Don’t Turn the 2020 Debates Into Traffic Jams

(The Washington Post) -

With the change to Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s answer regarding whether he will seek the Democratic nomination for president, the number of likely candidates for the chance to take on President Donald Trump in November 2020 creeps closer to 30. And so do the logistical and practical problems confronting Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The looming debates, a wild ride of ratings and sound bites, sidebar controversies and media hype, will dwarf the 2016 roller coaster.

Having had a front-row seat as a question-posing panelist at four of the GOP primary debates during the last cycle, I have some advice for the Democrats. It is offered in the sincere hope they produce useful exchanges and perhaps sharpen some policy differences between the candidates on which voters might rely come Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.

First, the Democrats need … to make much-needed cuts from the field. In 2016, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus used some sort of polling mix to qualify candidates for the big and small tables, and then position them on the debate stage. It worked for the GOP field of about 15 candidates. With almost double the number of contenders, though, the best path is for a panel of senior Democrats to meet in private, hash out who does and does not have a plausible path to the presidency, and then bar a few folks from the stage. It’s a thankless task, but the list must be trimmed. The debates sponsored by the political parties are not Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park. They don’t have to cede scarce resources to anyone with a campaign poster (or billions).

Assuming we are north of 21 wannabes, here is the solution to numbers: three debates a night from 6 to 11 p.m., with each lasting 90 minutes and featuring panels of seven or eight candidates chosen by lot. During the 2016 campaign, at the four CNN-Salem Media debates in which I took part, we learned that the appetite in the public for these forums is immense and the questions that could be asked are endless.

Shuffling the deck for each night’s debates would be interesting, audience-boosting and remove the idea of preordained outcomes and bias from the run-up. A panel of seven or eight candidates from 6 to 7:30, another from 7:45 to 9:15 and a third from 9:30 to 11 allows plenty of time for seasoned stage managers at the networks to move candidates in and out, and offers the moderators and panelists makeup and break time. Random selection of the panels immediately immunizes the DNC from charges of bias, which is particularly important this year after the controversies that plagued the Democrats during the 2016 primaries.

Finally, how many rounds of debates to hold? Hopefully the DNC doesn’t fall into the anti-Fox News trap and counts, like most Americans, five networks. Allocating three rounds of debates per network makes sense. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) told me the first is tentatively scheduled for next June; a total of 15 five-hour broadcasts over the eight months between then and January 2020 isn’t too much to offer the public. If 2016 is any guide, the ratings will be spectacular.

So start early and convene often. A committee of gatekeepers, combined with random selection of candidate panels and diversity among the questioners, won’t produce Lincoln-Douglas, but it will improve on the breakthroughs of 2016 — which crushed the chaos of the GOP primary debates in 2012. Believe me, Democrats, you don’t want that circus coming back to town with scores of invitations and wildly divergent formats.

And, please, no questions from [social media], no “town hall formats,” no long introductions, endless countdown clocks, or opening or closing statements. Get to the meat of it and use a 90-second “bing” bell and an empowered moderator to keep things moving. And when confrontations arise and exchanges become heated, good producers will whisper sound advice into the ears of the hosts.

Everyone will benefit, especially a party looking for its strongest nominee.