues, including conversations on better green rooms, and eliminating scrolling tweets at the bottom of the screen. ‘I was surprised by how much agreement there was (between the campaigns). I was prepared to walk in there and for it to be a complete cluster…’ the source told ABC News.

The source also said there was concern about having candidates getting marginalized – some by the undercard debate and some by the large number of candidates in the main stage debates. The Trump campaign wants to limit the people on the stage, while the Carson campaign wants all of the candidates on the stage, the source said. Meanwhile, the RNC on Sunday took steps to quell an all-out revolt by the campaigns. A committee official confirmed to ABC News that a letter was sent on Sunday from RNC Chief of Staff, Katie Walsh, to 14 GOP campaign managers, saying they were appointing Sean Cairncross, chief operating officer of the RNC, to take the central role in the debate process.”

New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, should get at least one thumbs-up for his response to the whole business, effectively calling the squabbling, foolish, arguing instead that when the moderators ask questions, he answers. When someone attacks him, he replies. And various columnists have had their fun with this as well, wondering how in the world a would-be candidate is unable to make use of an awkward question – even one of those supposedly evil gotcha ones – by pivoting onto something they want to say instead. (One has to wonder what happened to that old standby, “I am so glad you asked that question. It allows me to say…” as they move spritely onto their pre-prepared talking points.)

Until now, President Barack Obama has held fire, during this early part of the campaign season. He has both largely avoided poking at Republican candidates’ positions – and publicly picking a favourite among the remaining Democratic candidates. So far at least, he has seemed to prefer focusing on what remains of his legislative agenda, and an array of increasingly complex foreign policy challenges, such as the deteriorating situations in Syria and Afghanistan. However, the discord among Republicans over their intra-party debates, seems to have been too much to ignore.

As CNN reported his reaction to the scuffling about the debates, “President Barack Obama tore into Republican presidential candidates Monday night at a Democratic fundraising event in New York, saying their complaints about CNBC’s debate moderation aren’t an encouraging preview for their governing abilities. ‘Have you noticed that everyone of these candidates say, “Obama’s weak. Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out,” ’ Obama said, impersonating a refrain among Republican candidates that he’s allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin too much leeway. ‘Then it turns out they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at the debate. Let me tell you, if you can’t handle those guys, then I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you,’ Obama said.”

Watch: Obama rips into 2016 GOP field, mocks their debate complaints

Like the late, great New York Yankees baseball player – and later manager – Yogi Berra had famously said in the midst of a frenzied pennant race, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And the most amazing part for this contest is that we’re barely into the first lap of this thing, and already Abraham Lincoln is likely to be turning in his grave. The Republicans still have to figure out how to shed a dozen or so candidates, almost certainly including that trio of non-politician politicians – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – if they hope to have a prayer of winning the actual election. And their next debate? It will be on 10 November, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, broadcast on the Fox Business television network, cosponsored by The Wall Street Journal. DM

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson applaud before the start of the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking.


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