David Crisp: Let’s ‘American Idol’-ize the GOP debates

By weekly newspaper standards, things slow down here a bit in the summer, so I thought I would take a few minutes to solve a pressing national concern. Seriously, no problem, I’m happy to do it.

Republicans and Fox News (or do I repeat myself?) are in a bit of a tizzy over how to handle upcoming presidential debates for GOP candidates. The problem is that there are too many candidates to fit on one stage. So Fox plans to let only the top 10 candidates debate, as reflected in current polling.


David Crisp

This results in some problems. As of Sunday morning, Donald Trump would be in and Carly Fiorina (the only female candidate in the GOP race) would be out. Political neophyte Ben Carson would be in, and longtime Sen. Lindsey Graham would be out.

Besides, debates offer lesser known and poorly funded candidates with something to say a chance to emerge from the pack. Under the Fox plan, they will be weeded out of the pack before they get a chance to howl.

Let’s face it: Most people don’t know much about any of the candidates. Political junkies immerse themselves in this sea of names, but average voters know as much about them as they do about third-string offensive tackles.

Here’s a modest proposal: Pick the 16 top candidates, dipping into independents and libertarians if necessary, and match them up randomly in eight one-on-one debates. Have the debates scored by professional debate judges, based not on ideology but on each candidate’s grasp of the facts and issues, ability to speak plainly, and willingness to answer a direct question with a direct answer.

Let the winners advance to a second round, then a third, until we have a Republican debate champion.

Think of the advantages. “American Idol” style, the winners would build suspense as they move toward the finale. The losers would spark national discussion as they discounted the results, worked the judges or made excuses. Voters would cheer on their favorites and boo calls that went against them.

More importantly, we might improve a badly broken series of so-called debates that inevitably devolve into pre-digested sound bites largely unrelated to the actual questions. Imagine how the game could change if candidates knew that ducking questions could block them from advancing to the next round.

It would not be a perfect system. Picking the judges would be a challenge. Follow-up questions would be essential. Carpers will point out that debating skill is not the only thing that matters in picking a candidate.

True enough, but debating is one skill that candidates need, and this system might actually turn the focus to what truly matters: where candidates stand on the issues, what sort of ideas they have to solve problems and how seriously and honestly they have addressed important questions.

Could it really be worse than the current system, in which campaigns drag on for ages and the whims of a few billionaires increasingly matter more than what any of the rest of us think?

As for the Democrats, a crowded stage is no problem. Reporters and talk show commentators instead complain that frontrunner Hillary Clinton won’t talk to the press.

Good. There ought to be some sort of Pulitzer Prize for keeping your mouth shut, and she should win it.

Reporters want her to talk because they have stories to write, and if the campaign isn’t feeding them daily talking points, they have to go out and dig up stories of their own on real issues. Too bad, but nobody said journalism was supposed to be easy.

The radio talk show hosts and Republicans (or do I repeat myself again?) want her to talk in hopes that she will make some sort of career-destroying mistake. Do you suppose that Sean Hannity is still trying to decide whether he prefers Hillary Clinton’s policy positions to Ted Cruz’s?

The election is a year and a half away. The only people who haven’t decided what they think about Hillary Clinton aren’t paying attention yet. She will have to speak out soon enough, especially if Sen. Bernie Sanders makes a serious run at her, and I hope he does.

It’s not that Sanders would make a good president. Like Ron Paul, he is probably too old, too uncompromising and too extreme to get the job. But just as Ron Paul shows Republicans what a real conservative looks like, Sanders shows Democrats what a real liberal looks like. The two men are useful, and necessary, touchstones.

Perhaps we could get those two to debate. I would rather see that than “American Idol.”

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997. The Outpost is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.

Leave a Reply