Why Republican candidates should want to be shut out of debates

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Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
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Fox News, Wall Street Journal Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

Now that we know the number of Republicans running for president this year is exponentially higher than the number of voters Rick Santorum can lure into a room in Iowa, the media that sponsor debates are freaking out.

Fox News, which will hold the first debate in August, has started the ball rolling by announcing it intends to exclude any candidate who doesn’t place among the top 10 in national polls. Which is fine by me, as long as we poll continuously throughout the debate, so that if Mike Huckabee inadvertently says something sane and slips into 11th place, a couple of guys emerge to rudely yank him off the stage midsentence and install Carly Fiorina in his place.

Santorum and other Republican candidates who are polling near the bottom of the pack are howling in protest at this plan, but they shouldn’t. Because if you’re a conservative challenger who hasn’t yet managed to elbow your way into the conversation, I’d argue that getting shut out of the first few debates might actually be the first good thing to happen to you.

Before I explain why, let me just say, all kidding aside, that Santorum is right about this much: Polls have no business in the debate process, and anyone who thinks they do has forgotten what debates are for in the first place.

At this point in a campaign, national polls mostly reflect what the pros call “name I.D.” — as in, whether you’ve heard of a candidate — or maybe a well-timed burst of media exposure. So a joker like Donald Trump (he would make the cutoff were he actually running, which I promise you he isn’t) polls better than the governor of Ohio, John Kasich (who’d be left out). An announced candidate like Ben Carson looks like an unstoppable force compared with a credible governor like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who’s yet to decide.

There’s just something inescapably undemocratic about allowing reflexive popularity, especially this early in a campaign, to define whose ideas get exposure and whose don’t. Debates are supposed to drive the polls — not the other way around.

I get that it’s unwieldy to put 15 candidates on a stage. So why not just pick names out of a hat and divide the field into two groups that can debate on different nights? It would be a little unorthodox, sure, but it’s not like usual ways of doing things have been producing such thoughtful and riveting exchanges.

If, though, you’re Santorum or one of these other footnotes of the moment, the more practical question is why you’d really want to be on the stage in the first place. In a field this crowded, you’re only going to get to move your lips for five minutes, which is barely enough time to take one clear position on something like climate change or immigration, much less two positions that completely contradict each other in a single, tortured answer, which is more what you’d expect.

I once helped moderate a forum of seven Democratic presidential candidates, and by the time it was over, half of them were just about throwing things at me because they hadn’t gotten enough time to speak. Like if I’d let Bill Richardson go on a bit more about North Korea, we’d be having drinks in the Oval under a picture of Yucca Mountain right now.

And what exactly do you think you’re likely to accomplish with that five minutes? Here’s an exercise for you: Name the last primary candidate whose campaign was transformed by some brilliant debate moment. Right.

I guess you could argue that Newt Gingrich had a star turn in South Carolina last time around, which positioned him well for the primary there. But really, Newt had been dominating debates for a while by then. It was just his turn.

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Now name the last guy who was ruined by one. That one’s easier: Rick Perry pretty much saw the bottom fall out of his 2012 campaign because he couldn’t immediately name the three Cabinet departments he was so gung-ho to eliminate. It was a bad moment, to be sure, but what it really underscored was how treacherous these modern debates can be, when everybody’s just waiting for the one embarrassing clip they can replay and tweet for days.

There are probably a lot of reasons that Rick Perry shouldn’t be president of the United States, but losing his train of thought isn’t one of them.

On the flip side, consider the potential advantage of not being allowed to debate. The most powerful case one can make in modern politics – and especially in a Republican primary – is that you’re taking on the establishment in Washington, whatever that actually means. And nothing screams “threat to the system” like being silenced by the media and the party elite.

That’s kind of how it worked for Ralph Nader in the fall of 2000, after both parties had him forcibly removed from the debate site in Boston. Up until then, Nader was just an aging, utopian consumer advocate with waning support. Afterward, he was like a cranky, white Nelson Mandela, packing arenas and trailing around celebrities as his outsider legend grew.

If I were, say, a halfway serious candidate like John Kasich or Bobby Jindal, there’s no way I’d want to make myself seem small by jumping up and down and jockeying for time between Huck’s Bible parables and Ted Cruz’s abolish-the-I.R.S. nonsense, while Jeb Bush stands there looking vaguely bored, like the lifeguard at a kiddie pool.

No, I’d rather show up at the debate knowing I was going to be barred from entering, make an indignant speech for the cameras to capture (think Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” even though the guy’s name wasn’t really Green), and post YouTube videos of all the answers I would have given – without anyone interrupting or flashing a red warning light saying my time is up.

Then I could run around Iowa for a couple of weeks talking about how scared the media and party leaders are of a genuine contest of ideas. Not to mention the fundraising appeals, which pretty much write themselves (although some direct mail firm will happily charge you 10 percent of the haul to do it).

Of course, all of this is only really operative assuming you don’t have actual governing proposals you’re just dying to share with people. If you have, say, a workable but controversial plan for tax reform, or a real alternative to the health care law you want to repeal, then you might actually burn to get yourself onto that debate stage, and maybe you could actually make a difference by being there – assuming you had time to even summarize your agenda.

But if what you’ve got are a couple of applause lines and a bunch of government programs you’d like to defund, then you’re just as well served by playing the martyr and having the debate on your own terms, and in your own time. That way, you won’t even have to remember which programs they are.