Thursday night’s GOP fiasco began with Donald Trump trumpeting the size of his trumpet and concluded with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus and the rest of the party establishment committing ritual suicide on the debate stage. It was perhaps the best encapsulation of the primary to date, and it made me want to take a shower afterwards. To quote moderator Chris Wallace, “Gentlemen, you’ve got to do better than this.”
After two hours of watching E Street Band rejects “Big Donald,” “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” battle it out in Motor City, it is safe to say that the modicum of faith I had left in the primary process (and in particular the debates) had been bludgeoned out of existence. More time was spent on Mr. Trump’s hands and Mr. Rubio’s sweat glands than on anything remotely related to policy or vision. The result was a poorly produced political-themed Kardashians spinoff that would probably get canceled after its first season on E! or Bravo. At the beginning of primary season, some people thought it necessary to pregame the Republican debates; seven months in, the debates themselves leave viewers feeling just as intoxicated and disoriented as any pregame.
Debates are an important part of the primary process. Unlike meticulously planned campaign events and scripted stump speeches, debates leave candidates vulnerable to attack, and they challenge the candidates to effectively convey and, more importantly, defend, their message under pressure. What we are seeing today are not debates, and the Republican Party owes it to the American people to change that. This leaves us with one question: what is to be done?
For what it’s worth, Fox News did their best to curate a meaningful debate experience. The moderators were well prepared and did not hesitate to use graphics and video clips as addendums to their questions and follow ups. This tactic seems to have backfired though; the more they pushed against Mr. Trump with pesky “facts,” the more defensive he got, and the more defensive he got, the more we heard about Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) thoughts on men with small hands. It was a valiant effort on the part of the moderators, and it continued to showcase Mr. Trump’s utter illiteracy on all matters presidential, but it proved to be in vain. Luckily, there are several other options for improving the debates in the coming years.
The most obvious choice is that we just scrap the Republican debates entirely, and only have the Democrats debate. Anyone who has been keeping track of both parties’ primaries is well aware that the Democratic debates are so much more advanced in every substantive way that it is difficult to compare the two at all. Let’s say the two parties’ debates have been racing cross-country from San Francisco to Washington D.C. The Democratic car is currently zipping through the Ohio countryside, top down and bumping “Hail to the Chief” on the radio. The Republican car was last seen careening off the Golden Gate Bridge, its tires blown out and its engine on fire. The Democratic debates, barring the occasional interjection from Jim “I killed a man and laughed about it” Webb and Martin “Who?” O’Malley, concerned themselves with real questions about policy proposals, executive priorities, the future of our nation and absolutely no phallic punchlines.
That being said, the GOP may not be so partial to that option. To be fair, they could still have televised events, but they would have to drop the pretense of being debates. They could do tournament-style arm wrestling or play round robins of mercy. Most of us haven’t played mercy since we stopped having recess, but it’s not like the conversation at any of the so-called “debates” has risen beyond a fourth-grade level. Or perhaps the party should place all the candidates in the Jersey Shore house and follow their daily routines with hidden cameras. Each week, the candidate who got the fewest votes in the latest round of primaries would be voted out of the house. Such a setup would, in all likelihood, better illustrate the fundamental differences between each candidate far more effectively than any two-hour debate. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a sensible and feasible solution to the debate problem that doesn’t turn one party’s candidates into an episode of Big Brother.
When Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) was still running for president, one of his most effective applause lines went something along the lines of “I am the last person Hillary Clinton wants to see on the debate stage.” The governor makes a good point. He is a skilled former prosecutor whose debating prowess may prove to have dealt an irreparable blow to the Rubio campaign shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Unfortunately, we will never get to see Christie and Clinton clash mano a mano. But what if we could?
Instead of pitting candidates against only members of their own party, why not have candidates from both parties debate each other during the primary? The reasoning is simple; too often the Republican debates devolve into chaos because their race is not one of policy or position, but one of character. All of the remaining candidates (with the exception, perhaps, of Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio)) have roughly the same stances on most issues. As a candidate, the only way to stand out amongst such similar offerings is to convince the voters that your competition doesn’t really believe what they are saying. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) never challenges the positions Trump or Rubio assert to have. Instead he makes character attacks in an attempt to prove that those assertions are inherently false, and that his competitors are only saying them to pander to voters. The same is true for the behavior of Mr. Trump and Senator Rubio. They are too similar on paper to have a debate on anything other than hand size.
No one, however, doubts that they are different from the Democrats. With all six major party candidates on one stage, there would be a true diversity of ideas present. Instead of taking potshots at the other party to garner applause, candidates from opposing parties would be forced to discuss and debate face-to-face. It is much easier to spew vitriol into a camera than into the face of a living, breathing person. It is also much easier to display your presidential poise and temperament when confronted with issues of substance rather than the frivolities that have dominated the Republican debate scene. In this case, the Democrats would keep the Republicans grounded. Perhaps sometime in the future it will be necessary for the Republicans to keep the Democrats grounded. While it may be too late to save Big Donald, Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, there is still hope for the next crop of candidates. Bipartisan debates are what this country needs to re-legitimize the campaign process and inject a bit of civilization into primary season. Then again, I’m totally down for the Jersey Shore idea too, if anyone wants to try it.
Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Jacobin appears alternate Mondays this semester.