Whether you love or hate US presidential debates, they are there to stay as a feature of every primary season. Having moderated five Republican presidential primary debates over two cycles, including last week’s in Miami, as well as GOP Senate and gubernatorial primary debates, I have settled on a recipe for successful debates. It isn’t exotic. It’s common sense.
First, and always, let the candidates talk. In the current cycle, the Republican National Committee has emphasized from the beginning that those who would ask questions needed to commit to letting candidates answer - the debates shouldn’t be showcases for the moderators.
It was RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel who urged NBC to expand the time for candidate answers in Miami; NBC’s decision to allow 90 seconds to respond to every direct question was sound and should be the standard.
A minute and a half is a lot of time to fill, as any broadcast journalist knows, but it tests a candidate’s ability to answer tough questions in a substantive way, not just with a sound bite, and provides a fair opportunity to do so. Interruptions by moderators or other candidates do nothing to advance voters’ understanding of a candidate’s capacity on the issue.
“Right of reply”
NBC also wisely killed the “right of reply” that has tripped up many debates over the past few cycles. It should stay buried. With 90 seconds, candidates can always circle back and answer a particular gibe or underscore an opponent’s policy face-plant.
What matters most in staging a successful political debate, though, is the quality of the questions coming from the moderators and - inevitably, in the electronic age - the production values of the TV presentation. Here I hope my Republican friends will read closely, especially those who decried the RNC’s decision to partner with NBC, a pillar of what conservatives see as the “liberal mainstream media.”
I’ve been a critic of the mainstream media - often called the legacy media these days - for all of my 33 years as a radio and television broadcast journalist.
I think the legacy media is overwhelmingly staffed by liberals and leftists; if even 5 percent of that elite workforce ever cast a vote for Donald Trump, I would be astonished. If even 5 percent identify as “pro-life,” it would be shocking.
A substantive debate
This uniformity of legacy media opinion ought to present a hurdle for successfully staging a GOP debate, but the RNC knows it needs the reach of the big TV networks and especially the production values these events require. Television extravaganzas are expensive.
They are complicated. But they also are widely available to anyone who might vote in caucuses, primaries or general elections. Thus, they are absolutely essential.
The RNC’s alliance with legacy media outlets was forged in the 2015-2016 cycle by Reince Priebus, the group’s chairman at the time.
The partnership has been improved by McDaniel and David Bossie, the RNC’s debate committee chairman, who have excelled at marrying the legacy media’s capacity and reach with a focus on GOP primary voters and the issues that concern them.
With self-professed conservative journalists and partisan organizations fused into the debate preparation and questioning, the partnership between the RNC and legacy media achieves an invaluable balance of TV audience reach and professionalism - and center-right and conservative perspective.
Potential voters saw in Miami a substantive debate focused on Israel’s war of self-defense and survival, the Ukraine war that splits the GOP electorate and the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the issues raised by immigration, inflation and entitlements.
Within the GOP, I know McDaniel and Bossie took a lot of heat for choosing to work with a legacy media institution such as NBC, but their critics are simply wrong - or maybe more interested in ax-grinding than actually winning in 2024. -- Washington Post
Hugh Hewitt is a professor at Chapman University School of Law, where he has taught constitutional law since 1996.