"Controversial" because the networks are understandably trying to limit the number of participants, as to avoid unwieldy spectacles of 16 candidates trying to get a word in edgewise. We touched on that concern earlier in the week. Excluded or marginalized parties will inevitably cry foul ("the establishment is silencing my voice!" or what have you), whipping up anger among their supporters. Would they have a point, or are Fox and CNN right to establish some boundaries? The truth may lie somewhere in between, and we'll discuss arguments on both sides in a moment -- but first, here are the hosts' newly-announced ground rules, starting with Fox News:
Fox News announced guidelines Wednesday that will winnow the field of participants in the first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential campaign. The network will require contenders to place in the top 10 in an average of the five most recent national polls in the run-up to the event, narrowing what is expected to be a field of 16 or more by the Aug. 6 event in Cleveland. The rule could trigger an early rush of spending by lower-tier candidates seeking to boost their standing in national surveys before the pivotal first forum.
How would those regulations play out if the debate were held today?
It remains to be seen how many candidates will be included in the Fox News debate under the criteria, which could allow more than 10 participants if some are tied in the polls. The top?10 contenders in the five most recent national polls are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, real estate tycoon Donald Trump and former Texas governor Rick Perry, according to a Washington Post analysis. Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are a fraction of a point behind Perry. Lagging behind those 12 are Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and former New York governor George Pataki.
Under this rubric, the clownish Donald Trump -- who'd actually have to formally declare a candidacy and file requisite paperwork, rather than publicly threaten to run to gain attention -- would make the cut, while a sitting governor (and a minority, for those who care about racial optics), a sitting senator, and the only woman in the race would be excluded. Is that a desirable outcome for the party? Fox says candidates who fail to make the cut will be afforded airtime on the day of the forum. CNN is trying a two-tiered approach:
The CNN Republican primary debate on Sept. 16 will be divided into two parts featuring two different sets of candidates: those who rank in the top 10 according to public polling, and the remaining candidates who meet a minimum threshold of 1 percent in public polling, the On Media blog has learned. "The first 10 candidates – ranked from highest to lowest in polling order from an average of all qualifying polls released between July 16 and September 10 who satisfy the criteria requirements ... will be invited to participate in 'Segment B' of the September 16, 2015 Republican Presidential Primary Debate," the network states in its candidate criteria. "Candidates who satisfy the criteria and achieve an average of at least 1 percent in three national polls, but are not ranked in the top 10 of polling order will be invited to participate in 'Segment A' of the September 16, 2015 Republican Presidential Primary Debate." The network also stipulated that "if the number of candidates who qualify for the debate is 14 or fewer, CNN reserves the right to limit the number of participants in 'Segment B' to eight candidates. The remaining qualified candidates will be invited to participate in 'Segment A' of the debate."
So "segment B" is, in effect, the A-team; "segment A" of CNN's debate is already being dubbed the kids' table. I'm quite sympathetic to the argument that constricting the number of participants, or shunting them into categories of viability, at this early stage is counter-productive. How useful are national polls at the very beginning of the cycle, really? Each candidate should be given an opportunity to advance his or her case under the bright lights near the beginning of the campaign season, this line of thinking goes, after which more concrete limitations based on public polling becomes more equitable. Fair enough, but do attractive and feasible alternatives exist? Allahpundit floats a series of one-on-one debates, which is great fun to consider, but simply isn't going to happen. DrewM recommends killing the traditional-format debates and replacing them with forums: "Just bring out each candidate and let them respond to two or three questions from a panel of conservative journalists and/or policy experts. Jim DeMint hosted one of these on Labor Day 2011 to great effect. There's no reason it can't be replicated." Not a terrible plan, but I doubt any of the networks would play along. The best compromise I've seen comes from Ace:
For one thing, this isn't a normal year. We have a lot of serious candidates. So do we stick with the usual, or do we adjust our practices to take into consideration the unusualness of this season? I think the latter. My proposal is that they split debate night into two panels, over two nights. (Or two panels on one night-- but that would be a long night, with around three hours total debate time plus time in between.) The top six in the polls would do a random draw to be split between the panels, three and three. Everyone else would do another random draw to determine which panel they'd be in. You'd end up having about 6-8 people per panel, which is a workable number.
Using the current RCP national average, the top six -- Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee and Cruz -- would be randomly split evenly among the two panels, with all remaining qualified candidates being selected (again, randomly) to round out each bifurcated debate field. Each debate is conducted independently, and could either air on the same night, or be held on back-to-back evenings. Everyone would receive a reasonable amount of face time, viewers would learn about candidates with whom they're less familiar, and subsequent debate could be winnowed down using various methods. Those who end up on the outside would still kick up a fuss, but they'd at least have had their shot. Major changes seem unlikely at this point, but CNN's set-up would only have to be tweaked to accommodate this plan. Fox's system is far less flexible, although I full expect the network's highly capable triumvirate of moderators -- Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace -- to do an excellent job. One other point to those who are clamoring for elaborate changes to debate formats: Television is a business, and putting on these debates is quite expensive. Asking a network to pay for, and grant air time to, consecutive debates is no small thing. And somebody is always going to be unhappy with the rules. The trick is to balance the public good, good television, airtime constraints, and the bottom line. It's a thorny calculus.
Editor's note: Guy Benson is a Fox News contributor.