At least in comparison with his peers, Jeb Bush sometimes sounds like the most reasonable, responsible and mainstream of the busload of Republican presidential candidates who otherwise range from right of far right to downright goofy.
As such, Bush’s priority should be to separate himself from the crowd.
How about this for separation? “Dear Republican National Committee: Thanks for your invitation to Thursday’s presidential debate on Fox News. I’ll be in North Carolina talking with voters. You guys go ahead without me.”
His departure could be a first brick to tumble out of the tired and teetering structure that televised “debates” have become over 60 or so years. A couple of additional rounds of candidates saying “no, thanks” could topple it, leaving only the rubble of a dangerously flawed 20th-century system of selecting national leadership that, regrettably, carried into the 21st century’s communications environment.
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On Thursday night Fox News gets the first 2016 shot with 10 candidates for two hours. Fox will have to winnow the top 10 from the 17 – at last count – announced candidates. The included 10 will be those ranking highest in a combination of polls. The excluded seven will get a consolation one-hour “debate” earlier in the evening, a sort of low-level undercard to the featured prizefight.
The two weeks leading into Thursday became a battle for 10th place because the candidates polling in the single digits (almost all of them, actually) were desperate to get that statistically insignificant two-tenths of a percent edge over the 11th-place person and qualify for the big show. And when politicians are desperate, they know that saying outrageous things will get them one cycle of cable news attention; then they can back off a bit yet harvest the initial attention.
If you can get past the dubious proposition that any political party has 17 members capable of running the country, you then have to consider what you might be able to learn about them and their positions during such a constricted event.
Start with the available 120 minutes and do the math:
▪ A minimal one minute on each end for introductions and farewells leaves 118 minutes – or just more than 10 total minutes for each candidate and the three moderators put together.
▪ Allow two minutes each for set-piece opening statements by the candidates, leaving each of them eight total minutes to tell us, in response to questions, how they would fight terrorism, protect the borders, reform health care, shore up Social Security, improve education, deal with global economic competition, reduce domestic economic inequality, reform the tax code, improve relations with Congress, and handle other miscellaneous problems that might come up.
That’s a scenario even more contrived than the insipid “reality” shows that dominate today’s television, and as equally scripted by sound bites. And it conforms to Fox News’ traditions of shallow sensationalism and wretched taste – venue and spectacle perfectly aligned.
The corruption of television “debates” is bipartisan, of course. If 17 Democrats had similar delusions of intellectual and personal stature, they would produce a similar waste of time and money. Even if only two or three Democrats run for president, they should refuse to participate in any “debate” structured by television, bound by its time constraints and tied to its shallow ambitions.
Everyone, including the candidates, has better things to do.
You listening, Jeb?
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.