At this stage, the Republican presidential debates are less an intellectual exchange than an exercise in crowd control. With no clear front-runner, the nomination battle is wide open, and every Republican with an ounce of political ambition has decided to run. Plus, they all remember the wild ride of the 2012 primaries, when it seemed like everyone got to be the front-runner for 15 minutes. This offers the tantalizing prospect of an unlikely rise to power, or at least the prospect of book sales and a show on Fox.
With such a large and crowded field, maybe it makes more sense to approach these, not as regular debates, but as a kind of reality TV competition show, the kind where a crowd of contenders show off their skills as performers—and their ability to appeal to the crowd at home—and are winnowed down week after week until only the most appealing performers remain.
In other words, maybe Fox should have borrowed Cat Deeley from “So You Think You Can Dance” to announce our 17 contestants for America’s Next Top Candidate. And who knows? Maybe the format could be improved with a panel of successful and/or has-been politicians serving as judges and offering critiques to the candidates. Newt Gingrich can take the Simon Cowell role.
The best way to look at these early Republican debates, then, is to watch them the way you would watch the early weeks of a reality TV competition. You’re not trying to pick the ultimate winner yet, and you can’t even remember the names of all the contestants. You’re just tuning in to enjoy the spectacle and pick out your early favorites.
So let’s organize the results of last night’s debate that way. Who are the candidates we want to vote off the island right away? Who are the ones we want to stick around for a little while longer but who aren’t likely to go all the way? Who are the ones that won’t make the finals, but who we hope they bring back in a guest appearance? And who do we want to see at the top of the field as the contest reaches its finale?
Let’s start with the dead weight that clearly needs to be winnowed out.
Who Should Get Voted Off the Island
Donald Trump: Let’s start with the guy who has actually been a reality TV star. He was a judge on “The Apprentice” but not a contestant, and now we’re seeing why. He blew it right off the bat, by refusing to promise he will support the eventual Republican nominee and disavow an independent challenge. “I cannot say I have to respect the person that, if it’s not me, the person that wins…. I can totally make that pledge if I’m the nominee.” That’s admirably frank: he cannot promise to support any person who “is not me.” His whole campaign is just a personal ego trip. And when Rand Paul jumped in to say Trump “buys politicians,” he gave a real life “shruggie.” He talked about not having time for “political correctness,” but his version of being politically incorrect is just to be a touchy jerk.
Trump should get voted off right away—but let’s face it, in these competitions, there’s always that one guy you hate who somehow keeps coming back week after week. Trump is that guy, and he’s going to burn through a lot more air time before everyone finally gets sick of him (except, of course, a hard core of obnoxious fans).
Ben Carson: Carson gained a lot of attention and a spot at main debate by giving fiery speeches that roused the conservative base. The Dr. Carson who showed up last night sounded like he prepared for the debate by prescribing himself a bottle of Prozac. He just got lost and seemed to have no compelling reason to be there.
Rick Santorum: He spent a lot of time talking about how big a front-runner he was last time, which had the opposite of the intended effect. It reminded us that he’s not a front-runner now. Santorum stood out last time around when Republicans were desperately looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney. Without that kind of imperative, he doesn’t seem necessary any more.
Lindsey Graham: Graham is not a dynamic speaker or charismatic presence. He seems to be animated by his desire to push a hawkish line in the Middle East, but when the moderators gave him an unfavorable setup about his credulous belief in global warming, he went ahead and ran with it, declaring that if came down to him versus Hillary Clinton, “We won’t be debating about the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions.” Which reminds us exactly why we’re not interested in him as a candidate.
Jim Gilmore: When you have to lead off your debate appearance by giving us a summary of your resumé, that’s a good indication you probably shouldn’t be running. Worse, Gilmore’s resumé is the kind you would expect from a respectable, mid-level elder statesmen selected to head some kind of commission. Which is probably what he should be doing instead of this. Gilmore was a pretty decent governor, as I recall, and I’ve met him once or twice and he seems like a perfectly decent fellow. But he was once the governor of my very own state, yet I have to struggle to remember that he’s running.
George Pataki: The former governor of New York—ten years ago—told us we need someone who has been outside politics a while, and he tried to make a virtue of his private sector experience. But when someone builds a successful career in business, then moves into politics, that can seem like a breath of fresh air. When someone has spent the past ten years in the private sector after reaching the end of the road in politics, he’s not gaining valuable business world experience. He’s just cashing in. Ultimately, Pataki has the same problem as Gilmore: there’s no compelling reason why we need him and not someone else.
