August 26, 2023

Observations on the Recent GOP Debate

The GOP debate of presidential hopefuls on August 23 was mildly useful, though it illustrated again that the mechanics of these events are all wrong. 

Candidates at August 23, 2023 GOP Debate
First, let me offer a few quick observations.

The most animated participant, Vivek Ramaswamy, was insufferable and pretty much acted as a stand-in for the former president. He was born into a Hindu Brahmin family and appears to think that this automatically makes him a member of the highest caste in the United States. He is a businessman, and we have ample reason to believe that is a disastrous qualification for high office. Besides, he is barely old enough to be president. He will not go far, at least anytime soon.

Ron DeSantis, the personality-challenged Florida governor was unimpressive. Enough said.

The remaining candidates, except for Nikki Haley, were unremarkable. The former U.N. ambassador displayed a realization that the policy positions needed to obtain the GOP nomination are the same ones that will doom the standard bearer in the general election. She is clearly the strongest candidate and will therefore fail to be nominated.

Now, as to the debate mechanics. I should begin by saying that the moderators, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News, largely asked reasonable and relevant questions. (The UFO question asked of Chris Christie was the exception.) They were hampered by two ongoing problems: the presence of an audience, and the lack of an adequate mechanism to enforce the agreed-upon rules of engagement.

I don’t know how the audience was selected, but it clearly favored the Republican Party in general and Donald Trump in particular.  Reactions of the local audience cannot but influence the remote audience and perhaps even the candidates themselves. Moreover, the audience interrupted the debate. It was unsurprising that Bret Baier felt the need to turn around and admonish the crowd, which was becoming unruly. (In my more mischievous moments, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to have a Democratic audience for a Republican debate.)

Disruptive audience reaction is not a new problem but is one that is easily ameliorated: eliminate the audience. Put them in another room with a remote feed, but remove them as a factor in debates. I suspect that getting a ticket to a debate is a perk offered by the network or the candidates. (As I said, I don’t know how the audience is selected.) Fine, give them a comfortable auditorium with a big TV screen and generous hors d’oeuvres. They can cheer and boo to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the debate can be held in a much smaller venue, perhaps in a television studio.

Then there is the matter of controlling the candidates themselves. It is clear that the rules for who can speak and in what circumstances are not self-enforcing. The moderators ringing a bell to indicate that a speaker’s time has expired was conspicuously useless in shutting anyone up. If candidates perceive that they can gain a rhetorical advantage by flouting the rules, they will do so. This has been shown to be true time and time again. The solution to uncontrolled debate is also simple: mute the microphone as soon as a candidate speaks beyond his or her allotted time. No one will be able to speak out of turn if an active microphone is not available. If a speaker is in the middle of a sentence, it may be appropriate to allow a three-second grace period before a microphone is cut off. This more aggressive timekeeping is probably best done by a technician. Not only do moderators already have enough to think about, but it is best not to give a candidate reason to be angry with a moderator, either during the debate or later.

My suggestions are not rocket science, and I surely am not the first person to think of them. Why haven’t they been implemented? As long as a debate is staged by a television network, there is an incentive to make the event as entertaining as possible. Audience reactions—to a point, anyway—and verbal fireworks among the participants are audience magnets, at least among those more interested in entertainment than politics. Nothing leads to changing the channel faster than a boring discussion. I suspect that even participants appreciate a certain anarchy in political debates. They are not above stealing more time than they deserve, and they want to display their passion or machismo. (Can a woman show machismo or is there another non-sexist word I could use?)

Of course, my suggestions will not be implemented. None of the participants seems to have an incentive to participate in a thoughtful, polite discussion.

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