As Josh Putnam explains, Republicans are moving ahead with a plan intended to limit presidential debates during the primaries -- including a threat that candidates who participate in debates not sanctioned by the party will be excluded from the official ones.
This raises an obvious question: What’s the point of debates leading up to the nomination, anyway?
The answer? It depends.
For the TV networks, especially cable news networks, debates are a good source of inexpensive programming. They're prestigious, too. Network correspondents get to moderate, and network pundits get to analyze a relatively high-profile event.
For the candidates, it’s pretty straightforward: Front-runners don’t want debates, and every other candidate probably wants as many as possible. A dominant front-runner may have enough clout to shut debates down simply by refusing to show up. In other cases, he or she may be able to impose conditions in return for an appearance. A marginal front-runner has less leverage.
What about the parties?
Debates have two main functions. The secondary one is to give party actors a chance to see the candidates in action. Why is that secondary? Because plugged-in party actors, who have the biggest say in the outcome, have other opportunities to meet candidates over the course of the campaign. (Indeed, some actors -- see Sheldon Adelson -- have candidates lining up for their attention.) Still, debates offer an opportunity to watch the people and process up close. And at least some party actors may place a priority on good debate skills, even though they're unlikely to matter in November or beyond.
The primary function of debates, however, is to force candidates to take public positions on public policy, and to make promises about enacting those positions if elected. The more public -- and publicly discussed -- a candidate's promise is, the more likely it will be respected once a candidate takes office. Private assurances aren’t as good as public pledges; televised pledges are better than untelevised ones; high-profile TV beats a random cable TV interview.
Presidential courtship is a game in which parties want their candidates to be entirely controlled by the party, while candidates want as much freedom to maneuver as possible. So the trick for parties is to find a way to get their candidates to make promises even when the candidates would rather not. Parties, however, are also teams that want to win (and therefore might sacrifice policy goals to electoral ambitions). Candidates are also party members themselves, and may have strong policy preferences regardless of incentives.
Overall, however, parties do have incentives to hold debates. So why would parties want to reduce their number? Because party incentives are mostly satisfied after a handful of them. That’s especially true for the post-policy Republican Party, because there just aren’t that many policy choices to worry about one way or another. The main one, as always, is securing a firm commitment never, ever, ever, to raise taxes. So even though most candidates, and everyone in the media, want the same number of debates -- More! -- it makes sense for parties to restrain that enthusiasm.
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