Unless you’re a dedicated politics geek, you may not even notice that Fox News cancelled the GOP debate originally scheduled for Thursday night.
It is, after all, March Madness, and in a lot of places, it’s spring break this week. People have what they might call better things to do.
But it’s interesting to at least note the sequence of events, as recounted by the media.
Donald Trump pulled out of the debate first, on Wednesday morning. And why wouldn’t he? It’s not just that he won big on Tuesday, as expected. It’s also that Marco Rubio bowed out after losing in Florida. Trump doesn’t have anything left to do, other than keep leading Ted Cruz . And debating Cruz essentially mano a mano isn’t going to help him do that.
If Governor Kasich dropped out of the race, it would start looking weak for Trump to seem to be avoiding a pitched confrontation with Cruz. But Kasich is hanging in there – apparently, for now, with every intention of sticking it out until Cleveland. That probably helps Trump more than it does Cruz. So there’s no upside for Trump, in taking on Kasich. Kasich’s main role in debates would be as a foil for the two leaders left on the stage, and while it helps Trump for Kasich to stay in, there’s just no mileage in that debate dynamic, for Trump.
So why would he give either Cruz or Kasich a viewership bonanza they wouldn’t get on their own?
Kasich, meanwhile, gets nothing out of debating Cruz one on one. No one would debate Cruz who didn’t have to, for one thing. But for another, it doesn’t help Kasich, to carve out differences between himself and Cruz.
As an old-consensus Republican, Kasich actually wants to gloss over the differences between him and Cruz. It may be potential Trump voters Kasich will get, in the northern and northwestern states – but it’s leaning-toward-Cruz voters he’s after. So Kasich doesn’t need a debate that leaves no doubt in voters’ minds that he’s very much for amnesty, expanding Medicaid, and chucking religious liberty overboard to facilitate the totalitarian enforcement of social fads.
Without Trump as a foil for himself, moreover, Kasich would clearly have to come off as the eye-glazing, weirdly unmemorable guy. What do viewers remember about any of his debate comments up to now, other than “mail carrier,” “black lung,” and “trust me, I’ve been closely involved in this government you hate since at least 1976”? Well, I guess every now and then there’s something we don’t quite catch about Ukraine.
No, Kasich doesn’t benefit from showing up to debate Cruz. He dropped out of Thursday night right after Trump did. Cruz – who would benefit from debating either of the other candidates, or both – said he remained willing to participate. But with two of the three skipping the forum, Fox obviously cancelled it.
It all makes pragmatic sense. But as sick of the debates as many people have become, we’re going to miss them as an organizing framework.
If Kasich does stay in all the way to the convention, that means the field is set from now until 18 July. That’s four months, quite possibly without a group forum as a focal point or touchstone for the campaign. Twelve or 20 years ago, that wouldn’t have seemed like a big deal. But that was back when there wasn’t nearly so much weird stuff going on.
Without debates to stage, one thing we’ll find is that the media have basically complete freedom to maneuver against (or for) the candidates according to their (the media’s) agendas. The debate format forces the media to treat all the candidates in much the same way, during brief, focused, high-viewership periods. If there are no more GOP debates, that relatively fair, equitable time has ended. The town halls will presumably continue, but they don’t offer the structure a debate does to constrain both the candidates and the media. (They also don’t get the eyeballs.)
Another problem with a no-debates period will be that the unfocused campaign coverage leads to a lot of nonsense being taken seriously (or vice versa). Instead of talking about issues and policy, we’ll be talking about stupid stuff. It will be to Trump’s and Kasich’s advantage to avoid saying memorable and specific things; if the same three men are in the race for the next four months, and there are no debates, the imbecility of what we’re talking about by July is likely to be mind-boggling.
The atmosphere will be ripe for silly rumors, that’s for sure. I have a feeling the only thing that will seem dynamic enough to get air time will be the tantalizing prospect of skullduggery in smoke-filled rooms in downtown Cleveland.
As exciting as that fight probably sounds to some folks, it’s not a beneficial way to pick a nominee. I stress that that doesn’t mean anyone should surrender preemptively. Fight the fight that you think you have to. But it does mean that having the GOP nomination be “about” a procedural convention fight won’t be good for the party, conservatism, or America’s future.
Not having debates between now and then will guarantee that conservatism, per se, gets very little of the gum-flapping time. Who besides Ted Cruz will bring it up?
Think of that as another meta-factor in how you see politics, and what it means to your life. 2016 is the year of things breaking, and that includes the paradigm of politics in human life – for those of us who haven’t already committed, fatally, to worshiping the predatory god of government.