The TV networks hosting Republican presidential debates face a conundrum – how to effectively and fairly present as many as 20 candidates. It’s a real issue as the typical debate format, with set opening and closing statements and allotted answer time, would likely grind to a maddeningly slow pace with so many candidates.
Fox News, host of the first debate, recently announced its solution: only the top ten candidates will be invited to join. Fox News will determine who those top ten candidates are by using an average of the five most-recent national polls, as chosen by Fox News. For lower tier candidates Fox News “will provide additional coverage and air time” on the day of the debate. While the number of “serious” candidates isn’t yet settled, with about 20 people either declared or flirting with running it’s reasonably likely that we’ll have around 15 Republican candidates.
Fox News’ plan is a rational response to a meaningful organizational and logistical challenge, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem. If in August the field resembles its current condition, with the highest candidate polling in the mid-teens and the field closely following, the selection process may itself become controversial. Additionally, shrinking the field to ten reduces the challenges but doesn’t solve them. Having ten candidates in a typical format of fixed time allotments will still be unwieldy and larger than any past presidential debate.
Here’s an alternative approach: put all of the candidates, whether it’s 10, 12, 15 or more, onstage for a single debate session without a moderator or host. Mic them, set out a semi-circle of stools, turn on the camera and let them have at it for 90 or 120 minutes. Seriously. I bet we’ll learn more about the candidates from a completely unstructured session than any structured and moderated session could ever provide.
Watching 15 or so politicians organize themselves, whether politely and easily or with verbal pushing and shoving, could reveal more than any litany of prepared answers ever would. Who can organize, lead and guide a discussion? Who does the group respect and listen to? Who does the group ignore or dismiss? Who tries too hard to dominate? Who’s a wallflower? Who can convey clear ideas to the audience in such a loose setting?
While unusual, even unique, this approach could be a dose of reality in a process that most candidates attempt to script out from cue to wrap. Giving us a less-filtered glimpse of their personalities and leadership would be worthwhile for voters. After all, if a candidate can’t effectively deal with a dozen or so unsupervised preening politicians on a TV stage how will they ever deal with Rouhani, Putin, Xi, Assad and the countless others awaiting them on the world stage.