Last night, Fox News announced the names of the ten Republican presidential candidate who will take part in tomorrow night’s joint news conference, which the network claims will be a debate. The trouble is that Fox acknowledges 17 GOP candidates who are running (there are even more actually), and that’s an unwieldy number. So, Fox relied on opinion polls to winnow it down to ten. The Republican National Committee has endorsed this event, and therein lies the problem. Fox News is not the appropriate entity to decide who will debate whom. This is an abdication of responsibility by the RNC and especially its chairman Reince Priebus. Of course, the party lost control of its own processes some time ago.
The ten candidates and their opinion poll support are:
- Businessman Donald Trump. Five-poll average: 23.4
- Former Florida governor Jeb Bush: 12
- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: 10.2
- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee: 6.6
- Dr. Ben Carson: 5.8
- Sen. Ted Cruz: 5.4
- Sen. Marco Rubio: 5.4
- Sen. Rand Paul: 4.8
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: 3.4
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich: 3.2
Left out of the 9 pm Eastern event are: former Texas governor Rick Perry (at 1.8 percent), former Pennsylvania senator and runner-up in the delegate count in 2012 Rick Santorum (1.4), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (1.4), businesswoman Carly Fiorina (1.3), Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C., 0.7), former New York governor George Pataki (0.6) and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (0.2). They will participate in an event beginning at 5 pm Eastern, when viewership is likely to be much lower. Even that doesn’t cover everyone as former IRS commissioner Mark Everson has not been invited, and he has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
The situation is preposterous. The joint press conference at 9 will run until 11. That’s 120 minutes less the time for the moderator to make the usual opening remarks, ask questions and to thank the viewers for their patience. Each candidate will be lucky to have ten minutes to talk. Exactly what the voters will learn in such a short time is doubtful.
The Republican Party should have taken control of this process and made better arrangements for its candidates. Leaving a private entity like Fox (although closely tied to the party, it isn’t the same body) to set up an alleged debate and decide who is in and who is out is a disservice to the candidates. The Iowa caucuses aren’t until February 1, 2016. The party should have ensured (and it has many carrots and sticks to use) that the first debate occurs after the New Year, ideally in Iowa, followed quickly by another in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada (the early states in the process).
The idea of winnowing the field by televised pretend debates is folly. Let the candidates raise money, let them try to build a campaign organization. If the nation is going to let unrepresentative, small states have undue influence, at least make the candidates perform in those states (although this journal prefers a first primary to consists of California, New York, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania — a candidate who can win in those states is by definition capable of running a national campaign). A candidate who can’t pay staff in Iowa, open offices and attract volunteers will have to shut down soon enough. Were this approach to be used, half the current pack would drop out before the New Year.
While one does not as a matter of principle support the Republican Party, one wishes the party were in a healthier state. A two-party system requires competition, and at this stage, the GOP is incapable of offering any to the Democrats. The result is not good for the American people.