Does Donald Trump Now Control The Debate Rules?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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CNBC has caved to Donald Trump’s demands to keep the next GOP debate limited to two hours, and I, for one, am ambivalent.

First, why this concerns me…

Trump is probably right when he says the cable networks hosting these debates want to “sell more commercials.” But this profit motive also gives Trump more leverage to negotiate. Because he’s a ratings boon, the risk that Trump could boycott would have serious financial ramifications, and the fact that CNBC to so quickly acquiesced might only embolden him to make more demands in the future.

What if Trump says he won’t appear at the next debate unless the debate is limited to just five candidates? Or what if he decides one hour is enough time? Would any cable network dare defy Mr. Trump — and risk putting all that effort into hosting  a debate that doesn’t matter?

Where does it end?

If the motives for hosting a debate were purely in the interest of public service, outlets might be more inclined to stick to their guns when it comes to journalistic independence. Though ratings would suffer, there might be some price to pay for candidates who choose to skip a debate. But we will never know, because there’s a conflict of interest. (The ironic lesson here might be that the free market doesn’t automatically solve every moral conundrum — although, maybe Donald Trump is proving that it does?)

On the other hand…

It’s unclear to me why the GOP seems to have outsourced significant details such as how long debates may last to the outlets.

It’s fair to ask this question: Were the debates made for the candidates or the candidates for the debates?

Clearly, the primary goal of a debate is not to enrich a media company, but presumably to inform Republican primary voters (who are deciding on their nominee), and (secondarily) to make it more likely a Republican actually wins the presidency.

In this regard, limiting a debate to two hours seems utterly reasonable.

From a personal standpoint, the Fox debate was around two hours long, and felt appropriate. The CNN debate that followed was three hours long, and I’m not entirely sure it has yet ended. If I, a political nerd, found it tiresome, what are the odds the average Republican voters needed that last hour?

There should also be some concern about fatiguing the participants. Nobody wants to admit to being “low energy,” but candidates who are tired are also more susceptible to gaffes. If baseball teams worried about preserving their starting pitchers for the postseason keep a close eye on the pitch count, why shouldn’t a Republican Party, worried about keeping candidates sharp and healthy, give at least some consideration to the cumulative toll extended debates might take?

At the end of the day, I’m happy this debate will last just two hours. But the real question is whether or not CNBC, by getting greedy, opened up a Pandora’s box, whereby Donald Trump is now effectively in charge of the parameters of the GOP primary debates, going forward.