Recently in the headlines is the GOP dissatisfaction with the CNBC debate. What’s a little unusual about this is that almost everybody agrees that the debates were poorly done. To pick one example, Tod Kelly says:

The worst part wasn’t that their questions were often insipid. (Though they were.)1 Or that CNBC’s version of what issues should be important to American voters was rather bizarrely skewed. (Though it was.)2 It wasn’t even the first question of the debate, where they asked the candidates to tell everyone what their greatest weakness was, then stressed that they were going to hold them to answering the question, and then just sat there watching as each candidate (save Trump) used the question to tell the world how much more awesome than everyone else they were.

No, the worst part was that CNBC had clearly made a decision to go full Candy Crowley, and hold the candidates’ feet to the fire when they answered with false statistics or histories. Which was a noble ambition, and might have led to a truly awesome debate, but for one tiny flaw: The moderators hadn’t taken the time to learn anything about the questions they were asking. When candidates pushed back, the moderators looked lost. When asked, the moderators couldn’t recall where they got their facts. When Becky Quick pushed Trump on a point, and he asked where she was getting her facts, she began shuffling through notes with a confused look on her face, and this exchange actually happened {…}

Vox’s Marcus Brauchli argues that it’s basically American Gladiators, and we’re entitled to it:

The audiences are coming — CNBC and other broadcasters have enjoyed record viewership for the debates — because it’s a red, white, and blue American television mashup of courtroom drama, where tough questions elicit surprise answers; team sport, where even favorite players stumble; and reality TV, where every participant has a unique narrative, moderators stoke controversy, and viewers have a say in who gets voted off the island.

The GOP and Republican Party, however, don’t agree. Which has been responded to as such:


Here’s the thing: It’s not really up to the GOP to just “suck it up.” It is not their responsibility to entertain us. They have no democratic obligation to endure whatever silly little games CNBC chooses to go forward with for good ratings and entertaining television. The debates are not a benign service to us, nor a tribute to democracy. They exist for the benefit of the party. If they do not benefit the party, there is nothing wrong with them demanding debates that do benefit the party. I don’t mean “there’s nothing wrong” in the sense that “It’s undemocratic but they’re within their Constitutional Rights”… I mean that they are doing a disservice to nobody because there is no obligation, democratic or otherwise, to even have debates to begin with.

So no, they don’t have to “fucking suck it up.” This is their show.

Now, the GOP could well screw itself over by turning the debates into a prolonged advertisement. That would make it far less interesting to the networks themselves and viewers, and a lot of people would tune it all out. More importantly, it would deprive potential primary voters of a chance to assess how the candidates do with their feet to the fire. I’ve been paying attention to the debates with a particular eye to how well Marco Rubio – a relatively untested figure – handles it. And the debates are helpful for assessing how other candidates, such as Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, might perform in general election debates over which the GOP will have far less leverage (and in that case, rightfully so).

So there is a balance to be struck here. You know who is best qualified to strike that balance? The Republican Party, that’s who. The same applies to the Democratic Party, which in 2007 decided that it would not do Fox debates. The added exposure wasn’t in their interest. That was their call, and they certainly have more stake in making the right one than does any of us.

“Yeah, but the Democrats were right because Fox is hopelessly biased while none of the rest are except for reality’s well-known liberal bias.”

Even if we accept the notion that there is no bias in media towards the left, there is inarguably a bias in favor of an entertaining shitshow, which the GOP primaries might presently lend themselves to but not to which party officials must resign themselves to exacerbating. That requires making demands.

Whether I agree with the complaints and demands is rather beside the point. As it turns out, most of the “demands” are pretty reasonable:

  • Opening and closing statements for each candidate that last at least 30 seconds
  • Equal time, similarly substantive, and fair questions for each candidate
  • No rapid-fire “lightening rounds” (sic) in which all the candidates are limited to a few words in answering questions
  • More details further in advance on what the rules, subject, production, and format will be
  • Veto power for candidates over graphic and bio information that will be displayed onscreen about them

The only one I consider objectionable is that last one, and even that one is debatable. Any demands greater than that would have required a degree of consensus that would have been hard to achieve among candidates with such contrary interests.

Another thing they’re planning on requiring is that the temperature be 67 degrees. The operating temperature by the third debate shouldn’t even be an issue. Is it outrageous that they demand not to be uncomfortable? Or is it the media’s god-given right to play Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters 2 while ratcheting up the temperature to see how the candidates respond and if they can get Marco Rubio to ask for a disqualifying drink of water.

Everybody comes into debates with different objectives. For the candidates and the parties, it’s about trying to win people over. For the voters, it’s about being informed or at least entertained. For the media, it’s about drawing viewers. Arguably, at least, the parties and candidates do have a democratic obligation to the voters to inform (or maybe entertain) them. But the media? Hurm.

“Dance for us, clown. Or as journalists we will boycott the presidential primary of one of the two major parties. Because journalism.”


