GOP debate too early, too goofy, shows process is busted

Selecting a president shouldn't be a circus act

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Dear readers, I have an ethical dilemma. Or maybe it’s just a conflict with in my own vanity and pomposity. Whatever.

The issue is that I really don’t want to help contribute to or further enable a pernicious aspect of American elections epitomized by the Fox News debate. Writing a “straight” news analysis or commentary would be doing just that – legitimizing what every sane person on the planet knows is an idiotic way to pick a leader: a pseudo-debate between virtually random Republicans 15 months before the general election.  This is the civic version of a delusional episode — kind of fascinating to watch but pathetic and unhealthy.

Satire is an effective and cathartic response to tonight’s reality TV programming. Even though, ironically, Jon Stewart chose tonight to sign off, there are plenty of other skilled professionals with a license to skewer. I hate to recommend that you abandon me here, but, honestly, go to YouTube for the best takedowns of this weird spectacle.

I am probably violating some canon of journalism by not praising any and all high profile, national debates as important civic moments. 

But I suggest that the significant story here is that having a circus act like this more than a year before the election is a symptom of a seriously unhealthy process: It drains the process of dignity; it brings out the very worst in politicians and the political press corps; and it further subordinates the dull business of government to the sport and spectacle of campaigning.  

The length of campaigns in America is bizarre compared to every other democracy in the world.  This year’s election in Canada will last 11 weeks and is the longest in its history.  Israel and the United Kingdom had elections this year that took about six weeks. They worked just fine.

The interminable length of our campaigns, in my book, is a corruption of our founding ideals and a dire systematic problem that needs reforming, not cheerleading.

I am not sure what the argument for long campaigns is. The current process wasn’t intentionally designed; it was spawned by the unintended consequences of various attempted reforms and accidents.  I also can’t imagine a strong case that tonight’s debate, in August 2015, is good for the Republic.  Maybe the defense is that more exposure to civic “discourse” is intrinsically good and educative.  There can never be too much scrutiny of potential presidents. 

Well, based on the historically low trust Americans have in government, it isn’t working.  Donald Trump’s political delinquent act and two rounds of set piece orations by 17 wannabes won’t help.  Tonight, the macro is more important than the micro, and I encourage that perspective.

I’ll sully my ethical purity  briefly for a few observations:

  • Trump’s participation obviously adds to the goofiness and trivialization of the event -- and to its entertainment value. If he weren’t on the stage, I bet the ratings would have been way lower.  He is judged as a performer, a circus act, a post-modern celebrity, a gag.  He was a Big Apple on a stage with eight oranges and a neurosurgeon.  His presence made it hard to take the whole thing seriously and it feels dirty to give him more attention.
  • I was truly shocked that none of the others had the guts to take Trump on and speak even little, tiny truths to his bully bluster.  That diminished them all.  Judging from the 5 p.m. opening act, Carly Fiorina might have taken a few swings at him. She’s hardcore.
  • If Jeb’s last name were Hedges not Bush, I have a hunch he would have been onstage with the warm-up act.
  • I expect the consensus among the handicappers over the next few days will be that Marco Rubio and John Kasich did well and showed some skill.
  • On the downside, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush weren’t very coherent. I don’t know about Chris Christie, but his dust-up with Paul was nasty on both sides.
  • It doesn’t appear that any of these characters buy in to the Republican National Committee’s analysis that the party has to improve its performance with women and minorities to win a presidential election. Good luck with that, men.
  • As I point out at every opportunity, the following Republicans all led in polls at some point in 2012: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. So the handicapping game at this point is pretty useless. You won’t miss much if you tune back in after New Year’s Eve.
  • Fox News ran so many ads by the NRA trashing Michael Bloomberg that somebody must think he might run. That would be fun.

Finally, I can’t imagine that Hillary Clinton didn’t have a lot of fun tonight.  I think the rest of us would prefer that the whole campaign hibernate until, I don’t know, Labor Day 2016. That seems like plenty of time to pick a winner.

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