It’s never too early for a presidential election to descend into stupidity and noise. This year, the stupidity level is already off the charts, thanks to the inescapable Donald. But Trump is ultimately a sideshow: he has zero chance of actually becoming president. The serious race, on the Republican side of things, kicks off in earnest on August 6, with the first Republican presidential debate. And, by design, that debate is going to be all heat and no light.
Just how stupid is the debate going to be? Well, for one thing, as the New York Times explains, even the identity of the debaters is random. Only 10 of the 16 candidates will appear on stage, and sampling error alone, it turns out, could easily make the choice between the two Ricks (that would be Perry and Santorum) into effectively a coin-toss. (The top ten candidates in national polls will appear, but those polls have a lot of built-in error.) What determines which candidates will make it onto this particularly important national stage? Dumb luck.
But it gets so much worse than that. The Times wonders whether there might be a better way of “choosing 10 candidates and excluding six at this early stage.” But if you’re going to ask that question, you should also ask the more basic question, which is: why are we putting 10 candidates on stage in the first place?
The best debates take place between two individuals, or in any case, two sides. That’s what makes any debate between a Republican and a Democrat reasonably compelling: the stark contrast between their respective views of the world. Primary debates are also an attempt to delineate different views of the world. But because the differences between Republicans are much smaller than the differences between Republicans and Democrats, it’s harder to to make those distinctions. As a result, it’s crucial that the debate is designed very carefully, so as to make it as easy as possible to distinguish the candidates, to spotlight the personalities which matter, or, at the very least, to help clearly identify the range of opinions on any given issue.
None of those things is going to happen under the current system.
For one thing, it’s simply impossible to be edified on any subject at all if you have 10 different candidates on stage. The opinions given are going to be short and superficial, since the candidates will have very little time to make an impression. And there’s no way that any audience will be able to keep 10 different candidates’ positions — on multiple topics, no less — clear in their minds. The result is that the debate is going to become, even more than most political debates, a personality contest where substance is an afterthought. May the best showman win.
The result is going to be a debate which is very long on tactics, and very short on actual, you know, debate. What matters is not going to be what you say, but rather which of the other nine candidates you choose to attack (and thereby shine a spotlight on). The post-debate commentary, which is in many ways even more important than the debate itself, will also concentrate on the tactics, and will help to cement the most-attacked candidates as the presumptive front-runners. Any candidate’s attempt to present a coherent policy position will be naive at best, foolhardy at worst.
What’s more, the wrong candidates will be on stage. Donald Trump has no problem getting television airtime or publicity, and his presence will inevitably turn the whole thing into a clown show. He should be uninvited, in the name of sense and seriousness. Other candidates like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, who are only running to increase their public profile and get lucrative future media contracts, should similarly be uninvited. At the same time it seems unfair to exclude the only woman in the Republican race, Carly Fiorina. And Josh Voorhees has made the case that John Kasich should also be on stage, if only to force everybody else to clarify exactly what they think about the crucial issue of immigration.
Most importantly, however, the organizers of any single debate should not try to fit everybody in. There will be many debates; if each one actually advanced the conversation, rather than being a cacophony of 10 men preening, then the debates might collectively achieve something meaningful. Start off with, say, Jeb Bush vs Rand Paul — thereby allowing the country to get a real feel for them both. Then, in the next debate, feature Scott Walker vs Marco Rubio. A series of bilateral debates would be informative, and would test the candidates in a way that an endless lineup of soundbites never will. If you really need to feature Trump somewhere, for instance, then put him up against Chris Christie.
Such a series would produce real news, rather than just horse-race punditry; would force the candidates to engage, rather than just posture; would create something, rather than nothing. But it’s not going to happen. Instead, we’re going to get an unedifying spectacle which does no favors to any of the candidates, which hurts the Republican party, and which mocks democracy. Surely we can do better than this.