Give Debaters the 'Survivor' Treatment

Give Debaters the 'Survivor' Treatment

Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (C) (R-TX) speaks while New Jersey Gov, Chris Christie (R) and Carly Fiorina look on during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate.

SourceJustin Sullivan / Getty

Why you should care

Because picking a presidential candidate is serious business — isn’t it?

In a presidential primary notable mainly for its crowdedness, the moment stood out: Sen. Ted Cruz, lashing out at his inquisitors at the last Republican debate in Boulder, Colo. “The questions asked in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” said the Texas word warrior, listing a litany of gotcha questions posed by the CNBC moderators. “This is not a cage match!”

Perhaps not, but the GOP debates have made for quite the show, thanks to a teeming field, the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and the TV networks’ hunger for record-breaking ratings. Tonight’s Fox Business throw-down in Milwaukee should be no different. But has all the 2016 hooting and hollering, from pundits and politicians alike, been good for our democratic process? Eh, not so much. So here’s an out-there solution: Let’s make the debates less long-winded — and maybe more entertaining.

Let’s start with those politicians who have become the gift that never stops gabbing. Debates have time limits so that every candidate can be heard, but few on stage really pay heed, yammering on long after their time is up. So here’s some common-sense legislation: Install a mute button or, even better, an electric-shock collar to cut them off. Heck, if it’s good enough for puppies, why not for presidential prattlers?

Just imagine: Donald Trump keeps ranting after the buzzer goes off, but instead of hearing again how “yuuuge” his Mexican border wall will be, television viewers are treated to a pantomime instead. Or when Carly Fiorina lands another one of her well-articulated — yet factually inaccurate — zingers, she’s zapped into silence! Or imagine if moderators had been able to gently put poor Lincoln Chafee out of his misery (and us out of ours!) when he started talking about his dad’s death in that first Dems debate.

Maybe it’s not fair to limit our ire to the politicos. The head of the Republican National Committee has taken to calling the last debate, on CNBC, a “crap sandwich.” While general-election debates have always been a big draw, the massive appetite for primary battles is something new, says Northeastern University’s Alan Schroeder, a presidential-debate historian. They’ve become prime-time extravaganzas, with extended commercial breaks, WWE-style introductory montages and ham-handed social media ploys. If the TV networks are more interested in attracting eyeballs than informing the actual political debate, why not go all the way and turn what’s effectively become an unscripted reality show into just that? Lose the remaining pomp and podiums and stash the candidates in a pair of Big Brother houses until the primaries roll around. More of us would probably watch, and we’d almost certainly learn more about the character and cunning of our would-be commanders-in-chief.

Of course, suggestions like ours are highly unlikely to be green-lighted. The RNC did not respond to a request for comment, but Ben Berger, a political scientist at Swarthmore College, argues that “only the candidates with nothing to lose would agree in the end.” Still, some see value in ensuring that the process of scrutinizing our next leader is, in fact, effective. ”When the media encourages these food fights, sometimes it’s silly,” admits Northeastern University’s Schroeder, but the spotlight can also provide valuable insights into how candidates cope under pressure. Maybe that cage match idea isn’t so crazy after all.

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