Category: Newsroom, Statehouse

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13 Responses to Primary Debates Exist For The Advancement Of The Party

  1. jhanley says:

    there is inarguably a bias in favor of an entertaining shitshow

    Yesterday morning on CNN one of the anchors was demonstrating her fauxtrage at the candidates, and insisting on the propriety of being able to ask questions that would cause candidates to make mistakes. Not tough probing substantive questions, mind you, but questions that will produce mistakes.

  2. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    And this concludes another installment of “Trumwill Irrationally Hates Journalists”

  3. Michael Drew says:

    I fundamentally disagree with you about the purpose of parties in our system. And so do they. Maybe in a many(not just maybe three!)-party system, some of the minor parties could be forgiven for completely neglecting the purposes of democracy in the process of their pursuit of office. But not one of duopoly of governing parties in a country as huge as ours. These are as quasi-public as any ostensibly private organizations could possibly be. And, contrary to your argument, in fact they each claim both to be substantially democratic, and to exist in significant part for the purpose of advancing the success of democracy in our society. (Electing their members is surely the best way to do that, by the way!)

    As such, we are more than within our rights to expect them to cultivate democratic process within themselves, and to play their part in fostering a functional democratic politics. If they grossly neglect that, they absolutely do do us a disservice, by their own stated reasons for being. It’s a nice academic theory that parties exist for the sole purpose of electing members to political office, but these parties say otherwise. They hold a duopoly of power in one of the largest country on Earth; we are more than within our rights to expect them to at least make a respectable show of living up to what they claim their purposes to be.

    The logical extension of your argument for the contrary is that if one or both of the parties were to just decide one cycle, “Actually, F it, no debates (at least including our members) this cycle, or ever again,” they’d be doing no one any disservice (much less harm) in terms of their function as stewards of democracy. And that’s just wrong. If we’re going to have meaningful democracy, it has to involve a vigorously-egnaged conversation before elections about what those elections are about. Major parties need to engage each other, and seek out the people where they are likely to look for the candidates (i.e. on the major media) in order. Minor parties do their part: they seek to be included in these events; their problem is that they are excluded for reasons sometimes valid and sometimes spurious.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that the particular griping they’re doing right now somehow constitutes neglect of their obligations to democracy. Indeed, it’s framed in terms of seeking to better fulfill them, whatever one might think about the specific gripes they’re making. Whatever their gripes, they at least claim they are about seeking a more substantive democratic conversation. (Though journalists are within their rights to argue that to them it seems more like it’s about trying to avoid tough questions).

    Whatever one’s view of this present contretemps, the parties’ own presentation of their concerns about debates, and process more generally, strongly implies a claim to have the advancement of democracy and the public interest more broadly as core organizational aims (along with seeking power). Even if that is nothing but a convenient line whose purpose is only to advance the exclusive aim of power-seeking that they don’t actually believe at all, nevertheless, it’s a claim we’ve managed to wrest out of them by maintaining at least enough genuine democracy to make the parties that we have feel it is in their interest to issue such utterances. As such, there is every reason for us to think we have a legitimate expectation that they live up to those claims, and to try to get them to do it.

    • jhanley says:

      It’s a nice academic theory that parties exist for the sole purpose of electing members to political office, but these parties say otherwise

      Actually, yours is the academic theory, based on belief in what parties and democracy “should” be. The approach that strips away the shoulds, the wishful thinking, and the preening statements about being “well within our rights” to demand this or that, that refuses to be bamboozled by party’s self-serving claims about what they are about, and replaces all of that with a focus on what the real actions of a party indicate they are, that is the theory stripped of all the academic superfluousness.

    • jhanley says:

      The claim that vigorous discussion of candidates requires public debates is spurious. The first presidential debate (via radio) was only in 1948, and it wasn’t until the ’70s that it became the norm to hold multiple debates. I’m not sure when primary debates began, but it’s considerably more recent than that. But apparently we didn’t have robust democracy prior to the mid/late 20th century.

      The claim also assumes the debates are actually good democracy in action, as opposed to being primarily entertainment value. While they certainly appear to have some effect on candidate success/failure, it’s not clear at all that the skill set for debating correlates with the skill set for being a good executive.

      Finally, it assumes we have no other way of getting information about the candidates and chattering about them, an idea that because of technology is less true now than it has ever been before.

    • trumwill says:

      Will respond this afternoon.

    • trumwill says:

      The strongest argument against the one I lay out here is the position of the two parties we have in our system. Not so much that there are only two, but that there are two and structurally they are especially hard to dislodge. While Canada has a two-party system by Divurger standards, but if a party screws up for a significant amount of time another party can displace them. That’s harder to do here.

      I explored the issue here.

      What I applied to having primaries there also applies to debate behavior, both in the positive and negative with respect to party obligations. To the extent that there is a difference that lends itself to my giving parties extra leeway when it comes to debates than primaries, it is that on the debate issue they seem to have the respect of the people that (at least arguably) matter most: party members.

      While I doubt Republican voters (or Democratic ones) would sign on to nixing primaries in favor of the previous system, it’s not at all difficult to imagine that the candidates would have the support of party voters here. Party voters are less stakeholders than party officials, but they’re still stakeholders.

