Debating the debate over debates

Story highlights

  • The next Republican presidential debate will take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday
  • Donna Brazile: List of demands managed to make candidates look petty and weak

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chair for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Debate season is in high gear. On the GOP side, it has devolved into a debate about the debates, which has in turn spawned a debate over the debate about the debates. It's probably best to begin backing out of this rabbit hole. After all, this country has a lot of real and pressing problems, so we don't really need to go meta on the debate process.

But before we reverse course, it's worth taking a look at what's down this particular rabbit hole, because they can be absolutely fascinating places.
In the aftermath of what they perceived as a CNBC event full of "gotcha" questions, the GOP candidates attempted to take the debate process into their own hands. But their clumsy and contentious steps in that direction actually raise questions about their ability to handle any kind of responsibility.
    It wasn't supposed to be this way.
    In the wake of the 20 raucous Republican debates that lit up the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus tried to provide a kinder, gentler debate schedule. The number was pared down to 12, and as many as possible were organized with media organizations that the RNC presumably hoped would be sympathetic to Republican candidates, such as Fox News or the business-friendly CNBC.
    Donna Brazile
    Of course, that did not go quite according to plan -- even the first GOP debate on Fox News featured fireworks between moderator Megyn Kelly and surprise GOP front-runner Donald Trump. If the RNC didn't anticipate that, it's probably mostly because neither they nor anyone else anticipated Donald Trump.
    By the time the third debate rolled around on CNBC, there were candidates who needed to break through, a network that wanted to maximize the impact of the debate and a GOP base that seethed with anger at mainstream journalists. It was the making of the perfect media storm, and several of the candidates knew just how to make it rain.
    Savvy Ted Cruz used his first chance to speak to deliver a diatribe against questions that he said failed to address substantive issues (though the question he was asked was about his opposition to the compromise over raising the debt limit.) But Cruz's real goal was to bash the media -- a move he knew would score him more points than any number of answers to substantive questions.
    A little later in the debate, with the applause that Cruz garnered for his broadsides fresh in his ears, Chris Christie launched a tirade over a question about fantasy football. And even more cynically, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson questioned the truthfulness and intentions of the media when asked perfectly legitimate questions about Rubio's math-challenged tax plan and Carson's history of hawking Mannatech, a questionable dietary supplement.
    After the CNBC debate, the campaigns decided to take over the debate process by banding together -- although they ended up disbanding almost immediately.
    This is not surprising. The campaigns have such starkly differently agendas that they each ended up advocating for different solutions.
    For example, the candidates at the bottom of the polls, such as Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham, want rule changes that would allow them to escape the dreaded "kids table" debate and be seen on the main stage. Comfortably sitting at the top of the polls, Ben Carson reportedly wants debates that more closely resemble forums presented as livestreams over the Internet rather than on TV. From his perspective, the less actual debating that takes place, the better.
    Cruz has been gleefully floating the idea of having the debates moderated by panels composed of rightwing luminaries such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. That triumvirate would undoubtedly be much harder on the establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush than any imaginable set of moderators recruited from MSNBC and Mother Jones. But a "dream panel" like this would deprive him of the opportunity to milk applause by attacking the moderators.
    And Cruz wasn't the only one who seemed to be working at cross-purposes to himself. Priebus tried to get out in front of the outrage train by "suspending" the upcoming debate with NBC and Telemundo (although he refrained from any action against the Fox Business Channel debate, which will be held sooner.)
    That leaves the possibility that there may be no debate by the GOP candidates at all for a Spanish-language network, completely undermining the efforts by the RNC to halt the GOP's demographic death spiral in national elections. Of course, Donald Trump probably couldn't be more pleased about that.
    In the end, only some of the campaigns ended up endorsing a list of debate demands that included such things as keeping the temperature at debate venues under 67 degrees (it gets hot when you spend two hours wrapping yourself in the flag), candidate approval of on-air graphics, a time limit of two hours (something I think we can all agree on) and a ban on yes-or-no questions or questions involving hand-raising.
    All that list of demands managed to do was to make the candidates look petty and weak. Fox's Megyn Kelly joked "and then maybe, like, a foot massage?"
    Even worse, the whole affair gave President Barack Obama the opportunity to mock Republican candidates for boasting that they would stare down Vladimir Putin even as they struggle to take questions from CNBC moderators.
    All in all, since the last GOP debate, the week and a half of hand wringing over the debate process has seen all of the posturing, recrimination and in-fighting that any fan of politics could want. And with debates over debates like this, who needs actual debates?