No Debate At All

Why those primary and presidential-candidate onstage gatherings are the farthest thing possible from Oxford Union debating

Reince Priebus has once again opened his mouth and another wave of badly thought out talking-point drivel is flooding the place. (I can’t be the only one who imagines that Caution: TeaOP Contents Under Extreme Pressure! has been tattooed on the back of his head.) The good news is that he’s moved on from saying women who demand rights to their own bodies are the equivalent of caterpillar invasions. This time he’s attempting something half-clever designed to fool “low-information” voters (ie, the ignorant) and the Media (ie, the corporately craven)–something that’s pretty much on the level of pretending to throw a tennis ball and then standing back to watch a fox terrier dash after nothing at all.

The invisible tennis ball in this instance is Priebus’ insistence that he has TeaOP primary debates to offer for appropriately cowed behavior from NBC and CNN. And, as with that fox terrier, he has both networks in a frenzy over nothing at all. He doesn’t have anything remotely like debates to trade for TeaOP censorship–the primary and presidential-candidate match-ups call themselves “debates” in the same way that Hunter Thompson claimed he was a “doctor.” But at least Thompson reveled in the duplicitous manipulation of the self-labeling.

Much is being made of Priebus’ slip on Morning Joe–that moment where reality slipped through the bullshit: “I have to chose moderators who are interested in the Republican party and its nominees.” This, of course, is completely true–he does help choose moderators and also helps to ensure that they will cause no trouble for the candidates (ie, that they will in no way be practicing journalism or even be legitimate debate referees). So yes, what he says is true–but certainly not shocking. Because primary and presidential-candidate onstage gatherings simply aren’t debates, and haven’t been for decades (if even then).

On a continuum with the Oxford Union debate society at one end and the World Wrestling Federation at the other, primary and presidential-candidate “debates” are only lacking Lurex trunks and literal body slams. They are cartoon stagecraft designed for not-smart people who want to see some overt aggression and maybe even a little violence. Primary and presidential-candidate “debates” center around carefully designed narratives for personas that have been cold-bloodedly designed for the widest public consumption. Ultimately, there’s not a lot of  difference between Herman Cain and Hulk Hogan except, of course, that Hogan is smarter.

And even if this purposely crippled, mutant thing fires on the few cylinders at its disposal, even if it tries to rise above the status of professional political wrestling, it’s still in no way a “debate.” The best it can ever be is a less-good product-list page on Amazon: visuals of competing goods, each with manufacturer-submitted and possibly dodgy specs. It’s less-good because Amazon takes pains to add customer reviews to balance out those carefully burnished self-descriptions. In primary and presidential-candidate “debates,” any sense of real-world efficacy (or even applicability) has been carefully left out.

These so-called “debates” are the result of multi-page, contractually binding and non-negotiable agreements between all parties: yes, the moderators are chosen; yes, the stage design is agreed upon; yes, the caliber of the audience in attendance has been approved in advance; and yes, very often follow-up questions from the moderator are explicitly forbidden. All of this is the result of secret, closed-door discussions between candidates, sponsors and networks that are never disclosed to the public. (In October of 2012, Mark Halperin leaked the 21-page secret document that outlined how the then upcoming presidential-candidate “debates” would proceed. It makes for a sobering read.)

Presidential-candidate gatherings have so patently become not debates that the League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring them in 1984–it walked away rather than be forced to sign a contract about what would happen and how it would happen (back then, it was a mere 12 pages compared to 2012’s 21-page outline of demands). The League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring presidential-candidate debates because it was afraid that what was being agreed to behind closed doors would damage its reputation. Pause and think about that.

In the wake of the LWV, the Democratic and Republican parties formed the bipartisan, “independent” Commission on Presidential Debates, which seemingly has had no problem with secret agreements that will never be disclosed to the electorate. The quotations marks around independent are there for a reason: if the Commission on Presidential Debates fails to abide by the secret agreements, it will lose its sponsorship rights. In other words, the ongoing existence of the Commission is based upon remaining an obedient lapdog to the two parties determining how much of a debate the “debates” will be. So yeah, “independent.”

Now back to Reince Priebus (whose name minus the vowels reads RNC PR BS): His embarrassingly thin excuse for not giving NBC the invisible tennis ball is fake outrage based on fake confusion about the relationship of NBC’s entertainment division to its news operation. My reaction is that, exactly like the World Wrestling Federation, primary and presidential-candidate “debates” as currently hobbled are nothing but entertainment–just another manipulated reality show that garners ratings for the network and launches ancillary careers for supporting cast members.

But the reason Priebus has both NBC and CNN chasing their twitching, terrier tails goes beyond simple ratings lust. The networks are privy to the secret “debate” agreements–they’re part of them. (And frankly, have much to gain by the way those agreements abet the narrative-reporting so loved by their news divisions.) The networks could easily shut down Priebus by exposing the behind-the-scenes distortion of “debates” and demand something better and more honest–if only they weren’t complicit, if only it wouldn’t be proof that their own moderators had previously phoned it in due to secret contractual obligations.

Here’s the take-away: This isn’t about the integrity of network news or the silo’ed nature of entertainment and news operations. This isn’t about a new low for TeaOP apparatchiks (they’ve already so low that the next stop is the Earth’s molten core). No–what we’re watching is essentially that Mexican stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs; a double-cross among thieves. The best outcome for the American electorate is for this to end badly for the TeaOP, the networks and those things they keep insisting are “debates.”