The bigger the crowd, the less we learn.
We’ll be watching Thursday night’s televised debate among the top 10 Republican candidates for president — as well as the earlier kids’ table debate among the seven remaining candidates — but we’ve learned first-hand these things don’t tell you much.
The Sun-Times editorial board has hosted many debates, among candidates for everything from governor to Water Reclamation District commissioner, as part of its endorsement process. The contenders come in, sit at a big table and go at it — or not. When it’s a fairly large group — five or six candidates or more — good luck drilling down below the platitudes.
We usually walk out thinking our homework has just begun, which is what we hope folks watching Thursday’s debate will think.
It helps when there’s a crowd to have moderators who play it tough, cutting off stump speeches and demanding some small nugget of original thought. Let’s hope Fox News’ three co-moderators go at it like bulldogs.
If, for example, a candidate says “Immigration reform must start with securing the border,” as absolutely every one of them will, somebody should shoot back: “Great. Got it. And then what would you do about the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants already here?”
But a crowded debate is not a useless debate. Gut impressions matter. Who’s a conciliator and who’s obnoxious? Who’s decisive and who’s very, very angry.
It’s been six months since we hosted a debate among the five men who ran for mayor of Chicago this year, but we remember this: Rahm Emanuel did his best to say very little. Chuy Garcia recited talking points. Doc Walls was unexpectedly eloquent on the problems of the poor. And Willie Wilson asked everybody to join him in a prayer,which of course everybody did.
But we went for the guy who bit his tongue.
Debates become more informative as marginal candidates drop out. Thursday’s crowded main debate, with colorful characters like Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, might be fun, but the real business of sizing up presidential material has just begun.
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