It's one of the most significant — and most televised — events of the presidential campaign season. The first Republican debate, coming to a small screen near you Aug. 6, is a way for you to get a gist of how the candidates compare to one another when it comes to the most important Republican concerns. The concept of having a verbal competition for the vote is a good one, but this year, I'm expecting a sideshow of jeers, jabs, and offensive statements that immediately make headlines. New requirements have definitely affected the mentalities of conservative candidates, getting them ready for a pageant and, more importantly, an audience. But the new Fox News GOP debate requirements hurt everyone, not just the Republicans who might not make the cut.
Fox News, sponsor of the first Republican debate, announced in May that participating candidates "must place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by FOX News." The candidates who do not meet this requirement will receive separate air time in a candidate forum at 5 p.m. EDT. With the list of GOP presidential candidates swelling to 16 and no more expected to announce, the debate might have been a little crowded if all presidential hopefuls had been allowed to speak. But with this simple new rule, Fox News is doing some serious damage to the party that it loves so much.
The prospect of being cut from the debate is a major fear for the Republicans. The first GOP debate of the 2012 election attracted 3.3 million viewers with only five candidates, and one of the September debates got 6.1 million with eight candidates, according to The New York Times. The candidates — particularly the more low-profile ones who get little attention as it is — need that time to explain their positions and show voters who they are. That, by itself, might just be a small flaw within a new system, if not for one unplanned problem: Donald Trump.
If Fox News had decided only to include the top 10 candidates who are likely to actually become president, this wouldn't be an issue because it's improbable that enough people would vote for Trump to move him to the White House (I'm hoping). But Fox News is basing the debate requirements on who's polling the best, not on who's a serious candidate, so Trump will likely make it to the debate. By some absurd flaw in reality, his headline-grabbing strategy is actually working in the polls. A new CNN/ORC Poll puts Trump ahead of fellow Republicans at 18 percent.
What's dangerous is that GOP candidates who used to be pretty serious are making Trump their role models. The people who Fox might exclude have borrowed Trump's playbook. In a recent campaign video, Rand Paul attacked the U.S. tax code with a machete, a wood chipper, and a chainsaw. Lindsey Graham engaged in a similar pattern of violence by chopping, dropping, blending, igniting, and smashing his cell phone after Trump gave out Graham's cell phone number. And let's not forget that Mike Huckabee used the most evocative imagery he could think of to compare the Iran nuclear deal to the Holocaust. He told Breitbart:
This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.
The candidates are realizing that being offensive or over-the-top is working. People who are uninterested in politics will suddenly know political names if Republicans join the cast of an insane variety show. The candidates are attempting to be YouTube stars, celebrities, and bad email forwards. They're competing against a reality TV star, so what do we expect?
Dean Crutchfield, a brand analyst, told The New York Times, "They are scrambling because of what has happened with Trump jumping into the race and distracting everybody. They need to turn the volume up."
So what's going to happen when the show ends and Trump is out of the race? We're going to be left with a bunch of eye-catchers and internet sensations but no real Republican candidates. That might sound nice if you're a die-hard Hillary supporter, but overall, it's not a good thing to deflate one of the parties in a two-party system.
If this continues, Americans will forget about the moderates who have the essential skill of being able to compromise with Democrats. The ludicrous candidates will win out. Discerning Republican voters, the ones who believe in fiscal responsibility and a free market but aren't racist or homophobic, will have to make a tough choice. They'll either vote for a Democrat they don't agree with or a joke of a candidate who suddenly doesn't seem very funny anymore.
I have a lot of complaints with a two-party system. It oversimplifies the issues and creates congressional enemies where there should be cooperative colleagues. However, what's even more frightening is a one-party system. Fox News and Trump have turned this election into a performance, and I, for one, am ready for a curtain call.
Images: Getty Images (3)