Advancing a Free Society

A Debatable Debate Process

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

There’s an old saying in politics: “never get into an argument with a someone who buys ink by the barrels”.

But television networks?

Apparently, they’re free game.

Just ask Minnesota Rep. and Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has taken after CBS for alleged bias – an internal email from CBS’s political director saying that Bachmann could expect fewer questions in last weekend’s foreign-policy debate due to her low-percentage, low-wattage status.

Bachmann has a right to feel slighted. She also should accept the reality of the situation: televised presidential debates aren’t a level playing field, from who gets to stand in the middle of the stage to who gets to stand in the media spotlight.

Personally, I’m not wild about conservative candidates resorting to cries of media-bias. Take Newt Gingrich, for example. His fortunes have risen of late, due in part to the anti-Mitt Romney side of the Republican electorate giving the former Speaker the once-over (as they did Donald Trump, Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Herman Cain).

But Gingrich is a smart man – smart enough to know that the core Republican voters who tune in to GOP debates (ironically) despise the same medium that makes the broadcast possible. And, with each passing debate, he rarely misses a chance to hector, browbeat or otherwise talk down to – literally and figuratively – his media foils.

It’s a clever political tactic. In my opinion, it’s not becoming of a man with strong intellect, who seeks to become America’s leading statesman.

As for Bachmann, by design or accident she’s tapped into a deep well of Republican resentment toward the “Tiffany Network”.

Before this latest flap, there was Katie Couric and her interview with Sarah Palin (ironically, it’s Couric who says she’s the victim – not getting the credit she believes she deserves for an interview that was long on foreign policy and short on gotcha questions).

And before Katie: Dan Rather, who not once but twice got into public feuds with the two George Bushes

(this testy on-air exchange with the father over Iran-Contra; this misinformed report on the son’s National Guard service).

Lest you think CBS is a province devotedly solely to the ruination of Republicans, there’s Roger Mudd’s infamous sit-down in November 1979 with Ted Kennedy (“why do you want to be president?”) – an interview that pretty much ended the Camelot myth in that election.

We’ll see how Bachmann’s attack on CBS plays in her native Iowa, where the latest Bloomberg News survey has her in 6th place in the GOP field, with just 5% of the vote.

Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about a fix to the Republicans’ debate process (next up: CNN, Nov. 22).

One idea floated by Investors Business Daily would be to winnow the field here and now – a candidate currently at 2% in the polls shouldn’t get the same attention (national air time) as a contender that’s polling in double digits.

My proposal, assuming Republicans want to put themselves through the same ordeal of up to two dozen debates in 2016:

Begin the process as it was in 2012: the only candidates eligible to participate in the Sept. 12 debate at the Reagan Library were those who had scored at least 4% in one of eight national Republican presidential polls going back to November 2010.

By the time of, say, the fifth presidential debate, raise the bar. One possible criterion: open the debate only to those candidates who pull down at least 5% either nationally in one of the four early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina).

By the time of the 10th debate, take the bar higher still – double that 5% to 10% in any single early state or national sampling. Applied to the current race and its set of poll numbers, that would limit the aforementioned Nov. 22 debate to only five contenders: Cain, Gingrich, Romney, Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul (he’s in double digits in both the Iowa Bloomberg survey and some national polls).

Critics of this approach will say it punishes the little guys in the field. The counter argument: if you’ve had nearly a dozen turns on the debate stage and you have little if anything to show in terms of popular support, then perhaps you’d be doing your party a favor by clearing the stage.

Which, come to think of it, is a much nobler act than crying foul . . . or crying a river.