It was with unabashed glee that my husband and I sat down last Thursday night to watch the first US Presidential primary debate on Fox News, the news channel that is to news what cheese whiz is to cheese. Not by choice we’ve developed a pickiness about TV as we’ve gotten older, and nowadays political coverage seems to be the only kind of reality programming we can stomach without becoming overwhelmed by a creeping sense of existential emptiness and dark self-loathing.
Debates are also pretty much the only reason we still have cable, apart from the knowledge that our dads would die of disappointment if they couldn’t watch soccer when they come over from England. In fact, there’s a comparison to be made between watching sports and watching debates, inspiring as they do a similar mixture of amusement and pain.
Thursday’s Republican Party debate marked the start of a campaign that will last 16 more months and could end up costing a total of as much as five billion dollars. From a British perspective, these numbers are mind-boggling. The campaign period for a UK general election is six to seven weeks, and spending by candidates and political parties is subject to strict monitoring and restrictions over a period of several months leading up to polling day. For the 2010 UK general election (the latest for which data are available), the spending limit was set at the equivalent of about $45,000 per candidate, meaning that the three major political parties spent around $30m in total on the campaign. It really is a different world.
And, while it might be argued that the current battle for the leadership of the UK Labour Party – fought through the media rather than on the stage – comes somewhere close, neither is there anything in the UK electoral system quite like the Presidential primary debates. In recent years, the UK has adopted the American tradition of televised debates between the party leaders, but there’s never been an opportunity for the British people to see party leadership candidates pit their wits against one another in a public forum.
Perhaps the unfamiliarity explains why I find the debates so ghoulishly compelling. Surely they must qualify as the worst job interview in the world? Not only are you required to answer questions in front of millions of people (24m watched Thursday’s debate) alongside all your rivals, each of whom is actively encouraged to attack you, from interviewers armed with an extensive record of pretty much everything you’ve ever said or done in your professional (and sometimes personal) life – but you have to do it multiple times! It’s a recurring nightmare! Last Thursday’s Republican debate was the first of eleven. And that’s all before the successful candidate even begins fighting the actual election.
In fact, the first debate of this election season (can two years be called a season?) was less a debate than a quick-fire question round in which the three moderators systematically shot a quiver of arrows directly at a series of Achilles’ heels: Bush on dynastic politics, Trump on party commitment, Ben Carson – a neurosurgeon, in case anyone had forgotten in the five seconds since he last told us – on his record of ignorant gaffes: thunk, thunk, thunk. The approach likely reflected the extraordinary size of the current Republican field: 17 declared candidates, the lowest-polling seven of whom were consigned to a secondary debate earlier in the evening, widely referred to as “the kids’ table”.
Some were surprised by the targeted nature of the moderators’ questions given Fox’s political bent, because of course what’s said in the primary debates commonly carries forward to the partisan battle. But in practice the candidate’s first response was rarely challenged by the people from Fox, who were more focused on rattling through the issues, so there was still plenty of scope for the usual avoidance, meaningless waffle, casual untruths and outrageousness.
There were a few back-and-forths and moments of genuine drama. Rand Paul (for those unfamiliar: avowed libertarian and noted filibusterer, scrappy-looking, multi-tone perm) had clearly nominated himself as the man to derail the Trump Train, jumping in at the first opportunity to accuse the bellowing billionaire of buying political influence. Later, he did it again, scoffing at Trump’s support for a single-payer healthcare system in spite of the fact that Trump had said just a few seconds earlier that he didn’t support a single-payer healthcare system. “I don’t think you heard me”, growled The Donald huffily. Scrappy Rand went for Christie’s ankles too (Christie: big fat New Jersey governor, a bit less big and fat than he once was, hugged Obama in a hurricane) on the subject of civil liberties and national security. For my money, Christie came out of the two hours pretty well: articulate, pragmatic and passionate, in rather sharp contrast to Bush v3.0.
So, we’re off. One down, ten to go. Plus six for the Democrats. And then, at the end, the best bit: when we get to see them all scrambling to line up behind the eventual winner, in spite of having all but accused him (or her – there’s one woman in each party race) of being the devil incarnate. Ah ha ha, bygones and all that. All just part of the game.