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.