mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Into The Future
The First 21st-century Presidential Debate

The GOP’s prime time primary debate last night won’t be remembered for what the candidates said, but it will be remembered for how they said it. It was the first true 21st century presidential debate. It was not Lincoln-Douglas and it was not Kennedy-Nixon; it was a format that embraced reality television, short attention spans, and unscripted encounters. It embraced the Fox News format—overwhelmingly the most successful news format in America today—rather than echoing the hushed seriousness of the old Cronkite days.

For traditionalists, some of whom were venting on twitter last night, the new style of debate was yet another sign of America’s grim slide into terminal darkness, with the GOP leading the country into a new era of ever less literate and rational politics. One can hardly wait for the eloquent anguish of the New Yorker as it wrings its hands over the tsunami of GOP darkness plunging the Republic into an eternity of night.

But was it really such a disaster? The format of sharp questions, calculated to elicit quick answers, and the moderators’ openness to unscripted exchanges advertised what promises to be a key Republican calling card in 2016: generational change. Neither Secretary Clinton nor Senator Sanders is a spring chicken; throw Joe Biden into the race and the age span of the three candidates, 215, is just one year shy of the 216 years since George Washington died. Viewers seemed to respond; the early ratings indicate that the debate was the most-watched primary debate, ever, and by a huge margin.

Maybe the Republicans are crazy like a fox. Love it or hate it, this kind of debate format is part and parcel of the direction America is going. Its appeal, and the electability of candidates who learn to excel at this format, is one of those things that many members of the chattering classes, sunk in nostalgia for the politics of the 20th century, may miss.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    21st century…. Oh, the sound and the fury: the greatest show on earth (debates, elections, parties, voters, and “new media”) Regarding new media, fundamentally there exists very little difference from what proceeded it though there is more $$$$ and 24/7 media – social its called.

    Two observations: 1) candidates who hope to reach a mass electorate are largely dependent on mass media (thus whatever format prevails they will subject themselves to); 2) for most voters the campaign has little reality apart from its media version. So, where are we? Here’s a suggestion: campaign time is show time (ballyhoo, hoopla, impresarios, stunt artists, etc.) and a veritable circus – though very remunerative for many. The veritable circus now runs over an 18 month period ensconced in ostensible new media format that only changes the conveyor of the entertainment. The important thing is and remains the show must go on – because it is more than just a show.

  • Andrew Allison

    No comment on the frenzy over Trump in the Democrat PR organization know as the MSM? Why do I get the feeling that the more he’s vilified the higher his poll numbers will go? Could it be because mainstream USA is as disgusted with the political establishment of both major parties as I am?

    • TheCynical1

      Agreed, and note that the writers of this blog are studiously avoiding Trump.

  • Teacher_in_Tejas

    Say what you will about this crowded field, but you do see youth and dynamism, Walker, Rubio, Fiorina, and Cruz among the old war horses.
    Personally I can’t wait to see the first Democratic debate with Hillary, Biden, Sanders and (probably by then if Hillary’s numbers keep tanking) Elizabeth Warren. Man that stage will have me thinking, Gee I hope they start the debate early so they can get them all back to the nursing home so they don’t miss “Matlock” on “Pudding Night!”

  • wigwag

    It wasn’t a debate, it was a clown show. There was something truly appropriate about John Stewart’s retirement and the GOP debate taking place on the same night; Stewart epitomizes the cynicism and vacuity of the left while the GOP candidates collectively epitomize the vacuity of the right.

    Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, he’s right about one thing; things in the United States are heading tragically in the wrong direction. Actually, come to think of it, Trump is right about something else, all the politically correct claptrap spouted by politicians in both political parties won’t improve things one iota.

    Average Americans have watched their prospects dim for almost 15 straight years; their hold on even a modest degree of prosperity becomes more tenuous every day. At the same time, our international adversaries become more threatening all the time, while our leaders attempt to confront those adversaries vacillates from appeasement to stupidity.

    Here’s the problem; there wasn’t a single candidate on the stage last night who has a clue about how to improve things. The exact same thing can be said about their Democratic opponents; Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

    The proposals from the Democrats are so well-past their use by date that they reek from rot. Raise the minimum wage they shout; the reality is that in the overall scheme of things it won’t make a damn bit of difference. There are fewer than 5 million minimum wage workers in the United States; half of them are students who work part time. Remarkably, there are more American millionaires than minimum wage workers. Raise the minimum wage and watch a few workers have their lives improved, a few workers lose their jobs as they are replaced by technology and the vast majority of Americans experience no impact at all. Clinton, Sanders and the rest scream and yell about raising taxes on the rich; that won’t make a damn bit of difference either. Anyone who thinks that the vast majority of Americans are going to see their lives improved if the top marginal tax rate on the wealthy is increased from the 39.6 percent where it is now to 45 percent or even 50 percent is smoking something. Obama’s plan to raise the tax rate on capital gains from the 23.8 percent where it is now to the 28 percent that Obama prefers is equally dimwitted; it just won’t impact the lives of ordinary Americans. What will the government do with the extra money? Either horde it, which reduces the deficit (which matters not at all) or spend it on useless government programs that accomplish little to nothing. And all of this is before you even get to the idiotic cultural programs proposed by the Democrats. Exactly how many lives will be improved if transgendered people are permitted to use the restroom of their choice or the evangelical Christians who own a small bakery are forced to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding whether they like it or not?

