A Fond Look Back At the Republican Debates

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump

It looks as if the reality television series sometimes known as the GOP presidential debates has been canceled.  The Republican front-runner, having successfully manipulated the debates since their debut last summer, has pulled down the curtain, apparently believing he has nothing to gain from additional episodes.

Still, in this crazy political season, we can’t rule out a series renewal.  The Republican National Committee has authorized another debate for April, which might occur in New York City. If that one comes through, it will be debate number 13 — which is appropriate, since a 13-week commitment is now standard for many TV series.

The Democrats, of course, went another way, limiting the number of debates, scheduling them on nights when few people would be watching, and then presenting mostly sedate affairs.  Few would mourn if the Democratic debate season was over.

The end of the GOP debates must come as a disappointment to the networks.  Some of the them were the most-watched programs of their week. In CNN’s case, the Sept. 16 debate gave the network the biggest audience in its history.  Even more important, the debates provided a platform for the networks’ news personalities.  Everyone knows who Megyn Kelly is now!

The debates followed the format of classic reality TV.  Crucially, no one was there “to make friends.” The season started with 16 contestants, and over time the field narrowed.  The most recent debate had four participants, and since then Marco Rubio has been voted of the island, bringing the remaining total to three.  And, as in most reality shows, the most popular character is someone you love to hate.

The debates have had something for everyone.  They’ve provided high comedy and low; they’ve had drama, backstabbing, character assassination, career suicide, pathos and pity.  And they’ve provided some of the most indelible memories of the TV season.

Good government types usually pooh-pooh televised debates as mere theater and unrelated to the “real” business of governing.  They seem to think a president should spend the day in the Oval Office poring over briefing books and dispassionately making policy decisions based on the facts alone.

In reality, presidential leadership requires good communications skills and the ability to make others bend to your will.  If you lack the charisma, wit, and brute personality to succeed in a debate, you’re unlikely to convince the American people or Congress to go along with you.  Sorry, Jeb Bush.

Since the first presidential debate in 1960, televised debates have been among the most consequential events of the campaign season.  A tan and rested John Kennedy is acknowledged to have won the election that year because of the visual contrast he offered with the tired and sweaty Richard Nixon.

Gerald Ford tanked his re-election bid in 1976 when he inexplicably declared that Poland was not in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.  Four years later, Ronald Reagan helped his cause by genially zinging Jimmy Carter (“There you go again”) for his misstatements of Reagan’s record.

Say what you will about this year’s debates and candidates, the voters cannot complain they haven’t been given a chance to make an informed decision.  Not all the debates were edifying — we didn’t really need to hear about the size of Trump’s manhood, for example — but some were practically public policy seminars. For example, there was the last one in Miami, when none of the participants thought it was in his interest to launch ad hominem attacks.

Over the last six months we’ve seen the candidates at their best and worst.  We’ve seen them try to out-bully, out-argue each other and out-charm each other. Their positions on all the issues in the race were examined, attacked and defended.  You might not like where they stand, but real differences among the candidates were delineated.

Donald Trump was obviously the star of the 2015-16 GOP debates.  His bankruptcies, his hiring of undocumented workers, his refusal to release his tax returns,  his lack of religious commitment, his bullying — they were all exposed, and a plurality of primary voters made the informed decision that they just didn’t care.  Again, voters cannot say they were duped or not warned.

If Trump was the star of the debates, I’d nominated Rubio as the Best Supporting Player.  In most of the debates he was the most articulate participant, and in the Feb. 25 Houston debate he delivered the most stinging attack on Trump’s character and business practices (not that it did Rubio any good.)  And yet it was Rubio who suffered the worst debate collapse when Chris Christie accused him of parroting memorized talking points, and he responded by doing just that.  Rubio, who had been surging in New Hampshire before that debate, ended up in fifth place and never seriously recovered his “Marcomentum.”

While we’re at it, congratulations to Fox News for hosting the best, most substantive debates.  It’s not surprising that a right-wing news team was able to identify and then probe on issues that mattered most to right-wing voters.  What’s surprising is that Fox didn’t pander to Trump like the rest of the networks.  Fox had the credibility with viewers to push back against Trump — and it used that credibility, even though it probably cost the network some viewer support.

Whether there will be another Republican debate will largely depend on whether Trump thinks he needs to verbally crush Ted Cruz to avoid a contested convention.  If not, we’ll have to wait for the fall, when the actual nominees go at it.

It’s hard to see how a Trump/Clinton debate would be anything other than a train wreck — and a huge ratings success.


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