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Trump Is Not the Problem With GOP Debates

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Republicans have a presidential debate problem. Again.

In the 2012 race, Republican primary candidates debated 20 times. Among Republican leaders, a consensus emerged that the frequency and tenor of the debates, which provided a regular platform for sniping and strong incentives to veer toward the fringe, damaged the party's eventual nominee, Mitt Romney. His proposal for "self-deportation" by undocumented immigrants -- which Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus described after the election as "horrific" -- was made at a Republican debate in Florida.

Vowing to keep the 2016 train on the tracks, the RNC changed the rules last year, limiting the number of debates. Fox News, the RNC's favored network, then restricted the number of candidates who would appear at the first debate this week. The intention was to keep the most volatile and unviable off the stage. Then Donald Trump happened.

Yet Trump is more a manifestation of the Republicans' problem than its cause. Republican pollster David Winston, an adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, probably wasn't thinking about Trump when he produced a new analysis of the 2012  Republican debates; Trump, after all, made no appearance on 2012 debate stages. But Trumpism was still very much in evidence.

Winston and his co-authors focused not on the quality of debate rhetoric in 2012 but on the categories: "Though Republican voters consistently said (in primary exit polls and surveys) that economic issues were their top priority in determining who to vote for, questions about the economy were largely underrepresented throughout the debates."

Winston has a penchant for viewing political contests through the lens of economic arguments, so his frustration is understandable. But questions on the economy weren't especially enlightening or contentious in 2012 in part because they tended to provoke broad agreement among the candidates. Sure, the experienced politicians piled on Herman Cain's wifty "9-9-9" flat-tax plan when Cain momentarily commanded too much attention. But the quadrennial Republican competition over which set of generous tax cuts would generate which miraculous level of growth doesn't produce many sparks. (Unlike another of Cain's loopy proposals -- to electrify the border fence.)

This time around, Jeb Bush is promising 4 percent annual growth. Conservative pundit Larry Kudlow is encouraging Bush and his rivals to push for 5 percent growth instead, presumably on the grounds that five is larger than four. Actual growth in the most recent quarter was 2.3 percent.  

A group of conservative wonks, perhaps mindful of the failure of President George W. Bush's tax cuts to produce high economic growth, would like to steer Republican economic debate toward more realistic terrain. But no Republican candidate appears prepared to publicly abandon the supply-side nostrums that have dominated Republican thinking since the 1980s (or to acknowledge that the rapid economic growth of the 1990s followed a tax hike that many Republicans swore would doom the economy).

As with economics, Republican debates about foreign policy are generally about degrees of purported toughness, not differences in direction. Regardless of specific region or political dynamics, Republicans (except for former candidate Ron Paul and his offspring) promise to deliver the hammer. Winston's tally found that foreign policy accounted for a fifth of 2012 debate questions. However, few decisive arguments resulted.

Whether Republicans or Democrats take the stage, it's inevitable that the hottest arguments occur on issues about which a party is most divided. Take immigration, a topic that accounted for only 7 percent of 2012 GOP debate questions but appeared to do lasting damage to Romney.

Right now, Republican proposals on the issue range from mass deportation (Trump) to a pathway to legalization (Bush). But even if the battle over Trump and immigration receded, other divisive fights would arise. (The Republican elite probably isn't any more eager to hear Mike Huckabee's rhetoric on abortion or Ted Cruz's attacks on fellow Republicans than it is to listen to Trump denigrate Mexicans.)

Anger is a proven way to win hearts and minds among the Tea Party base. And as long as that base is large and empowered, its champions will embarrass those hoping to project a more moderate face.

Ultimately, the Republican debate problem coming to Fox News this Thursday isn't about Trump, who would be marginalized in a healthier party. It isn't about the number or ground rules of debates. It's about Republicans. Until one half of the party stops being embarrassed by the words and deeds of the other half, debates will remain an unpleasant experience. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net