On Tuesday night, CNN drew 18 million viewers for the main GOP presidential debate. As currently scheduled, the GOP will have debates on Jan. 14 and Jan. 28, with the Iowa caucuses to be held Feb 1. Here are some suggestions to improve the discussion, sharpen the race and prepare the GOP electorate to make its final decision:
1. Only one debate. There is no need for two in two weeks (each on a Fox station). We are approaching 2012-style debate overload. If the Republican National Committee won't do its job to control the number of debates, the candidates should collectively decide one is enough.
2. No undercard debate. Everyone has had a chance to make his or her case over and over again. If by now they don't have enough support to face the other leaders, they do not deserve airtime.
3. No national polls. It has been ridiculous from the get-go to use these notoriously useless polls. The variation in methodology and the simple fact that we do not have a national primary weigh strongly in favor of ignoring them, especially as the gap grows between national polls and the state polls that matter.
4. Top five candidates. Since candidates with no real shot refuse to get out of the race, the field is still large. If the point is to give the viewers the most informative debate among the people with a shot to win, the stage needs to shrink. Only then can there be prolonged interaction among the people in actual contention. Choosing candidates who are in the top five in either Iowa or New Hampshire will do this.
5. Get specific. "Destroy the Islamic State" is not a policy; it's an aspiration. The moderators have a responsibility to zero in on what specifically the candidates intend to do and how they are going to accomplish it. It's not as though the candidates lack proposals on entitlements, taxes, spending and health care. There has, however, been too little interest in getting the debate participants to defend their ideas and critique one another's. (You have to go back months to recall a smidgen of a debate between Ben Carson and Donald Trump on the relative merits of a flat tax and a progressive tax code.)
6. No over-produced video openings. Enough said.
All that would give us a single debate within a week or so of the Iowa caucuses with Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. You could then ask questions like:
"Sen. Rubio, what is wrong with a flat tax and/or a value-added tax (VAT), as other candidates have proposed?
"Sen. Cruz, why is that wrong?
"Gov. Kasich, how can you be a budget hawk and support expanding Medicaid? (It's amazing no one has really grilled him on this issue.)
"Dr. Carson, one last time - what exactly is your health-care plan?
"Sen. Cruz, why are all the military and intelligence experts and military historians who say you cannot carpet-bomb your way to victory against the Islamic State wrong?
"Mr. Bush, why is what Sen. Cruz just said wrong?
"Gov. Christie, without a super-majority in both houses, how do you get to a 28 percent top marginal tax rate, and why is it worth the hit to revenue to reduce taxes for the richest Americans?
"Mr. Trump, why were Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan wrong about free trade?
"Anyone disagree with Mr. Trump?
"Would each candidate please tell us his plan for reducing poverty?"
And so on. Knowing things matters, as does the ability to convince skeptics of the rightness of your position. It's time to get down to evaluating who can actually do the job of president.