To begin with, I think it was a great idea by the Republican National Committee to limit the number of Presidential debates. There were twenty debates between the 2012 candidates and twenty-three between the 2008 candidates. Some in the national media attempted to use these debates to criticize the GOP candidates and/or to attempt to get the candidates take positions that would hurt them in the general election:
I am pretty sure this clip is what an RNC official writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week had in mind when he wrote: “There was also frustration about debate hosts and moderators, some of whom had concocted bizarre and irrelevant questions.”
Some local media were just as bad. For example, this moderator (start at :30), whom conservative media began referring to as Nurse Ratched, demanding the 2008 candidates do a “show of hands” on climate change:
Clearly, the large number of debates in the prior two elections did not actually better inform the caucus and primary voters. Nor were they helpful to winning the general election.
In response, the RNC limited the number of televised debates for the 2016 election to nine. The schedule provides for one a month in 2015, beginning in August with the Fox News debate, and then two a month beginning in 2016.
Additionally, conservative media will be better represented in the debates. For example, National Review will be part of the NBC debate, while the Independent Journal Review will be part of the ABC debate.
To complaints that the Fox News debate will only include the top ten candidates, the RNC correctly points out that all sixteen candidates
can’t fit on one stage. The maximum of 10 candidates appearing on a debate stage for 2016 matches the highest for debates in either party. Fox News and CNN have taken it upon themselves to guarantee second debates for the declared Republican candidates not in the top 10. So to everyone who says “let them debate,” the top 16 candidates will debate. Is the arrangement perfect? No. It is, however, the most inclusive setup in history.
The RNC also notes that by the time of the Fox News debate on August 6, 2015, there will have been twenty-five voter forums.
One of these forums will take place on August 3rd, in New Hampshire, the “Voters First Forum.” Unfortunately, the prime sponsor of the debate, the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, views the forum’s primary purpose as, pardon the pun, trumping the Fox News debate. From CSPAN, which is televising the Union Leader’s forum:
In a joint statement, publishers of the Union Leader, the Post and Courier, and the Gazette said it is important that voters in the three states that lead off the nomination process have an opportunity to see the candidates together on a level playing field at this early stage. They said they were prompted to provide the forum in part because of the narrow criteria that Fox News will use to limit Republican candidates in its Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Fox says only the ‘top’ 10 candidates, as judged solely by national polling, will be allowed on its stage,” the publishers said. “That may be understandable later, but the first votes are half a year away and there are a lot more than 10 viable candidates. The early primary process gives all candidates a chance to be heard. If networks and national polls are to decide this now, the early state process is in jeopardy and only big money and big names will compete.”
As noted above, the Fox News debate will include the top ten candidates. Not the top three or top five. That’s hardly allowing only “big money and big names” to participate. It strikes a balance between allowing as many candidates as possible to compete and having so many candidates on stage that the debate becomes a meaningless cacophony.
What the Union Leader and other local New Hampshire media are really concerned about is that the Fox News debate threatens their power and prestige.
For example, the clear frontrunner Donald Trump is not participating in the Union Leader’s forum because, as discussed here, the Union Leader is clearly out to derail his candidacy. The questions at the Union Leader’s forum will be picked by the paper’s editorial board. That’s hardly an “even playing field.” As National Review said about the Union Leader in the 2008 primary:
The Union Leader’s advocacy of John McCain has become so fierce and lopsided that it has practically transformed itself into a pro-McCain 527 organization. It has not formalized the arrangement, which is lucky for it: If it had, McCain would, on his campaign-finance principles, have to try to shut it down.
Anyone reading the recent one-sided treatment of Congressman Frank Guinta by the Union Leader knows that the paper hasn’t changed one bit. If you don’t kiss the ring of publisher Joe W. McQuaid the right way, then you are showered with bile.
The Fox News debate allows Trump and any other candidate who doesn’t want to kiss McQuaid’s ring or who didn’t kiss it just the right way to bypass McQuaid.
That’s why McQuaid, who claims to be a conservative, has appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show to “defend” the New Hampshire primary from Fox:
Rather than attempting to one-up Fox News, the Union Leader’s forum provides a wonderful opportunity to complement it.
Clearly, the Union Leader does not have the breadth or depth of knowledge about issues like ISIS, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration that the Fox News debate moderators, Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace, do. Vice versa, the local press in New Hampshire likely is more conversant in issues that have special significance to New Hampshire. What the Union Leader’s forum could and should do is focus on issues that are of special importance to New Hampshire voters.
For example, the Union Leader forum could cover topics such as whether there is anything the federal government can and should do about the high cost of electricity in New Hampshire. Another example, is whether the candidates would support allowing States to impose sales taxes on internet sales. Yet another is what process the candidate would use to determine if military bases should be closed. Another is whether production of the F35 should be slowed or even halted, given all the criticism that it has received.
By treating the forum as its opportunity to go “head to head” with the Fox News debate, the Union Leader is not putting the voters first.