Donald Trump Is Right—and So Is Ben Carson

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson, left, and businessman Donald Trump banter during a commercial break at the second Republican presidential debate. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

After threatening to boycott the next Republican debate if it wasn't shortened and rejiggered, Donald Trump claimed victory on Friday, saying that CNBC, which sponsors the next forum, had agreed to adjust the format, although the business network hasn't confirmed any change.

.@CNBC has just agreed that the debate will be TWO HOURS. Fantastic news for all, especially the millions of people who will be watching!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2015

Whatever adjustments are made between now and the next Republican debate on October 28 in Boulder, Colorado, they're bound to be an improvement. Yes, the debates have been immensely popular, with more than 22 million viewers for the last GOP showdown and more than 15 million for the Democrats' first match. That's an unheard-of windfall for the cable networks, which are lucky to pick up 1 or 2 million viewers in prime time. And it seems to appeal to viewers. But that doesn't mean it's good for the country.

Trump's idea is to have the debate include formal opening and closing statements and be limited to two hours; in the previous two Republican debates, the candidates have only had the opportunity to informally introduce themselves in less than a minute, a distinct difference from the first Democratic debate. CNN cited anonymous sources in confirming that the CNBC event will also last only two hours including commercials. After the second debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, went on for three hours, several candidates complained that it was too long, and pundits remarked that the GOP's "A-team" ended up appearing exhausted, sweaty and depleted. Trump is a vigorous 69 and Carson a fit 62, but even 40-somethings like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio looked like they'd been in a sweat lodge.

Here are the pros and cons of changing the format.


Now We Can Hear From All the Candidates

The new rules will ensure that every candidate gets a turn to introduce themselves to the public meaningfully in their opening and closing statements. While this won't solve the problem of trailing candidates not being called on, it could be a step toward alleviating the massive disparities. Sure, opening statements can be pure blather—but at least the audience gets to hear from, say, John Kasich rather than still more questions about Trump's or Carson's latest incendiary comments.

The Candidates Will Be Better in a Shorter Debate

Nobody looks well put-together or comes across as articulate when they're sweaty and exhausted. It makes candidates look bad on TV, which can ruin a campaign (as Richard Nixon learned in 1960). By the way, the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy lasted only one hour, had no commercials, included eight-minute opening statements and contained more "substance" than all the debates from this year combined. Length doesn't make a debate more serious. Substance does. In a shorter debate, you're less likely to have questions such as "What would you like as your Secret Service code name?"

Less Opportunity to Commit a Gaffe

By sheer mathematical probability, the longer that something goes on, the more likely that something goes wrong. Right now, the GOP's worst nightmare would be Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush tripping up on a key foreign policy fact in the third hour of a marathon debate. Of course, the most famous debate gaffe ever, committed by Rick Perry, may be attributable to more than just exhaustion. Gaffes would be fine if they were incredibly revealing, but they tend to be the kind of brain freeze we all experience, just in front of millions of people. In 1976, Gerald Ford claimed that Eastern Europe wasn't under Soviet domination. Everyone knew that was wrong, and everyone knew he knew it was wrong. He meant to say that we don't recognize their control over Warsaw and Prague.

It Will Be More Organized and Less Confrontational

In Simi Valley, it took about two minutes before the candidates started to insult each other, with Donald Trump taking a swipe at Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina making hay about Trump's bankruptcy claims. Including opening and closing statements and limiting airtime is more conducive to an on-message debate, as moderators looking to be efficient will be less likely to allow the back-and-forth banter to go on.

Drinking Games Will Be Safer

If you played Newsweek's drinking game for the last GOP debate, you had three full hours of chugging to get through. This time, it won't just be the candidates who get cut off.


There Are Too Many Candidates for a Two-Hour Debate to Make Sense

And that's not even including the undercard debate. An overcrowded stage should be reason for more debate time if the goal is to truly get to know who should be the next president. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, each candidate got 90 minutes of total speaking time—and that was just to decide a U.S. Senate seat. With more than 10 candidates, you need a longer debate, the thinking goes.

The Ratings Have Been Great Anyway

Civic responsibility aside, viewers haven't exactly been turned off by the long debate times and lack of bookending statements. The previous GOP event had more than 20 million viewers, and the Fox News debate broke records. As the NFL proves on a weekly basis, an overlong affair punctuated by constant commercials can sometimes be the most popular TV of all. So if the public is digging it, why cut it short—especially if the networks are getting rich?

Drinking Games Become More Dangerous

This one could go either way. With only two hours, viewers might be encouraged to drink more or just as much in a shorter period of time. Opening and closing statements from candidates tend to be rife with the political jargon that debate drinking games are built around.

On balance, it's a close call. But when you weigh all the factors, two hours is plenty, more structure is welcome, and that makes Trump and Carson right.