The Answer to GOP's Overcrowded Debate Field

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Three months before the first official Republican presidential debate—and with as many as 19 potential GOP candidates—party leaders are struggling to figure out how many can plausibly fit on one stage.

Last week Politico reported a “behind-the-scenes” consensus at the Republican National Committee spring meeting that the first few debates should be capped at 12 candidates. But the confab concluded without any final decisions as to how the culling should occur.

Quantitative measures proposed so far include the candidates’ standing in state and national polls, the number of campaign events and campaign staff members, elective office experience, and fundraising. And while the party would never cop to engaging in affirmative action, some suspect that the formula will be tweaked in ways that ensure gender and racial diversity on the debate stage.

Yet somebody will have to be excluded, and the RNC is already sweating the likely backlash. Last year the RNC triumphantly seized control of the debates to make sure "grassroots conservatives have a greater voice in the presidential primary debate process," unlike in 2012 when “the liberal media interrogated our candidates on issues that were often not a priority to most Americans.” Reports now indicate the party is looking to pawn off final approval of the eligibility criteria onto the partnering media organizations in hopes of deflecting any blame.

The RNC should worry. Any sort of complicated, opaque, bureaucratic formula would not only arouse suspicion, but would also come across as (gasp) liberal. Republican debate rules should be rooted in conservatism: Simple, clear and unflinchingly firm. Reward winners. Don’t coddle losers.

How do you accomplish that? Boil it down to the one objective measure that really matters before the first vote is cast: money. Here’s the only criterion the RNC needs: Only let on stage the top 12 fundraisers.

Polls are lacking as a standard because people are constantly challenging their validity, and early polls mainly test name recognition among a broader group of voters who aren’t yet paying close attention. Crossing off names because of thin resumes is far too arbitrary, especially since voters are often partial to candidates who are fresh faces and lack baggage. Campaign events don’t mean much if no one shows up to them. And campaign staff levels are probably tightly correlated with money raised anyway.

But everyone knows money matters. Before the primaries begin, candidates always try to prove their worth by racking up dollars, and voters gauge candidate viability by tracking the dollars. They do this for good reason: Money is a proxy for determining breadth and depth of initial support, as well as assessing general election competitiveness. Why not embrace reality and formalize its importance in the debates?

Such crudity may rankle the delicate sensibilities of Democratic Party primary voters who are hell-bent on overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. But why should Republicans be squeamish? They celebrated the ruling, arguing that spending money on campaigns -- whether it’s by individuals or corporations -- is the essence of the First Amendment. Sen. Mitch McConnell once filed a legal brief defending the ruling, in which he praised the resulting influx of super PAC funding: “the result of those expenditures has been far more political speech … pure political speech of the sort that the First Amendment most indisputably protects.”

In other words, if you raise the most money, you’ve earned the most speech. So let’s reward those who have accomplished the most in the free market of fundraising.

Supporters of the third-tier candidates who couldn’t scrape up enough pennies to make it to the big show can be expected to show their outrage and complain that such a standard is unfair. How can a long shot raise any money and become competitive if they can’t get debate time?

But you know what outrage is good for? Fundraising!

Consider those shut out of the first debate to be like a runners-up bracket in a double-elimination tournament. In the next round, either you prove the RNC got it wrong by turning your snub into a tsunami of donations and crack the top 12 for the following debate -- or the fundraising free market reconfirms that no one is buying what you are selling, successfully shrinking the field to a manageable size.

Apparently the RNC is already considering using fundraising as part of its criteria. But according to the New York Times, it is success in "small-dollar fund-raising" that is being considered by the committee, presumably so the handful of billionaire sugar daddies that have been propping up candidates can’t simply write a fat check to an affiliated super PAC to ensure their pet candidate makes the cut. Or, to prevent an independently wealthy but politically ludicrous candidate like Donald Trump from buying his way in.

I’m sorry, but what kind of leftist class warfare nonsense is this?! Why should a dollar from David Koch or Sheldon Adelson carry less weight than a dollar from Joe the Plumber? And if Trump can self-finance his campaign more than anyone else, that just means his private sector success has earned him that advantage.

Monetary advantage is something Republicans should be craving. While Democrats rail about the Kochs and their fellow one-percenters buying our democracy, Republicans are panicking that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and allied super PACs will raise a record $2.5 billion

The cold truth for both parties is that Citizens United did not put the GOP in the catbird seat. Spending on behalf of the two 2012 presidential nominees was roughly equal, as it was between the two major parties in the 2014 midterms. With Clinton in 2016, the Democrats are sure to have a nominee who will spearhead a phenomenal fundraising effort. Republicans should be vetting their field to make sure they can say the same. By making fundraising prowess essential for being admitted into the debates, the candidates will be put on notice: Show us what you got.

Democrats awkwardly lament the money chase while trying to master the race course, whereas Republicans have proudly equated campaign cash with the First Amendment. All Republicans have to do is follow their own logic, and their debate conundrum will be resolved. Just let those with the most money have the most speech.

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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