Opinion Extra

Martin Schram: Lindsey Graham’s powerful debate performance most missed

Sen Lindsey Graham speaks during the first of two Republican presidential primary debates on Tuesday.
Sen Lindsey Graham speaks during the first of two Republican presidential primary debates on Tuesday. New York Times

The fifth and final Republican presidential debate of 2015 produced more than a few revelations about the campaign’s political actors — both the candidates and the journalists who cover them.

The most stunning revelation Tuesday stemmed from one candidate’s surprisingly powerful performance. And the realization that it also laid bare, for all to see: a major, ongoing mistake by TV’s unimaginative news deciders that perhaps has irreparably altered the crowded GOP nomination race.

GOP ‘undercard’ debate takes gloomy tone

The night’s most compelling performance was delivered by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — and we soon realized that despite his steady delivery and persuasive arguments, his attacks on Donald Trump would probably have little influence on the GOP front-runner or any others near the top of the pack. That’s because Graham wasn’t allowed to do his debating anywhere near the front-runners.

Graham was one of four Republican presidential hopefuls who were consigned to a not-yet-ready-for-primetime setting because their ratings in the polls were below a threshold established not by Republican Party elders but by CNN’s news deciders. The primetime debate began at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time and was seen by 18 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched debate in presidential primary history.

But Graham, who is one of the most influential members of the Senate, was consigned to debate on the undercard with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Gov. George Pataki. Their debate, which started at 6 p.m., was viewed by an estimated 5.7 million people, less than one-third of the primetime audience.

While most working Americans were still on the job or stuck in traffic, Graham delivered the sort of bold truth-telling that deserved to have been made face-to-face with Trump, who had urged a temporary ban on the immigration of all Muslims into the U.S.

“Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do — declare war on Islam itself,” said Graham, who has made 36 trips to the Mideast. “ISIL (an acronym used for the Islamic State group) would be dancing in the streets … (except they don’t) believe in dancing. This is a coup for them. And to all of our Muslim friends throughout the world, like the King of Jordan and the President of Egypt, I am sorry. He does not represent us. … Declaring war on the religion only helps ISIL. … it’s the worst possible thing he could do in this war. He clearly doesn’t understand this war and how to win it.”

Graham also boldly attacked what he called the “isolationist” proposals of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — but they weren’t there to debate him, either.

In contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb! Bush finally found the campaign mojo worthy of his exclamation point when he confronted Trump face-to-face. If Tuesday’s debate were Bush’s only debate of the campaign, he’d be up there with the front-runners, just as most pols and pundits expected.

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CNN’s journalists (anchor Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash and guest conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt) established a new gold standard for asking compelling, issue-based questions that were debatable. They never crossed into TV’s gotcha gulch of tabloid queries that don’t belong.

TV news execs were wrong from the start in assuming the only alternative to a 13-person debate was to banish some to a separate, way-too-early event. And the Republican Party’s passive, permissive leaders were way too accepting of what we wound up with. In a July column, I had suggested an alternative: randomly divide the now 13 candidates into two groups of six and seven. First, one group debates an issue, then the second group debates it. They can reorganize into new groups and debate new issues. (Or: Divide the pack into three smaller groups.) Then the grand finale: A rebuttal round with everyone on stage in one big panel. Candidates can challenge each other directly about anything said previously — or just make a final statement.

The best news for all who care about fairness in campaign combat is that in 2016 there will be two more Republican debates before voting begins. Fox Business Network hosts a Jan. 14 debate before the Iowa caucus; ABC News hosts a Feb. 6 debate before the New Hampshire primary. So there’s still time for TV’s news deciders — and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus — to finally get it right.

Contact Mr. Schram at martin.schram@gmail.com.