For a More Substantive Republican Debate, Ask Tougher Questions

For a More Substantive Republican Debate, Ask Tougher Questions

For a More Substantive Republican Debate, Ask Tougher Questions

The people with the tough jobs Thursday are not the candidates, but the moderators.


Donald Trump will debut his latest television project Thursday. The former host of “The Apprentice” will be featured in his new role as a trash-talking presidential candidate who identifies the weaknesses of contenders for the Republican Party’s 2016 nomination and then pounces on them.

Should be fun.

But not particularly illuminating.

Trump’s candidacy guarantees reasonably high ratings for a summertime debate almost a year before the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the guy who almost certainly will not be their nominee — and who might even upset their 2016 plan by mounting an independent bid — will suck up all the oxygen.

When Trump is pontificating, who is going to notice what Scott Walker says — unless the governor of Wisconsin lets loose again with his delusional line about how “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world”?

The people with the tough jobs Thursday are not the candidates. They are simply furniture in Trump’s executive suite.

The people with the tough jobs are the moderators: Fox News Channel hosts Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. They have to manage a hot mess that is unlikely to be cleaned up in the allotted two hours. It won’t be a matter of competence; Baier, Kelly and Wallace are perfectly capable of moderating a presidential debate of this sort.

The problem is that presidential debates of this sort — even when Trump is not present — are lamentable affairs. Debates among Republican presidential candidates are generally lame and debates among Democratic presidential candidates are generally lame.

There are two reasons for this.

First, the candidates tend to stick to talking points. Even the occasional “zinger” is so obviously scripted that the contenders deliver them with about as much style as an airport public-address announcement.

Second, and far more problematic, is the questioning. The moderators are as scripted as the candidates. The questions are so ridiculously predictable that it would be a relief if a moderator demanded that the candidates identify their favorite rock songs. (Walker’s a Van Halen fan, but what of Mike Huckabee? The former governor of Arkansas, a bass player, once joined Ted Nugent on a rendering of “Cat Scratch Fever.”) TV hosts invariably live up to the title “moderator.” They don’t want to be accused of being too controlling or too directive, and so they err on the side of being too collaborative — tossing candidates questions that invite boiler-plate answers. It is drab stuff and that’s not likely to change unless the field of potential moderators is opened up.

I always believed that Republican debates should be moderated by Gore Vidal and that Democratic debates should be moderated by William F. Buckley. Recognizing that such an arrangement might have threatened to be too entertaining for the networks and the candidates, I would have settled for Vidal running the Democratic meet-up while Buckley wrangled the Republicans. But, sadly, we’ve lost my moderators of choice. (There is, however, a fine new documentary on how Vidal and Buckley engaged in verbal fisticuffs, “Best of Enemies.”) What would have made Buckley and Vidal ideal moderators was not merely their wit and brilliance. It was also the fact that they had been candidates themselves. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, as a Conservative Party candidate who displayed his absolute boredom during debates with Republican John Lindsay and Democrat Abe Beame. Vidal ran a quite credible 1960 race in New York state for a U.S. House seat and 22 years later mounted a delicious challenge to Jerry Brown in a primary for a California U.S. Senate seat.

In the absence of Buckley and Vidal, I have been casting about for a moderator prospect and it seems to me that there is an ideal prospect: Ralph Nader.

Yes, of course, I understand that when Nader ran for president he was not allowed to debate — despite a national movement to open up the process. And I know that the powers that be would be even more horrified by the prospect of putting him in charge of a debate.

But that is precisely why he should be a moderator.

Neither a Republican nor a Democrat, Nader could moderate the debates of both parties. He knows every issue, and he is on to every dodge that every contender might attempt when it comes to addressing the issues. His follow-up questions would be epic. He can be gracious and amusing, but Nader takes no prisoners when it comes to demanding that questions be answered. And, if necessary, he could trump Trump.

Nader is perfectly willing to let candidates — and presidents — explain themselves. The problem is that too many prominent politicians avoid his questions because they know that the questions go to the heart of the matter. Nader’s latest book, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015 (Seven Stories), reproduces the consumer advocate’s communications to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on issues ranging from corporate power to special-interest domination of elections and governance to trade policy to the minimum wage to public health concerns to torture to the Iraq War and the Crimean annexation.

Nader’s letters are short, smart and spot-on in their assessments. They are precisely the sort of messages — from an independent and nonpartisan writer who is serious about the issues rather than the personalities and the politics — that presidents should be reading and answering. Unfortunately, they were not answered. And, as such, they offer a jarring history of the unaddressed issues of our time. “For a half century Ralph Nader has said what he thinks, written what he believes, and told it like it is — even to presidents,” notes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. “Too bad they don’t write back. I’d love to know how they’d explain themselves to Ralph, and to the American people.”

Presidents can avoid the discourse. But candidates for the presidency must, at least to some extent, engage in it. And that would be the genius of Ralph Nader as a debate moderator. He would make the engagement matter.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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