We're All a Little Dumber After TV's Political Debate Survivor Show. Now What?

AP Photo

Many Americans, especially those in media, seem disappointed over the second Republican primary debate in California the other night. Ratings were down, and no new leading challenger emerged.

Why do you suppose that is?

Much time has been wasted in recent days chewing on who won the debate. It was not a debate. It was a political survivor show without the campfire and bikinis.

It sounded like a reality show when the Fox game-show hosts actually asked the seven which one of them should be voted off the island. Seriously.

It looks like a TV show because it is a TV show. Never forget that. 

For its own purposes, television has taken over presidential debates that could be an important element of voter education and reshaped them into canned talking heads between commercials. Much the way television has taken over sports, the games, the timeouts, even the schedules.

I don't care if Ohio State plays Notre Dame in prime time. TV does. I do care if a potential commander in chief is asked, "What would you do to bring world peace? You have 60 seconds." This isn't the Miss America swimsuit round!

TV shows are designed and presented to assemble as large a crowd as possible for advertisers to sell stuff. The memory drug Prevagen and controversial Chinese social-media giant TikTok did not pay Fox many thousands of dollars to assist the U.S. election process.

It’s that simple. Any assistance these sort of TV shows provide to earnest Americans fleeing “America’s Got Talent” to watch contestants on “America Needs a New President” is purely accidental and coincidental.

Was anyone besides Hillary Clinton surprised in 2016 that an experienced and highly successful reality-TV show host named Donald Trump triumphed over 16 standard GOP pols, and then her?

His victory so gobsmacked Clinton that she was emotionally unable to concede until the next day. Good call by just enough Americans in just the right places. How’d you like to have that kind of unstable commander in chief take a 3 a.m. Pentagon call? Remember how well she oversaw Benghazi?

Bottom line: Our presidential debates in general and this fall’s Republican ones in particular have outlived any usefulness they might have had back in the days of black-and-white TV when they began 63 years ago last week.

In coming days, you’ll see a media storyline that the Reagan Library debate produced no clear winner, as if another Bachelorette should have been eliminated. No one said “You’re Fired!” No one chose, "Oval Office for $400."

And media will declare, as they must in standard horserace coverage, Trump remains in the lead. Having the man they love to hate as the Republican nominee again would be a dream come true for media that has suffered distrust, turmoil, financial losses, and cutbacks since he left center stage.

The second debate seems to have changed little among the candidates playing catch-up to Trump. Except to confirm that Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are the obvious choices to survive in a shrunken field.

If the field remains this large, Trump will again win as he did in 2016 with a loyal plurality while the splintered field divvied up a majority.

What excitement is there in covering Joe Biden? He’s on vacation 40 percent of the time. Will he fall again today? Will he again mindlessly walk out on a Medal of Honor recipient before the ceremony ends? How will he mangle his script today?

This should be painful, conscience-warping media work playing down or ignoring his gaffes and lies. You get the sense instead it's a Mission.

These debates have, in fact, become almost useless in content and the next one in Miami on Nov. 7 is likely to be no different. Moderator questions go for meaningless headlines, not insights into personalities or future policies. Trump protects himself by staying absent while his opposition remains divided. That seems the goal. 

This TV debate format asks governors, senators, and a businessman to be showmen like the front-runner, who is a master at it. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Evaluating each on their serious qualifications to govern our country.

What if, instead of a stage full of wannabes talking over each other for attention, moderators went three-on-one with each candidate alone for 20 minutes? Full spotlight. No dodging, diverting, or changing the subject. Hard follow-up questions.

And then the next one. And the next. And then like a post-game show, run replays comparing answers to the same questions.

Trump is ducking the debates, he says, because he’s so far ahead he won’t deign to share the spotlight with competitors. In football, that's called a Prevent defense.

The unspoken benefit of absenting himself from the debate stage is that Trump need not answer, or clearly appear to dodge answering, awkward questions about his disturbing array of legal difficulties or whether he thinks Americans would elect a convicted felon to the White House.

Or perhaps more enlightening for Republican primary voters, ask the ex-president why he’s turned so squishy this time on opposing late-term abortions.

A reelection campaign for an incumbent president should be a referendum on the incumbent president. This is a target-rich environment on Joe Biden’s record: The border crisis he encourages by inaction and intention. Smothering American energy independence from Day One. 

Ongoing inflation. Unlimited military aid to Ukraine. Incompetence of cabinet secretaries. His son’s international influence-peddling schemes. Why Joe Biden’s home address appears on suspicious foreign-money transfers to his family.

Why does Biden need so much time off where his activities are hidden? What does he do all those days now that beach time is over? And who does he meet on undisclosed visits?

Then, of course, there are the urgent questions about his obviously declining physical and mental health. The special accommodations made to mask them.

And why in the world does he feel the need to tell so very many whoppers? Why should Americans believe a chief executive about climate change or Ukraine if he repeatedly lies so blatantly about his own background, housefire, or even a son’s death? And shows no remorse or shame when caught? 

Asked about official Suspicious Activity Reports from his own Treasury Department on foreign money transfers to his family’s numerous shell companies, Biden denied their existenceamong other stonewalls. Now, there’s more stench of scandal looming.

That’s why like Trump, Biden is dodging party debates as Robert Kennedy Jr. sets a third-party bid.

Ample ammo for anyone challenging an incumbent president.

Kennedy cannot win, but he can siphon enough unhappy Democrats to ensure Biden’s defeat, as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot did to George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Trouble for Republicans is, Donald Trump also is, in effect, a president seeking reelection. He too has a four-year record of achievements, failures, and controversies for critics to mine and distort. 

And now several serious legal cases pending that, you just know, will get enduring, potentially damaging coverage throughout the campaign season. Some charges seem weak. All are designed to thwart his return to power, as the Russia collusion hoax and countless deep state leaks were designed to cripple his first election and term.

Now, there’s a New York fraud trial threatening Trump’s business empire.

Ample ammo for anyone seeking to challenge Trump’s historic return to power after the 2020 reelection defeat.

With so many colliding ambitions on TV and virtually no consideration given by anyone to what’s best for the nation, Americans are living through a political nightmare with much demagoguery but virtually no leadership or honest, ongoing media insights. 

Poll after poll uncovers rising anxieties and declining trust in once-sturdy institutions, as I detailed in last week’s audio commentary, with no real resolution in sight.

The only available party tool to whittle the field forcibly is escalating requirements for Debate No. 3 -- candidates need 70,000 individual donors and four percent in either two national polls or one national poll and two polls from separate early states.

According to recent RealClearPolitics averages, the most likely nominees for involuntary dropouts are Doug Burgum at nine-tenths of one percent, Chris Christie at 2.7 percent, Tim Scott at 2.8 percent, and Mike Pence at 4.2 percent. Asa Hutchison is likely out soon too.

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