Who Should Stick Around But Get Voted Off Soon
Mike Huckabee: I hate to say this, since Huckabee is not from my wing of the right. And his big brainwave last night was to propose invoking the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to ban abortion by executive decree, in defiance of the Supreme Court—a spectacularly bad idea on every level. But boy is he a good talker with a sense of humor, and he reminded us why he was a front-runner in previous contests. No, I don’t think he’s the right man, nor do I think he has a niche that is not being filled better by someone else. (If you’re of a more religious bent, go with Ted Cruz.) But he’s someone I don’t mind keeping around a little longer just to help keep the spectacle entertaining—so long as he has no realistic chance of winning.
Rick Perry: I really hate to say this, too, since I still remember how much I liked Rick Perry when he entered the race four years ago, back when we really needed a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. But Perry needed to dominate the “kids’ table” debate, and he…did fine. I want him to stay around and have the chance to grow on us, but this is turning out to be a very different year from 2012, with a much more competitive field.
John Kasich: Kasich is not really a conservative ideologue and doesn’t really pretend to be an ideologue. He’s a populist pragmatist. I’m not sure if that makes him a compelling candidate, and I suspect there wouldn’t have been much applause for him if the debate hadn’t been in his own state. But he at least offers a different approach, and it would be nice to keep him around just for the sake of variety.
Who Should Come Back as an All-Star
Bobby Jindal: He’s smart and knowledgeable and has a lot of great things to say, but just somehow lacks the distinctiveness and special charisma that could make him a top-tier candidate. He’ll be a good convention speaker and campaign surrogate—and he could be an absolutely terrific Secretary of Health and Human Services, the sort we would want to put in charge of dismantling Obamacare and building an alternative.
Carly Fiorina: She’s a firecracker with a feisty spirit and a quick wit. She absolutely stole the show at the kids’ table debate and made you wish she had been there at the adults’ table. But she’s never held any elective office and lost her one campaign, for a California Senate seat in 2010. She will make a devastating surrogate against Hillary Clinton and a terrific Commerce Secretary.
Chris Christie: Somebody has to be designated to beat up on the candidate named “Paul” for being a big softie wuss on terrorism. Rick Santorum fulfilled that role last time around against Ron Paul. Christie went hammer and tongs with Rand Paul last night, and we need that. He might make a good Attorney General—for any president except Rand Paul.
Who Should Be a Finalist
In any good reality show, you end up with a diverse line-up of distinctive personalities. Here’s what a good final line-up might look like.
Jeb Bush: The Reasonable Man. Bush talked about not using immigration as a wedge issue and generally established himself as the sober, reasonable candidate—without looking too much like an establishment compromiser. Surprisingly, Jeb seems comfortable and genuine, and he manages not to remind you too much of his father and brother, which does a lot to get rid of the sense of dynasticism. His weakness is that he may be too “reasonable” and not throw around enough red meat for movement conservatives.
Marco Rubio: The Candidate of the Future. He emphasized his status as someone who is young and in touch with the struggles of the middle class, as opposed to the wealthy senior citizen he might face in the general election. His weakness is that he occasionally seems a little too blow-dried, glib, and practiced.
Ted Cruz: The Authentic Conservative. Cruz talked a lot about “telling the truth” and contrasted himself to the “campaign conservatives,” i.e., those who are conservatives only for the duration of the campaign. Cruz has no problem throwing around red meat, but there were moments last night when that made him seem a little too desperate, as if he were trying to move himself up in the polls by being the most radical candidate up there.
Rand Paul: The Different Kind of Republican. Rand Paul emphasized some of his heterodox views on war and national security, and he boasted about his outreach to minority voters and how well he does against Hillary Clinton in swing states. But he has to tamp down his temptation to keep it real when someone like Chris Christie gets under his skin.
Scott Walker: The Aggressively Normal Guy. Scott Walker got a bit lost in last night’s debate. He didn’t hurt himself, but he didn’t quite shine. Yet that’s part of his charm. He quoted a description of himself as “aggressively normal” and talked about facing up to hostility and vicious opposition without lowering himself to their level. That’s a good thing to have in the final mix, though we’ll have to see if Walker still tends to fade into the background in a smaller field.
This was a good start to what promises to be an interesting show. It has some colorful characters—some of them charming, some annoying. It has some variety in ideology and temperament. And it has enough credible candidates to promise a long run as we narrow down the field to its finalists.
And it sure is a lot more engaging than that senior citizens’ snooze-fest they’ve got going on so far in the Democratic primaries.