Why Can't Republican Presidential Debates be More Like the NCAA Playoffs?

My husband was ecstatic when Rick Santorum threw his hat into the already overcrowded Republican presidential primary ring. Since he’s no fan of Santorum’s I was puzzled by his response and he explained.

“As soon as there are 16 candidates you can have a regional sweet sixteen. Then you can do what the NCAA does. Rank the candidates one through sixteen. The top ranked candidate debates the lowest ranked candidate. The second ranked debates the fifteenth ranked candidate and so on. The highest surviving seed debates the lowest surviving seed until two remain for the final debate.”

I know nothing about the sweet sixteen procedure, but the idea struck me as a better alternative than the notion of a silly kick line of heaven knows how many candidates, vying for attention with two-minute soundbyte answers to gotcha questions by certain-to–be-partisan liberal media personages. (By my count in the 2012 run up there were 10 Republicans in the debates and no less than 20 debates.)

A quick check shows there are probably 27 potential or announced Republican candidates with more standbys in the wings now that John Kasich has announced.

The weak Democrat bench consists to date of a corrupt Hillary Clinton whose achievements (besides padding her own nest and résumé with titles) are nil, the loony leftwing Bernie Sanders who thinks if we restrict the number of deodorants on the market more hungry children will be fed, a pretend American Indian law professor populist, a failed governor and once-upon-a-time Republican with a dynastic name (Lincoln Chafee), and the former governor of Maryland whose fame rests on magically turning his blue state red. In contrast, the Republican bench is deep and wide.

They’re old and tired and unimaginative. In the past, Democrats won the White House with bright, energetic, young candidates. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was 43. Bill Clinton was 46 in 1992. Franklin Roosevelt was 50 when he won the presidency in 1932. Today the youngest of the Democratic Five is O’Malley. He’s 52.

The Republican presidential race, in sharp contrast, features a whole new generation of candidates in their 40s: Marco Rubio (44), Bobby Jindal (43), Ted Cruz (44), and Scott Walker (47). Rand Paul and Chris Christie are slightly older at 52.

In Congress, Republicans are simply younger. The average age of House members is 54  for Republicans, 59 for Democrats. In the Senate, it’s 60 for Republicans, 62 for Democrats

For good reason, voters have a preference for electing governors to the White House. They’ve done things and have records. Senators give speeches and vote on legislation. Among Republicans, Jindal, Walker, Christie, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and John Kasich have impressive records as governors. Democrats have Chafee, a flop as governor, and O’Malley, the tax man.

The simple truth is Democrats have a weak bench at the presidential level, Republicans a strong one. 

The problem is, the bench is too good and needs to be whittled down for us to make the best choice. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches.

If we can get the field down to 16, my husband’s suggestion of a Sweet Sixteen runoff is as good a plan as I’ve seen. I suppose the rankings could be selected on the basis of popularity polls. The questions asked of the candidates should be broad ones, and none of that frivolous boxer or briefs type. Nor should the moderators do more than enforce the time limits. Republicans have been Crowleyed, Ifilled, Mitchelled, and Stephanopoulosed to death and shouldn’t permit it again. Voters are sick of two-minute responses carefully crafted by legions of consultants to say nothing revealing. We’d like candidates to have more time to explicate in depth their domestic and foreign policy views and plans.

The NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen has proven to be a big draw. The media has used some tricks to keep interest in the debates high: 

While the cheers and jeers have led some writers to criticize the spectators and others to defend them, the boisterous crowds are an outgrowth of a larger issue: The gradual morphing of political debates from staid policy discussions into glitzy TV extravaganzas. Increasingly, the programs are embracing a format that tolerates or even encourages animated crowds.

“It’s a combination of game show and reality television,” said Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder, the author of “Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV.” He said the networks are adopting production values designed to increase ratings, create excitement, and attract attention.

“Anytime you have media organizations sponsoring debates, their objective is going to be something beyond voter enlightenment,” said Schroeder, a former TV producer. “In the sense of generating buzz and generating conversation after the debate, these unruly audiences have been positive for the cable networks that have sponsored them.”  

Using a Sweet Sixteen format should only increase audience interest.

You’re probably asking how the debates should be scored. I say go all the way. They’re now a spectacle anyway. Follow the “Dancing With the Stars” format. Let the audience vote via a toll-free number, a designated website, and, most recently, text messages and Facebook.

Yes, this vote can be manipulated, but the real vote will be in the primaries and less subject to it in any event.

My own view is that to date Carly Fiorina has proven herself to be the best off the cuff speaker and media handler of the lot. Her inclusion in any Sweet Sixteen is a must, and in any fair debate she’ll be in the winner’s circle on forensic talent. Whether she’d be the best candidate is unclear. I tend to agree with those voters who think governors are best equipped to handle the presidency. Still, if nothing else, if included she can teach her opponents how to untie their tongues, and make their case to voters.