Dan O’Donnell on the question from last night’s Republican debate that perfectly captures the state of American politics.
Sep. 28, 2023
Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
A firm believer in signs would have seen Stuart Varney’s stumble during the introduction of the second Republican presidential primary debate as foreshadowing the debacle to come.
“I am Stuart Varney of Fox Business and I’m thrilled to be sitting alongside my co-moderators, Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino and Ilia Colderon — Cald — Univision,” said the veteran broadcaster (a true pro’s pro in literally every other moment but that one).
“Good evening,” both Calderon and Varney said simultaneously after an awkward pause. And that was the last time anyone ever associated that debate with a good evening.
There was shouting, there were insults, there was Vivek Ramaswamy’s weird snake oil salesman grin, and there was actual policy that was discussed. But those discussions were derided as “boring” and “inconsequential.”
This is the state of reality show politics in America today: Substance is rejected for the dopamine hit of a candidate throwing verbal wine in another’s face. Moderator Dana Perino took that literally.
“Candidates, it’s now obvious that if you all stay in the race, former president Donald Trump wins the nomination,” she said. “None of you have indicated that you’re dropping out. So which one of you on stage tonight should be voted off the island?
“Please use your marker to write your choice on the notepad in front of you, 15 seconds, starting now. Of the people on the stage, who should be — “
“Are you serious?” and incredulous Nikki Haley asked.
“Absolutely serious,” Perino answered.
No, she isn’t. Or at least not in that moment, she wasn’t. Perino, like Varney, is a consummate professional, but even she appeared to have been seduced by the allure of politics-as-entertainment. Yes, politics has always been inextricably intertwined with show business, but this is less witty takedowns from Buckley on “Firing Line” and more Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” screaming “Are you not entertained?”
We weren’t, inasmuch as our Entertainer in Chief wasn’t in attendance. This has given both debates the feel of the 2016 “kids table” debates for lower-polling candidates that aired before the main debates. Now, however, there is no adult table because the only one who once sat there all too often refuses to act like an adult.
The media, desperate to regain the gargantuan ratings they enjoyed during the Trump presidency and obviously colluding with Democrats to promote the candidate deemed easiest to defeat in a general election, promote every unhinged Truth Social insult. Is it any wonder, then, that “Ron DeSanctimonious” and company—nearly all of whom are bold, highly intelligent conservatives with long track records of effective leadership—are unable to get any traction?
The “reality show”-ing of politics runs deeper than that, though. Media malfeasance aside, a whole lot of conservatives seem to want this. Who stood out most during Wednesday night’s debate? One could make the case for Haley or Ramaswamy, who for a second straight debate tried desperately to fill the Trump void through insults and platitudes devoid of any real substance. For her part, Haley’s most memorable moment was a bitter spat with Tim Scott over curtains. Is it any wonder she won the Drudge Report’s post-debate poll handily?
She threw the most wine, so she got the most airtime and is now the most popular character on the show. Trump mastered this in 2016 and is so good at it that he is now doing it again without ever appearing onscreen.
Is this really what conservatives want? Another show? If so, debates like Thursday night’s are the ones we deserve. Or do we want substance, depth, and—however boring it may be—a legitimate chance to win next November?
If we do, we may not be entertained, but we will absolutely get the last laugh.