How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?: Navigating the GOP's 2016 clown show

The GOP still can't nail down a debate structure that fits its (many) candidates. Here's one!

Published May 26, 2015 4:52PM (EDT)

Donald Trump                               (Jeff Malet,
Donald Trump (Jeff Malet,

It's taken us a good long while, in Internet time, to process last week's twin announcements from Fox News and CNN regarding their coverage of GOP debates.

There are too many candidates running to put them all on stage at once and have anything resembling a coherent conversation among presidential aspirants. (I mean really, sweet Christ on a hotplate, even George Pataki is going through with it.)

So Fox News is playing it simple: the top 10 candidates and ties, as determined by a national polling average, will make the cut for its first debate on August 6. That successfully winnows the field to a more manageable number. Then again, 10 candidates is still not in any way a manageable number, especially if a certain fat-haired yapping caricature of capitalism makes the cut.

Leave it to the lamestream media liberals at CNN, though, to come up with a more complicated plan that means well but ultimately ends up humiliating everyone. CNN will host two debates from the Ronald Reagan Library on September 16th. The fields will be comprised of varsity and junior varsity candidates. As with Fox News, the top ten polling candidates will get seats at the grown-ups' table, while candidates outside the top ten who meet a baseline of one percent in polling averages will have their own debate. Everyone gets a trophy, though some trophies are more equal than others, etc.

Obviously this pisses everyone off. Any move, urged on by the RNC, to constrain the size of the field is perceived by Real Conservatives as the "establishment" trying to prevent the yokels from embarrassing the party brand. But the "establishment" has its reasons to be upset with this plan, too. If the debate were held today, hucksters like Ben Carson and Donald Trump would make both the Fox News and "varsity" CNN debates, and they would probably say silly things that embarrass the party while prompting their more viable competitors, like Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, to match them tit-for-tat in a competition of silliness. And candidates whom the party might like to have on the main stage, like John Kasich or Carly Fiorina, would be relegated to Division II.

The problems get worse when we consider second-order effects of competition to get into the debates. As the Wall Street Journal's Reid Epstein writes in a smart piece today, the race to get included in the debates -- or to make up the lost name-recognition points from debate exclusion -- means that lower-polling candidates might need to divert precious resources away from meeting voters and towards cable news hits, early television advertisements and other idiot box ventures.

With national polls largely a function of name recognition, strategists working for various campaigns said they expected long-shot candidates to spend time in cable TV studios in New York that may instead have been used to meet voters at small events in Iowa or New Hampshire. Money that might have gone to build a campaign infrastructure in early states could instead be diverted to buying national TV ads.

Moreover, candidates traditionally have tried to time their campaigns to peak right at the time of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, scheduled this cycle for February. Now, candidates with low name recognition must try to build national profiles —ahead of the first primary debate, set for Aug. 6.

Not being invited to the debates could serve as an early death knell for candidates already in the shadows of fundraising behemoths such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov.Scott Walker, who have yet to formally declare their candidacies, or Sens. Rand PaulTed Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Here again we have reason for both the "establishment" and the "grassroots," to use two extremely broad terms, to complain. The "grassroots" can complain that the debate caps will compel lesser-funded candidates to burn through their limited resources early on with television ads, while the Bushes and Rubios can sit on their ample funds. (It would be a similar argument to the one Mike Huckabee made in his decision not to compete in the Iowa straw poll.) The "establishment," meanwhile, has to worry about lower-tier candidates cranking The Stupid even deeper into the red with constant cable news hits. John Kasich, for example, cannot effectively introduce himself to the masses by discussing some tweak to depreciation tax credits for small businesses. Screeching about the Jade Helm 15 threat would be a more efficient use of airtime.

(The only real winner here, as usual, is Fox News. Their plan to cut off the debates at 10 without a back-up debate means that they'll get the other candidates to appear on Fox News more often. As the ancients would say, Fox News knows what it's doing.)

We're not sure the RNC and cable networks are interested in Salon Dot Com's advice for how to better structure these debates, but here goes. The debates fields should be split into two, as CNN plans on doing, but the participants in each should be chosen by random lottery. If there are, say, 14 candidates who meet the one percent polling threshold, you just put all their names in a hat and pick seven. That will be one debate, and the other seven will comprise the other. This way everyone gets to participate without any perceptions of bias or attempts from on-high to squelch proper debate. Plus, the debates would be more balanced if the field sizes were seven and seven instead of 10 and four.

The bigger problem for the RNC and its mere partners is attitudinal. They're giving off the impression that they view this large batch of prospective candidates as a burden, to be dealt with in some stealthy manner. It shouldn't be. GOP voters are thrilled so have such a menu of candidates from which to choose. It generates plenty of enthusiasm on the Republican side, and that should frighten the Democratic party as it considers turnout next November. The big field is an asset. The party managers should consider treating it as such and doing as much as possible to get out of the way.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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