    The problem is that every GOP candidate who appeared on the stage in Cleveland is either a blowhard or a member of the same political class that got us into our current predicament in the first place. What brilliant ideas do the GOP candidates present? They want to end Obamacare. How exactly does that accomplish anything other than getting us back to precisely the same disastrous healthcare mess we were in before Obamacare was passed. What other ideas do GOP candidates present when it comes to healthcare? They want to permit physicians who commit the most horrendous forms of malpractice to get away with it; the idea that this will appreciably reduce healthcare costs is so preposterous, its laughable. The GOP candidates all want to evsicerate the power of public unions; the impact of accomplishing this on the lives of average Americans would be close to zero. Scott Walker accomplished this feat in Wisconsin; has it mattered? Wisconsin ranks dead last in jobs growth in the Midwest since Walker took office and his pledge to create 25 thousand jobs in his first term never came to fruition. Break the unions; celebrate the unions-whichever floats your boat. But if your goal is to improve the lives of average Americans, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. If our next President is a Republican and they succeed in lowering the capital gains tax to where it was when Obama took office (15 percent), it won’t improve the prospects of the average American at all.

    And then theres the fact that the social fixations of the right are every bit as inconsequential as the social fixations of the left. Guess what, my prospects don’t get any better if Planned Parenthood is defunded just as they don’t improve if Planned Parenthood watches the funds it gets from Government go up. Is my life likely to improve if the GOP gets its way and bans my gay neighbors from getting married? Of course it isn’t.

    There is one area where our out-of-touch political parties are in violent agreement despite their protestations to the contrary; foreign policy. Yes, they may differ on Iran, but in so many other areas, their policies are indistinguishable. Both Democrats and Republicans are perfectly willing to get us into war, and they are both equally reticent to allow our military to win those wars. The reality is simple; neither political party believes in victory; they actually think that “victory” is a dirty word. That’s why we lost in Korea; that’s why the Bay of Pigs was a disaster; that’s why Vietnam was an enormous calamity; that’s why we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during the first gulf war; that’s why the interventions in Serbia and Kosovo settled nothing; that’s why the second Iraq war ended in an American defeat the spawned ISIL; that’s why the Libyan intervention was an enormous mistake and that’s why we are sure to lose once again in Afghanistan. This reprehensible record was brought to you courtesy of presidents of both political parties and there is absolutely no reason to believe that any of the current crop of GOP or Democratic candidates would have done a better job.

    If we really want to improve the prospects of ordinary Americans we need to fix two enormous sectors of the economy; higher education and health care. If a college education costed a quarter of what it cost today middle class students and their families wouldn’t end up so deeply in debt that it takes years to climb out. If health care costed a quarter of what it costs today, American businesses would have enough money left over to actually give their employees pay raises. Both of these fixes are eminently achievable; both will require dramatic pay cuts to the professors and administrators who work in higher education and to the doctors, allied health professionals and bureaucrats who work in the health care sector.

    When we see a politician who actually gets this and is willing to fight for the type of disruptive change that will fix these sectors, then we will know we have someone worth voting for. As for the people on that stage last night, they remind me of no one so much as their Democratic opponents.

    Poseurs one and all.

    • Anthony

      WigWag, the John Stewart retirement and last night’s debate and its cultural reference entered my thoughts also (similarly, I thought about referencing said in my comment but did not want to be too satirical but thanks for doing so).

    • Tom

      I would point out that we accomplished our original objective in Korea, that of keeping South Korea non-Communist.
      And while Trump does point to a lot of the flaws in the current system, he is also one of that system’s main beneficiaries and propagators.

      • wigwag

        Fair enough, Tom, but whatever our short-term objectives in Korea might have been, North Korea is now a nuclear-armed state, led by a madman who happens to possess intercontinental ballistic missiles on which he can mount his atomic bombs. I’m not sure I could classify that as a victory. As for Trump, I suspect that one of the reasons for his recent popularity is that as a “main beneficiary and propagator” of the current system, he is still willing to frankly describe how it works.

  • jeburke

    I thought it was the best debate I’ve seen and I’ve watched virtually all of them since 1960 — thanks to Fox and the moderators. They asked not just tough questions but the REAL questions on everyone’s minds about these candidates: will Trump run third party? Is Carson serious? Can Rand Paul or Ted Cruz defend their attacks on their own party? Would Rubio really let a pregnant woman die without an abortion? Isn’t Bush soft on immigration? And so on. Remarkably, even with 10 candidates, Baier, Wallace snd Kelly managed to make it both interesting and illuminating.

    The carping and whining about this is almost entirely coming from Trump and his fans, because, unlike the other nine, he had no answers to these probing questions. So, master of publicity as he is, he’s turning a horrible debate performance into a PR coup by fomenting a war with Fox, going so far as to call Megyn Kelly a “bimbo” and polling guru Frank Luntz a “fat slob.” It’s not Fox’s fault that Trump has reduced the contest to such gutter calls, but they have exposed him.

    • Boritz

      “…Trump has reduced the contest to such gutter calls…”

      The Greek columns of seven years ago were hollow as were the promises made before them, but they were stately and dignified.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service