Let GOP candidates ask the questions (copy)

In this photo taken Oct. 28, 2015, then-Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Colo. Democrats have an even more crowded field headed into 2020. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose presidential campaign hasn’t been garnering as much support as many expected it to, has announced that she has satisfied one of the criteria for admission to the first round of primary debates to be held on June 26 and 27, receiving donations from 65,000 voters.

Which is certainly good for her, but it’s a reminder that these debates are going to be awful.

Let’s just run down how this is all going to work, because that’s important to understanding the problem. What it all comes down to is that there are just too many candidates, which makes the debates more important than ever, yet less likely than ever to actually help primary voters figure out who to vote for.

Even without the 24 candidates now running, the parties always have to come up with some standard they can use to decide who gets to participate in debates. After all, there are always genuine cranks who run, and if you allowed all of them to get in front of the TV cameras it would be a clown show. The problem is that when you hit two dozen, even some serious candidates may not make the cut.

The standard the Democratic Party set this time — 65,000 contributions or receiving at least 1% in three approved national polls — would have been easy for any significant political figure to reach in a different year, but with so many people running this time, it isn’t. Which is why, for instance, Montana governor Steve Bullock, who just entered the race, is complaining that the rules have been rigged against someone like him.

The candidates who were in danger of not qualifying were Bullock, Wayne Messam, Mike Gravel and Seth Moulton. If any of them qualify by Wednesday, there will be a set of tiebreakers to decide who makes it under the maximum number of 20 participants that the party has set.

In order to avoid the “undercard” debates that the Republicans did in 2016, relegating trailing candidates to a secondary debate no one watches, the DNC decided to randomly assign leading and trailing candidates to the two debates, which will have 10 participants each. After the first round of summer debates, the criteria for participation in the ones that follow will become more stringent.

So why do I say these debates will be awful? Two reasons: time and desperation.

Let’s start with time. The debates are going to be two hours long. Out of that, let’s assume 30 minutes are taken up by introductions, commercial breaks, and the time required to ask the questions. Which would leave 90 minutes to be spread out among 10 candidates, or 9 minutes per candidate. A certain amount of that is going to involve answering the inane questions that the moderators inevitably pose: What’s your favorite Bible verse? Why aren’t you higher in the polls? Can you say something nice about one of your opponents? So they’re left with maybe 6 or 7 minutes to actually make a case for themselves.

Which is just impossible. They might have a chance to say a few worthwhile things, but it certainly won’t be enough to actually make a persuasive argument for why they should be the most powerful person on earth.

And that creates the second problem: desperation. Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might not feel like the fate of their candidacies rests on that 6 or 7 minutes, but someone like Gillibrand or Tim Ryan could, because they’re far behind and they need to do something to change that. They’ll be under pressure to come up with some kind of zinger that makes such a clip of them stand out.

The debates will represent the largest audience the candidates have had access to, which ramps up the pressure even further not to waste the opportunity. Which means more zingers, which are the enemy of genuine deliberation.

What’s more, the candidates know that given the way the debates are structured, they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you fail to stand out in the debate you could stagnate, making it harder to meet the criteria for the second round of debates (130,000 donations or 2 percent in polls).

The kind of culling that will result is what the party wants, but what the candidates — at least the trailing ones — fear. So when the cameras are on you, you have to find a way to stand out. And reasoned, careful argumentation is probably not going to be it.

Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.

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