Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Debating the Debate Debacle

Once upon a time, when I was a skinny, bewildered college student, I met a professor who was so impossibly brilliant that he spawned an entire series of semi-mythical tales about his grasp of the most arcane details in the most obscure disciplines.  This man had met everyone, read everything, married a stunningly beautiful (and accomplished) woman, and lived in a great big house surrounded by books and objects he collected from his travels and his interests.  40 years later, my friends and I still laugh by recalling the classic (probably apocryphal, but you never know)  “I happen to have Cervantes in my closet, and every once in a while I take him out and we talk….”

I am a Lincoln man myself, so I think I would prefer to spend a few minutes reaching for windmills instead of tilting at them, but there is something to going back to the classics to ground you in observing the present.  Besides, Abe had a sense of humor.  Which, he would need, if he were to observe the latest Republican primary debate. 

Last week, the Republican aspirants for President, having been groomed, and sprayed, and polished, and buffed, trundled on to a stage in Colorado, and engaged in one of silliest and most insipid arguments (I would not elevate it to an actual debate) in recent memory.  If you can recall a single answer of any substance whatsoever, you are much better than I am. Here is the sum of the entire exercise:  Topics covered in detail—none. Marco and Ted up, Jeb down.  Donald calmer, Ben Zen, Chris a bit better, Carly a bit worse.  Kasich over-caffeinated. Moderators and format—a disaster. 

What were we expecting?  Primary debates might be seen as the gladiatorial undercard before they bring out the Christians and lions part, but they still serve a purpose—we do learn things. Sometimes, we find someone new to appreciate, or find ourselves disillusioned with an old favorite. Occasionally, there’s a monumental gaffe--Rick Perry destroyed himself, apparently permanently, with one brain-freeze in 2012. 

Logistics often make it hard, because of the large number of unknown variables and the expected size of the field.  The candidate’s chances to shine are then further limited simply by the amount of time they are allotted.  They may have prepared all these killer lines, but have no opportunity to insert them.  Often they will fling themselves into something, grabbing the mike, looking awkward and even a little desperate.  The bigger the field, the louder the personalities, the more critical the atmosphere in the room is—and the more critical the moderators are.  Someone has to take charge, politely, but firmly, and manage all those egos. 

Last week was a primer in moderator-failure.  Let’s make it a given that politicians don’t like being embarrassed, and certainly don’t like being pressed for answers they don’t want to give.  Layer on to that a specific Republican trope that the mainstream media is always out to get them, and you raise the bar substantially.  John Harwood, who is an excellent journalist, lost control, and his supporting cast was worse.  Candidates outdid themselves in complaining about the questions, and slamming the questioners.  None of them were actually interested in discussing issues—and none of them had to, because the crowd was behind every denunciation. 

CNBC’s failure opened the barn door wide, and the herd stampeded through.  The carefully scripted approach that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus designed after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012—fewer debates, friendly venues, fewer opportunities to go off script and offend, had already been tested by the bizarre rise of outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson.  What was more concerning was the deep chord of anti-establishment anger that was reflected in the polling numbers.  The sheer weight of Trump and Carson’s combined numbers were burying candidates the establishment favored—and many of those were convinced they would have a real chance, if only the gadflies would leave the field. The debates were supposed to show Trump and Carson to be more like the fringe or niche candidates of 2012—Bachmann, Cain, Santorum,  Gingrich—flashes in the pan, but without sustainable appeal beyond true believers.   That just hasn’t happened, in part because of the pervasive stream of nihilism, but also because the debates have not yet reached the level of granularity on the issues that would expose Trump and Carson’s lack of substance.

The candidates, collectively, realized that on Tuesday.  Having a free-for-all made personalities the only thing that mattered.  They needed to wrest control of their images back from both the RNC, and from the moderators.  Debates should be what Priebus wanted—extended advertisements for the Republican brand.  But that wasn’t going to be accomplished by accepting the ground-rules that others set—particularly with the wild card of questioners who weren’t fully supportive of Republican goals.

The campaigns made their discontent known, and Priebus acted.  He “fired” NBC from their next debate—which had the added benefit of also omitting Telemundo, the Spanish-speaking network that few (Jeb being the notable exception) wanted to include in the first place.  Still, that wasn’t enough, so the campaigns called a meeting to discuss the issue—and Reince was not invited.

“Facilitating” was Republican lawyer and fixer Ben Ginsberg (he was critical in the Florida recount crisis in the 2000 Bush-Gore race).  Ginsberg drew up a list of demands, meant both for the RNC and for any network that wished to televise a future debate.  They are astonishing in their scope—from what amounts to prior question review and approval, to explicit threats to exclude a network if they are unsatisfied with responses before a debate, or performance at a debate, to even questions of camera angles, room temperature, and how bathroom breaks are covered.  Expressly forbidden are lightening rounds, reaction shots, asking candidates to raise their hands, and anything that looks, smells, or tastes like a “gotcha” question.

Will it work?  That is an awfully good question.  Some of the campaigns have pointed out that the networks make very good money on what amounts to an odd takeoff on a reality show.  They see themselves like the creators of content—not unlike the NFL—who should hold great sway over how the product is presented.  The networks  may have opinions as to what journalism is and what it is not, but they are businesses first and last, and the prospect of all those dollars re-directed to Murdoch-land may not be all that appealing.  

The jury is out—this may all be a lot of sound and fury with no substantive changes—but I think there is real muscle here. Trump is making noises about not appearing in any debate with Telemundo, and Ted Cruz has suggested that only people who have voted in a Republican primary be permitted to act as a moderator during a Republican debate.

Maybe Cruz is right.  Time to see if we can dial up Abraham Lincoln?  Not exactly an expert on TV, but a crackerjack debater, and a Republican.  I wonder how he’d feel about moderating. 

As to Cervantes, perhaps not.  But, perhaps I’m judging too quickly. His fiction-writing ability might come in handy.  And, he was imprisoned by pirates for five years. It’s a start.   

Editor's Note:  As of 10PM on Tuesday, November 3, six campaigns, Bush, Christie, Cruz, Kasich, Trump, and Fiorina have said they won't sign the Ginsberg Letter

November 3, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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