Let the Candidates Debate

By Bruce Chapman Published on May 21, 2015

There supposedly are 36 candidates vying for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.  Charlie Cook calls the field “flat.” That means, I think, that no one is clearly ahead.

How does the public sort it out? The media will run stories with manufactured exposes, jabber about “gaffes” (like the exaggerated reaction to Jeb Bush’s answer to questions about the Iraq War), and other gotcha gimmicks. They also will focus rigorously on polls and focus groups, until the issues are lost in a sea of changing imagery. 

On the Democratic side the slack-jawed fascination is with Hillary Clinton’s elusive emails and with her all too palpable financial ties at the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. As new details keep raining down — as indeed they must, given the nature of loose data in the Cloud — even the progressive media may not be able to stay away from what looks like a bona fide scandal.

But some of us are less interested in gotcha moments and more interested in issues and competence. And the best way to get to those is debate. Indeed real debate may be the only way to rescue the question of the Presidency from media sensationalists and the candidates’ own hyper-creative campaign staff and consultants. At some point, responsible citizens want to know the candidates’ records and their proposed agendas and extensive debates are the way to learn about both.

Among the Democrats, the debate on substance will not happen, most likely, until and unless Hillary Clinton either drops behind in polls or drops out. Republicans, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They have so many first and second tier candidates that no one is really a front runner with a commanding lead.

Debates will let the interested public figure out the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various contenders for the GOP nomination. This should not be the cattle calls that we have had in the past where candidates all appear together on a stage, smiling, waving to imaginary friends in the audience and delivering desperate one-liners. That tableau is tedious, if not demeaning for candidates and audience alike.

Instead, let’s find out who has the best ideas on the Middle East, on Iran and nuclear proliferation, on crime, on poverty, on freedom, on economic growth, the environment, life, marriage, etc. The way to achieve these debates is for one of the better-off newspapers (The Wall Street Journal?), prominent conservative magazines (National Review? The Weekly Standard?), or one of the bigger think tanks (Heritage? AEI?) to host the series and recruit both the speakers and the moderators. Leave out the big media names; the moderators should be functional, not de facto participants. Invite C-Span to cover it, stream it live on the Internet and hold it in Washington, DC which (I hate to admit) is the logical fulcrum.

Leave out the live audience. Otherwise, you get the various candidate campaign teams wrestling to see who can get their claques into the auditorium to cheer their guy (or Carly). We need to witness the candidates in action, not reaction. 

We wouldn’t have to see everyone, certainly not at once, but almost all of these candidates have some good ideas worthy of expressing to a national television and Internet audience. Well-publicized debates would bring that out. With a series of two- and three-person debates the public will get educated and the candidates’ performances will improve. Moreover, in such a sorting process even the candidates who don’t make the cut often will provide the leaders with new ideas and insights.

Do it soon. Later in the campaign the candidates are going to start going after one another; I’m afraid it is inevitable. But for the next little while they all have a need, and almost an obligation, to get their best thoughts placed in front of prospective voters.

Let’s call on all the prospective candidates to defend their views at length and not just in sound bites. We want to know how much they know.

After all, each of these candidates wants to be President. It’s the least they can do.


Bruce Chapman held local, state, national and international offices for 16 years. He is the founder of Discovery Institute where he serves as Chairman of the Board.

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