      But however you look at it, this is primarily a matter of stakeholders. Stakeholders don’t really include the media. Nor do they include anyone that would never vote for or support Republicans. It’s a gray area as to whether or not they include swing voters, but it’s also beside the point because swing voters are a group they need to listen to in order to appeal to. A party might be within its democratic rights to alienate them, but it would be colossally stupid.

      Outside of the stakeholders and those they are trying to win over, though, the obligation is really pretty minimal to non-existent. Primaries are not required for democracy and indeed they are the exception rather than the rule both historically and internationally. I’m not sure about general election debates, but primary debates are an offshoot of the primaries that don’t exist in Canada and didn’t exist in the UK until this year.

      Ultimately, except to the extent that it’s paid for by the government, candidate selection is largely an internal matter among stakeholders. That includes whether to have primaries or caucuses or neither. And it certainly includes the decision on whether or now to have debates. And while I would like to see reforms that make the parties more fluid and less hardcoded (as in Canada), that there are two parties ultimately do not make them “public property” to non-stakeholders, nor does it give stake to those who oppose them and would never lend them support.

      • Michael Drew says:

        I don’t think I disagree with the stakeholder point at all. By all means, the parties do and while cater to “their” voters. It’s just that this isn’t at all inconsistent with fulfilling an important democratic role. And, as you note, in a context with choices as limited as ours, with the parties representing such huge numbers of people, parties being responsive to stakeholders ends up constituting a significant part of the substance of our democracy. Each party has been forced by politic pressure to bow to the demand to have increasingly democratic processes over time. That suggests that, indeed, in our context, the previous arrangements did not provide members and stakeholders with what they regarded as democratic-enough processes. If the parties rolled back this concessions, they would be significantly eroding the democracy in our system, since our parties are so large, powerful, entrenched, and few in number. So it’s not that the parties each have an obligation to everyone that is equal to their obligation to stakeholders, but that their obligation to maintaining democratic forms while serving their stakeholders, as their stakeholders have demanded and gained commitments to, constitute an important part of the real democratic substance of our system. They’d be denying their stakeholders something they’ve fought for and won if they significantly rolled back those democratic processes. But in so doing, they would also harm the whole system’s democratic

        I’m not so concerned about the particular forms that the democratic loves in each party takes, including whether primaries in particular are used, the particulars of how the parties communicate to stakeholders (and the country) I the form of debates and what rules they may baa set ., as I am in ensuring that, whatever those forms, the stakeholders (down to even just potential voters) feel that their democratic expectations for the parties have been met. Because if they don’t, then that constitutes a significant loss for democracy at lady, given, again what a huge fraction of the population looks to one of the other of these parties to represent them. However, an historical process of struggle within each party to wrest sole power within the parties from a small number of elites, which was driven by a sense that, in a system so dominated by two parties, earlier arrangements did not provide enough democracy in the overall system, have left us in a place where stakeholders expect primary elections and some minimum number of face-to-face debates for major offices. It would therefore be a real loss of democracy in our overall system if one or both parties chose to forgo those processes, and he response would be a loud protest against that loss – unless the democratic forms being abandoned were replaced with others that satisfied stakeholders’ expectations about the parties operating with enough democracy and transparency.

        • Michael Drew says:

          …”the whole system’s democratic” …substance.

          And later, “democratic loves”? Democratic process. And: “at lady” – “at large.”

          On a phone.

        • trumwill says:

          A lot of it seems to come down to qualifications for “stakeholder” and the allotted influence of each tier. Primaries suggest that the ultimate arbiter of power should be the voters themselves. Specifically, those who vote in primaries.

          There is a certain logic to this, but that’s not the only way to approach it. In other countries, the office-holders have the authority and to the extent that they work with the other stakeholders – the voters – it’s in behaving in such a way as to garner their support. Supporters for this model can also point to the past, where the original parties were founded by office-holders rather than by people seeking to put people in office. (And primaries became a thing mostly by one elected faction butting heads with another within the Democratic Party, though the voters themselves were likely to be pretty keen on the idea.)

          Neither parties completely turn to the voters. The Republicans do more than the Democrats, with the latter having more in the way of Superdelegates. Which used to seem like a bad thing, but I have sort of come around on.

          There are virtues to both models. I can understand why the party establishments might be reluctant or resentful of building this entire apparatus only to have someone elected in who would undermine it. That was an unexamined aspect of The Speechwriter, where Mark Sanford butt heads with his party a lot and it’s worth the rest of the party saying “Hey, wait a minute, we are the backbone to this party, and yet we don’t have control over who carries the banner to the highest office in the land.”

          This dynamic made itself especially apparent in the UK, where Corbyn was elected to lead a caucus which he is on a very separate page from. That’s… not optimal. Which is a reason why regardless of how we view primaries in the US with our independent executive, they may be a uniquely bad idea when it comes to parliamentary systems.

          For our system… I’m somewhat torn. There are particulars to our system, namely the stickiness of our political parties, that lend itself to the argument against a narrower definition of Stakeholder (because those left out of that definition have fewer places to go). I’m mostly like to see that addressed on an institutional level (through IRV and abolition of the electoral college), but it’s tough.

  4. Michael Drew says:

    “while” = “should” early on there.

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