After last night’s spectacle, the American public—or at the least, American pundits—would be forgiven for demanding (or whimpering for) an end to the litany of Republican debates. After all, they’re unedifying, agonizing, somewhat grotesque, and offer little of substance aside from a terrifying glimpse into the dark, pitiless recesses of the Republican soul.
All of that is clear enough. But allow for a modest proposal: Rather than fewer debates, what we need is more. Many more. I have seen the great orators and forensic logicians of our time, and they are Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
Well, not quite. The Republican Party is probably best understood as our gibbering idiot savant of American politics: Yes, it’s easier to ignore it, but why should Fox News viewers and assorted other masochists be the only ones to profit from its peculiar genius? By resisting our captivity to the Grand Old Party’s primary process, we’re failing to mine all the rich insights buried in its murmurings. Of course, if we come in looking for policy debates, or meaningful discussions about the future of the United States, we’ll come away disappointed. In these presidential debates, it’s the medium that’s the message, man—and the medium is traditional American (read: loud and bullying) spectacle.
Our guides on this great landscape of gimmickry ought to be Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. It is Gingrich’s great insight that Americans respect things that are old. Gingrich himself is old, of course. But so is History. By staging “Lincoln-Douglas” debates last week, Gingrich was showing his conceptual, if not empirical, sympathy for the past. The only problem is that the mainstream broadcasters, so entrapped by their myopia of the present, failed to broadcast it.
Cain should be credited with his recent full-frontal assault on the (elite!) notion that presidential candidates ought to meet some basic standard of decency. Most impressive was his professed willingness to take a polygraph while answering questions on his relations with the female sex. Don’t expect the frontrunner to answer questions from the (elite!) media about whether he committed a crime: Let the machine decide!
One can only hope that Cain sees his idea to its obvious conclusion. It would truly be a cunning gambit to propose a Fox News debate in which every candidate is strapped to a lie-detector. Yes, these machines are unreliable, but wouldn’t it be great entertainment to see which candidates can beat the polygraph? Just imagine the flop sweat on Mitt Romney’s brow! (Michelle Bachmann, whose mad, glimmering eyes already confirm that she believes everything she says, would emerge unscathed, of course.) In any case, it would move the debates more in the direction of reality television, so they could finally be hosted by Simon Cowell, or Ryan Seacrest, or Anderson Cooper. CNN, forever playing catch-up, could then be entrusted to up the ante, substituting electric chairs for lie detectors.
Nor need we stop there. In the name of our right to infotainment, we should ask the candidates to reconsider some of the more momentous moments in American history, adapting them to the demands of the present day, as they saw fit. Who could resist any of these putative contests?
“Anchor Babies: Time to Revisit Dredd Scott?” featuring Rick Santorum arguing for the proposition, and lumbering poor Rick Perry with the opposition's brief.
Or: “Burr vs Hamilton: Whose Back HaveYou Got?” in which Ron Paul carries pistols for Mr. Burr and Mitt Romney argues for a central bank and Mr. Hamilton.
Or: “James Madison was a RINO whose failure to annex Canada in 1812 left the United States vulnerable to the threat of socialized medicine.” Oppose that, Jon Huntsman and see what remains of your so-called credibility!
Or, most pressingly of all, “The Trail of Tears: Would Ronald Reagan Have Cried Too?” Well, would he? Answer that, Mr. Cain.
In a better world the candidates would be given a mere 15 minutes to prepare 10 minute speeches on these motions during which their opponent would be free to offer interventions, British parliamentary style. Each would then have a five minute rebuttal before the issue is voted upon by a baying mob paid to enjoy the circus and scream for blood and brutality. This could distill the absurdity, malevolence, and prejudices implicit in the current system of debates, and brew it into the kind of maximally inebriating, artificially-colored energy drink that allows one to act in self-destructive fashion before passing out. Certainly, the Republican Party’s ability to incite that kind of addled mania is one its core strengths, one it would be foolish to deny.
But there’s also another side to the GOP. Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of the 2012 carnival of grotesques debate roster is that its perversions are so vaguely, but endearingly familiar: The debates feel like the awkward annual Thanksgiving family reunion you nonetheless secretly kind of look forward to attending. Here’s drunk Uncle Rick, forgetting what he meant to say, and there's cousin Ron, ever peddling his conspiracy theories. Who will Uncle Herman get inappropriate with this year? Then there’s the sadly poignant example of Grandpa Newt, from whom you get the uncomfortable impression that he will soon return to debating historical figures while sitting in his underwear in the privacy of his own home. (“What kind of name is Ulysses, anyway? Sounds vaguely Mohammadian...”)
The point is that we should let the Republican Party be the Republican Party. Why should we feel embarrassed for it, if it does not feel embarrassed for itself? The Republican candidates seem to believe they are shining some light deep within the conservative soul. To the viewers at home, it may seem they are just hopeless narcissists, but that probably just means we are not looking hard enough. Ultimately, we should take them at their word: Together, the people on stage at these debates form an electrified border fence of contemporary conservatism, separating the real from the fake America. Rather than shirk that fence, we should grab it with both hands, and revel in a cry of unbridled, and corporate-sponsored, patriotism.
Which reminds me: Would it be too much to ask for Zooey Deschanel to sing the national anthem at one of these things?
Alex Massie writes for The Spectator.