The Republican presidential debates, a mangled attempt at discourse that everyone is now complaining about, are going to get a whole lot worse. It is not the fault of inept or partisan moderators. It is not even the fault of inept or partisan candidates—although they do bear some responsibility for this rolling fiasco. It is the fault of the Republican National Committee and the media partners with which the RNC has cooked up an indefensibly arbitrary system for determining who can and who cannot debate.
The RNC and media outlets such as the Fox Business Channel, which will host the next debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday, have decided to rely on national polls to determine whether credible contenders for the presidency of the United States are afforded a forum or kicked to the curb. In so doing they have not merely affronted basic premises of American democracy; they have set up a scenario where the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan will have debates with fewer and fewer serious voices.
In the October 28 CNBC debate, the most thoughtful voices were those of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. While the other candidates avoided questions by engaging in petty squabbling with one another and self-serving complaints about the approach of the moderators, Huckabee and Christie actually participated—and contributed—in a meaningful way. Huckabee’s defense of Social Security distinguished him from the rest of the field, and the same was the case with Christie’s savvy discussion of corporate accountability.
Yet, when the candidates gather again in Milwaukee on Tuesday, neither Huckabee nor Christie will be allowed to participate in the main debate. Under a new rule that dismisses candidates who have not maintained an average of at least 2.5 percent support in the four most recent major polls conducted through November 4, they’re out. Huckabee and Christie will no longer be raising the quality of the debate with bombastic billionaire Donald Trump, distracted Dr. Ben Carson and whining Senator Marco Rubio. They will instead be at the kid’s table, begging for attention with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
No one will be debating South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who was broadly recognized as the winner of the last undercard debate—and who has been willing to directly challenge Trump’s extreme statements. Nor will they be debating New York Governor George Pataki, who unlike the rest of the field takes relatively mainstream positions on reproductive rights issues. Graham and Pataki are out of the debates altogether because of another new rule that excludes candidates who do not score at least 1 percent support in at least one of those four most recent national polls.