Having lost, essentially, our national capacity for shame, it is hardly surprising that the outrageous way we go about nominating candidates for president hardly budges the needle of our national outrage, but an outrage, it surely is. Take, for instance, the whole primary system as it is currently constituted. Where do candidates spend their time? Why, traipsing through the cornfields of Iowa and shivering in the cold of New Hampshire. Now, with all due respect to the many cows who inhabit the Hawkeye State and the natural beauty of the Granite State, it’s patently ridiculous how we speak of “tickets out of” these two…shall we say, “minor”…states. In other words, you don’t have to win the Iowa caucus, or the New Hampshire primary, but you have to finish in the top three, or you can forget it. Rudy Giuliani entered the 2008 Republican presidential race intent on attempting to win the nomination without taking Iowa or New Hampshire seriously, and by the time we got to Florida, where Rudy spent his time and money, he was an afterthought. Question, class: in what universe is it rational that these two states ought to have such an inordinate influence over who gains the nomination in our major parties? None, that I’m aware of.
But beyond the ridiculous nature of the primary system as currently constituted, we have the “presidential debates”. My stars, what a mockery of common sense these debacles are. I was emboldened to write about this (not that I haven’t before, but it bears repeating) by reading an excellent column by Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal. About the only piece of the article with which I disagree is the fact that Henninger actually has the temerity to watch at least a portion of these farces; I have neither the guts nor the slightest interest in enduring these charades. Substantive debate could potentially have its place in testing the mettle of a prospective nominee, but these assaults on reason prove exactly nothing. Rick Perry, for instance, has apparently done poorly in a couple of debates, and thus sunk rapidly in the polls. Pray tell, what does the ability to parry verbal attacks from those taking potshots at the frontrunner have to do with the business of governing this country back to solid ground? This is particularly so when the verbal attacks focus, as they usually do, on petty irrelevancies, and amount to games of gotcha, attempting not to shed light on any particular subject or a given candidate’s viewpoint, but rather to make the other candidate look bad by focusing on some perceived peccadillo. As Henninger says, “it looks as if the Republican Party may choose someone to run for the presidency of the United States based on who can explain the world and all its troubles in 30 seconds”. And that, my friends, is absurd. It is standard fare, of course, and were the Democrats not obligated to nominate the Obamination again, they’d surely be engaging in similar nonsense.
But far be it from me to merely curse the darkness, considerable as it is. Let’s light a candle or two, shall we? First, let’s replace these silly, disparate primaries (that have states scrambling, in case you’ve not noticed, to move up their primaries in order to be first—and thus to exercise New Hampshire-esque influence on the process—and I’m betting that’s the first time in the history of the world that the word “New Hampshire-esque” has ever been written) with a national primary. Voters in all the states vote on the same day for their choice for party nominee. We do this in the actual election and it seems to work fine; why not use the same apparatus to select our nominees? This way, we all get an even crack at influencing the process, and we don’t have these silly glad-handing sessions in Dubuque and Concord that take on such relevance.
How do we fix the “debates” (using that term very lightly)? Well, if we are going to have them at all, and want to make them meaningful, we need to find a way to demand the candidates speak to the issues, and not engage in the nonsense. Further, we must allow the candidates to have the time necessary to give at least some semblance of a reasoned response to questions. We do this in part by limiting the scope of the debate. For instance, right now the economy is the issue (some, not me, would argue this is always the issue). Allow the candidates five minutes at a bare minimum to address a given question without worrying about being interrupted or having to play gotcha; Henninger suggests this. How’s this idea? We have technology that allows us to vote for American Idol finalists; why not use similar technology to, mid-debate, vote the field down to, say, three candidates who go mano-a-mano while the others suck eggs. Forget about dumbing it down to make it TV-friendly to the Jerry Springer crowd; take three good hours, the last hour of which involves only the candidates that survive the elimination round. Henninger has another great idea as well: let Romney, say, invite Herman Cain over for a visit, and let the cameras roll as the two men talk about the future of the country. Let Americans gauge which candidate(s) give good answers and appear to have the gravitas to be up to the challenge of the presidency.
Maybe you have a better idea or three. Great. But can we not agree that just about anything is better than what we’ve got right now?