Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends

The Republican Party’s effort to regain the White House kicks into high gear with its first debate. While it’s tempting to say that these events are lessons in futility, there are some valuable takeaways that can be expected from these encounters. You can learn about a candidate’s ability to string together a few talking points into what sounds like a coherent statement. You can get a feel for whether the candidate has a personality, generally displayed by a good sense of humor. And you will probably notice a few who clearly don’t do their homework.

Most everyone following these assemblies will tell you that the Republicans allowed themselves to get bogged down with too many debates in the 2012 campaign. Really, what were they thinking when they agreed to twenty such gatherings? Halfway through that schedule it was clear that the party was opening itself up to way too much self-inflicted damage, as candidates rose and fell in the opinion polls based on how they attacked each other.

In this campaign, the party has shown some wisdom by paring down the list to twelve scheduled debates, the last couple of which are tentative and could be dropped entirely. Still, is there much of an argument to make that a dozen debates are going to be effective in choosing the best candidate?

Essentially, these are not debates in the truest sense of the word. A debate follows a few relatively strict guidelines, keeping to a formal structure, and its moderator is expected to maintain order with an iron fist. These events are better described as multiperson press conferences where the participants seem to do their best to avoid answering the questions as presented, instead repeating as much of their prepared campaign speeches, slogans, and taglines. But certainly we all know this: if you want real answers to real questions, don’t ask a politician… especially one who is actively running for office.

In the last cycle there were ten candidates participating in the Republican debates, though never more than nine at any one event… and only two of those had perfect attendance in all twenty. This time? Seventeen candidates have formally announced, but you won’t get to see them all in action at once. Thanks to the GOP turning over decision making chores to Fox News, the first debate is limited to no more than ten participants, as determined by where they rank in the latest polls. By essentially slamming the door in the other candidates’ faces, Fox News has been granted enormous power to effectively kill some campaigns while giving others a higher profile.

Fox News will argue that its methodology is simply reflective of public opinion and that the news/talk channel isn’t responsible for making the selections. Rather, it would say, the people surveyed by those polls are making it clear who they are most interested in seeing on the stage. But public opinion polls are a flawed source for facts. No two polling firms use the same criteria, ask the same questions, or even seek out the same type of respondents. Each poll is subject to interpretation, and those who read the tea leaves might not understand the message. Remember, up until late on Election Night, Mitt Romney and his team were convinced that he was going to win the presidency… based on opinion polls.

At least this time Republican voters can hope for a more serious slate of candidates. At least there’s no Herman Cain, who based his campaign on his “Nine Nine Nine” mantra which sounded more like a pitch for a pizza place than a political foundation. At least there’s no Michele Bachmann, whose glazed-over eyes looked like someone who was about to announce the departure schedule for the approaching Mothership.

Nope, this time the candidates are a group to be taken seriously.

Except… this time you have people like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 hopeful back for another crack at it… taking time away from his other job as spokesman for various quackery medications on the internet.

Except… you have Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and considered by many to be the worse leader of an American technology company in history. Notably, the company’s stock jumped when her forced resignation was announced, the news bringing in nearly three billion dollars in gains in a single day.

Except… you have Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner. It seems to me that the people who are excited about a Trump candidacy are the same people who think Sarah Palin is worthy of holding a national office. That pretty much tells us all we need to know about Trump.

I will be watching, and I encourage you to do the same. It’s better to be informed than clueless.

Come and see the show!

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on 8/6/15)

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