Now that the first three Republican presidential debates have thoroughly laid bare the Grand Old Party's lack of direction or unity heading toward next year's election, there's a stampede going on to blame the megaphone that broadcast that sorry message.

Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who repeatedly offers an unconvincing example of the classic old party boss, has threatened to pick up his marbles and go home. He huffily scolded CNBC, which held the third debate, at which the Republicans as a whole laid an egg. In a letter to the head of NBCUniversal News Group, he wrote that the Republican National Committee was suspending its cooperation with NBC Newsfor a February debate, "pending further discussion." (CNBC and NBC News are both business units of NBCUniversal News Group.)


Meanwhile, a group of candidate consultants got together Sunday night to consider what changes they wanted in the debates. They voiced the usual dissatisfactions: the manner and identity of candidates selected, the need to make self-serving opening and closing statements, and, most of all, the behavior of debate moderators. Four of the candidates, including Donald Trump, promptly said they would have no part of it.

There was a time when the chief candidate strategists and advisers got together and agreed to ground rules. They sometimes had the right to veto certain moderators who by mutual agreement figured to be in one political camp or another, or to be too likely to showboat, instead of focusing on the positions of the principals.

It's clear that some recent moderators have engaged in "gotcha" questions designed, justifiably, to bring out or clarify contradictions in candidates' stated positions. A few, however, also have unjustifiably employed gratuitous remarks as editorial comment.

In the third GOP debate, John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times asked Mr. Trump whether his campaign was "a comic book version" of a presidential campaign. He did so in the process of posing a perfectly legitimate question, asking Mr. Trump how he could cut $10 trillion in taxes without raising the federal deficit. But the gratuitous crack gave Mr. Trump a vehicle with which to dodge the substantive query.

A legitimate argument can be made that the role of debate moderator has been unnecessarily elevated by using what passes for television celebrity as a ticket of admission. At the same time, some of the sharpest and responsible questions come from experienced newsmen on the political beat, notably including Mr. Harwood.

In piling on the news media in the CNBC debate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas gave the concept of a free press a beating. He offered the preposterous notion that moderators for the Republican debates be chosen from individuals who had voted in Republican primaries. Candidate Ben Carson was closer to the ideal objective when he said, "I think the moderators should be people who are clearly interested in getting answers, not in a political agenda."

At the same time, reporters and analysts by training and focus are likely to be qualified to pose questions that go to the heart of the campaign. The random inclusion of an obvious softball inquiry submitted via Facebook seldom advances public knowledge of a candidate's core views, as much as it may lend a vox populi coloration to the event.

In the end, it is up to the individual candidates, using both wit and wisdom, to make the most of the opportunities the debate format offers to each of them. If there are to be new ground rules for the debates, they should work to create a level playing field for all, with the moderators necessarily probing for straight answers through straight questioning, without supposedly clever wisecracks.

The sponsoring networks and cable outlets obviously want the largest revenue-generating audiences possible, and the candidates want the maximum opportunity to get their messages across. The moderators' purpose should always be seeking clarity and consistency in those messages, in what for them at least should be an informational rather than an entertainment exercise. Their job is to be facilitators, not entertainers.

As for the candidates, Chris Christie, the brash New Jersey governor, said it best with the bark off: "Stop complaining. ... Set up a stage, put the podiums up there, and let's just go."

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is