- - Monday, May 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Out of work politicians with time on their hands once occupied themselves by fishing, collecting stamps or learning full-hitch macrame. But that was so 20th century. Now they run for president, some of them more than once, sometimes with no more experience at dealing with problems than talking about them. Is this a great country, or what? But running for president finally threatens to overwhelm the presidential debates.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has set out to rescue a good idea run amuck. Getting started, he set two goals, the first to pare the number of debates by cutting the number of candidates and making it difficult for mere wannabes to crash the occasion, and the second to eliminate as moderators the likes of Candy Crowley or George Stephanopoulos who, knowing what’s good for everybody, think it their duty to give advantage to their favorites.

Mr. Priebus seems to have accomplished his first goal, and we’ll soon enough see whether the moderators and inquisitors can focus this year on the views of the candidates and not on their own, and dispense with the gotcha game to trip up the players with trivia. This second goal will be harder for Mr. Priebus to achieve, because he has to negotiate with networks which have their own ideas about what makes “good television,” if not necessarily authentic debate. Shaming a television network and the prospective interlocutors, to eliminate the obvious bias of the 2012 debates, is a tall order.

Nobody expected a Republican field of more than a dozen candidates and perhaps as many as 20 to crowd onto a stage for the first debate, or how such a crowd of candidates could be effectively questioned in the 90 minutes or two hours of air time the sponsors allocate. The first two debates will be hosted by Fox and CNN, and both networks want to cut down the size of the crowd. Both networks have decided to a limit of 10 candidates, and in similar ways will use the public-opinion polls to make the cut.

This obviously won’t please candidates facing elimination math, or the pundits and analysts who never have enough to analyze. Everybody will look foolish if an eliminated candidate suddenly catches fire and burns through the barrier. The chance of that happening is small, diminished precisely by barring such a candidate in the first place. Moreover, the debates are not actually debates, requiring a candidate to mix it up with his opponent the way Lincoln and Douglas did it, thrust answered by counter-thrust, but there’s no perfect way to winnow the field and send the also-rans back to their macrame.

A solution is elusive, and perhaps there isn’t a way to be fair to the candidates, acceptable to the party and to debate hosts — and to the public, in whose name all this is done. If the prospect of a free-for-all for 10 or 12 or 20 candidates is mind-numbing for the Republicans, the Democrats are stuck with Hillary Clinton as the inevitable nominee again. No party wants a candidate who flees to hide, or throwaway challengers that no one takes as serious prospects.

Still, it’s a dilemma that must be resolved, and we suspect Mr. Priebus will take a lot of heat from those who can’t come up with an alternative solution but don’t like the solution at hand. He has our thanks and our sympathy.

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