The Republican candidates for president are back in prime time tomorrow night in Milwaukee, and the debate, like any good reality television show, is thick with subplots. With the main event culled to eight candidates — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee having been demoted to the undercard by the selected poll results — will the dynamic change? Will Donald Trump's insults light a fire under Ben Carson? Will Dr. Carson complain of being overly scrutinized? Will Marco Rubio offer a new and improved explanation for his troubled credit history?
If the CNBC-sponsored debate of Oct. 28 is remembered for anything, it's probably the chorus of attacks on the moderators and on the media in general for asking questions that the candidates found too personal, irrelevant or hostile — or simply about matters they didn't wish to dwell on. That would seem to be less of an issue this time around when the debate is on the Fox Business Network in partnership with The Wall Street Journal, two pillars of the politically conservative media.
But voters need to be careful what they wish for — if the alternative to CNBC's "gotcha" approach is a lot of softballs and candidates are allowed to give unchallenged recitations of their stump speeches, the result may be even less enlightening. "So, Republican Candidate No. 1, how much do you reject Democratic policies — a little, a lot or a googolplex?" No candidate ever attended a debate in order to reveal his or her flaws and inconsistencies; office seekers show up to broaden their appeal and gloss over their shortcomings. It's up to the questioners to dig beneath the surface, and if that gets awkward? Well, too bad. The public has a right to expect hard-nosed questioning.
Granted, no debate should be centered on the personalities asking the questions. But attacks on the "mainstream media" (whatever that phrase may mean, given the diverse digital realities of the 21st century in which the Average Joe with a cell phone can get 10 million hits on the Internet) have become a basic talking point for the right-wing. The large field of candidates running in the Republican primary has added to both the importance and the chaotic nature of these interrogations, so a certain amount of blowback was inevitable. When Sen. Ted "This is not a cage match" Cruz attacked the media during the CNBC debate to a chorus of cheers from the party stalwarts in the audience, it's likely he had prepped for the moment, anticipating the kind of arch questioning that has typified all of the debates, including the first one on Fox News.
So here's our modest proposal: Let right-leaning Fox News host future Democratic debates and left-leaning MSNBC handle all the GOP duties. As President Barack Obama observed, a candidate who can't handle tough questions from some cable news anchors isn't ready to deal with the likes of Valdimir Putin. Dr. Carson may feel overly scrutinized by reporters who in recent days have found scant evidence to support some of the more compelling incidents of his autobiography, but that's a laughable complaint given the level of probing that others have endured. If Dr. Carson is feeling naked, imagine what Hillary Clinton has endured for the last quarter-century.
The candidates aren't running to be clerks of the court or animal control officers in the local township, they are running for the most powerful political office on the planet. Let them buy commercials to spout their pitches. The debates provide the rare opportunity to put them on a collective hot seat and see how they perform under pressure. If, at the conclusion of the two-hour TV show, the candidates and the Republican National Committee chairmen are uniformly delighted with the result, we'll know the debate was not a debate at all but a beauty pageant, or perhaps an infomercial for the GOP — the equivalent of Mr. Trump's recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, bland and self-promoting.
Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas once said that reporters don't go into the news business to be popular but to hold our leaders accountable. That sounds about right. Questioners don't necessarily have to be insulting, but they do need to drill down beneath the consultant-advised, scripted and rehearsed answers that candidates inevitably bring to such gatherings. It isn't always pretty — the panelists aren't always as well prepped as they ought to be nor the moderators as forceful as the situation sometimes requires — but it's far more likely to provide what voters need to hear than a campfire chorus of Kumbaya.