A Case for More Primary Debates–Within and Across Parties

Political professionals and pundits on both sides of the aisle must by now realized how disastrous for their interests and for American democracy the last two Republican debate spectacles have been.

Establishment Republicans have watched as two debates in a row have elevated the stature of opportunistic outsiders like Trump, Carson and Fiorina at the expense of their preferred candidates and the Republican Party’s efforts maintain a reasonable appeal to the general electorate. With each successive debate, each candidate feels the pressure to say something even more untruthful and bizarre in order to catch the attention of a Republican base that wants to poke a finger in the eyes of politically correct liberals more than it wants to win elections or achieve policy goals. Without any effective counterweight, it seems that each successive debate will continue the steady drift into extremism.

Democrats, on the other hand, have to be feeling more than a little nauseated at seeing a CNN record 23 million watch three or four hours of unadulterated conservative fantasies and falsehoods repeated incessantly as if they were fact. While the GOP’s extremism will almost certainly come at an electoral cost, so too will allowing Republican talking points go unanswered for months with huge swaths of voters. Democrats are also in the uncomfortable position of watching their once seemingly inevitable frontrunner decline in the polls as insiders search either for other potential saviors or ways to reorient the conversation. Supporters of Democratic underdogs, of course, want a chance for their candidates to earn attention and name recognition.

It seems that everyone would stand to gain from more debates. While the risk-averse Clinton campaign understandably wants to limit debates in the hopes of a smooth gliding path to the nomination, Clinton is a formidable debater and her polling troubles suggest that she might actually benefit more from the attention a debate would bring than it might cost in terms of elevating her opponents. Obviously, Sanders and O’Malley would welcome a chance at greater visibility. And the Democratic Party itself would benefit from exposing Republican lies and showing the American people what a truly effective, compassionate and serious political party looks like.

But even more intriguing than more Democratic debates would be the potential for cross-party primary debates. It sounds like a crazy idea at first and it might be difficult to secure the cooperation of some leading candidates, but putting the leading Democratic and Republican contenders on the same stage would have upside for everyone involved. For the Clinton campaign it would give them a chance to show Hillary’s debate chops by putting her directly up against leading Republican opponents, mitigating the potential damage of being upstaged by Sanders or O’Malley. For establishment Republicans it would potentially expose Trump or Carson to humiliation, allowing a more traditional candidate like Bush or Walker to shine. For base Republicans who believe forcefully in the knuckle sandwich approach to politics, it would give them the opportunity to watch their candidates go toe-to-toe with the hated Democrats; for progressive Democrats it would give Sanders and O’Malley the opportunity to hit Republicans forcefully and gain attention without committing the faux pas of launching a barrage of attacks at Clinton. And for centrists on both sides concerned about the wings of their parties, it would force a debate approach more focused on winning the general electorate than merely the party bases.

It’s an idea worth considering, at least.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.