Will anything significant come from these debates tonight?

Today begins the biennial ritual where I try to find ways to not feel completely pathetic about my interests and habits. I have friends who, at this very moment, are talking about the first NFL preseason games and already have their fantasy leagues set up. (I really need to get on that myself.) One particular group of associates has a summer softball league and tonight they will be emptying a pony keg of beer while they play a game under the lights. And me…

I’m going to be watching politicians answer the same questions we already talk about every day. And I will do so for hours. It must be nice to have a real life.

In any event, I was reading a roundup of some of the “things to watch” for each of the debates this evening from one of ABC’s newsletters and trying to decide if all the time that the political punditry class will invest in this circus is actually worth it. Surprisingly, I think the odds are pretty good that it is. The spectacle is rolling out in two parts, and if history is any guide there is a good chance that one or more people will do something to knock themselves down several pegs, perhaps even leading to their eventual exit. And if we’re very lucky, somebody not yet rising into the first tier of candidates will find their moment to shine and move more solidly into contention.

For the five o’clock event, if nothing else we seem to have come up with a better name… “The Undercard.” I like it because of the boxing reference, and it’s far better than “Happy Hour” (none of them are going to be happy) or “kids table.” More to the point, our obsessive cable news media will make sure that it’s really not that much of a downgrade from the main stage. (This is a realization which only hit me this morning.) Yes, the 9:00 debate will be the one to draw the giant ratings and much of America will still be at work or on the road for the early event. But does that really matter? The voters these candidates really need to reach will largely skip watching the entire event anyway (assuming they tune in at all) and will get most of their input from the clips which run endlessly for the next week on late night shows and cable news gab festivals. The earlier debate has just as much potential to deliver the goods… perhaps more so because Trump won’t be there.

So what might we get? I doubt anyone will have three items to list and then only remember two of them, but awkward moments are hard to avoid, particularly if you’re not experienced in this sort of political Superbowl environment and aren’t ready for the pressure. Anyone who freezes up on camera or, worse, loses their temper and begins going off on an opponent will be remembered for that far more than any solid policy points they manage to put out. In a way, it’s a fair metric to look at because if you can’t handle the pressure of the debate stage, do we really want you facing down Vladimir Putin?

And how much policy will we be getting anyway? The rules don’t offer much cause for optimism.

Each candidate will have one minute to respond to a question and 30 seconds to give rebuttals. Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace from Fox News will tag team moderating the ten-person GOP presidential field. Fox News has also said that they will try to give all 10 candidates equal time to talk on the stage, which would equal roughly 10 minutes per candidate. Wallace pointed to his binder of debate questions in an interview with the Washington Post, saying, “I’ve got some doozies in there.”

One minute answers and 30 second rebuttals? That’s not enough time to finish one talking point for a web advertisement. I am not encouraged.

So what should we be looking for? A short list to consider:

In the early showing, Carly Fiorina needs to stand out as the adult on the stage and still deliver some sharp enough jabs to make the highlight reel. If she manages that she could climb out of the basement.

Rick Perry will have to contain his frustration at being in the lower tier group. He will probably hit immigration hard, but so will everyone else. He needs to let his personality carry him through.

George Pataki will have to find a way to explain to everyone why he’s even there.

I have no idea what Bobby Jindal could do at this point to get back into contention. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

In the main debate, it will be all eyes on Trump and the other nine have to get around that. Trump claims to not be prepping at all and I believe him. When he did his campaign announcement he had a lengthy speech prepared which was released to the media under embargo. As soon as he took the podium he threw it in the trash and winged it. Expect more of the same tonight.

Aside from the Donald, I’m waiting to see what Ted Cruz will do. He is arguably being hurt the most by Trump’s presence in terms of support in the polls. How does he outshine Trump without looking like he’s setting his hair on fire? He’s probably the most experienced and skilled debater on the stage, but does that help against somebody like Trump?

Christie may benefit the most from having Trump there. He can go fully bombastic and still look good if Trump starts delivering the read meat. Rubio needs to find a way to be the “reasonable third path to victory” but I have no idea how he manages it. Kasich just needs to not lose his temper for the most part.

And finally, Scott Walker. What does he do? Honestly, it almost seems like all Walker has to do is stay calm, remain on topic and wait for other people that implode. That’s the advantage of being an early favorite in the polls.

Let us know what you’re looking for. I’ll be out at the liquor store stocking up before this begins.

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022