I recently read that, in reference to the presidential race, Jeb Bush said, “We’re not auditioning for some kind of show here. We’re running for President of the United States.” Plenty of others have said similar things before, but I’m not so sure that everyone clearly understands that this is the case. Especially this year, with an actual reality show celebrity in the field, it sometimes seems that the media and some voters are viewing the primary races as a giant reality competition.
Lots of attention is given to questions such as: Who polled the best this week? How will the latest controversy help or hurt the different candidates? Who fared the best in a guest spot on late night TV? and so on. It seems that those most able to attract attention (by whatever means,) to be “entertaining,” and to sell themselves well in brief TV segments are the most likely to be rewarded with success in the polls. This is then reinforced when the focus of coverage often seems to be almost exclusively on which people are up and which are down in popularity without that much discussion about which candidates actually have sound policy proposals, a solid record of accomplishments, or personal characteristics likely to enable them to be a good and effective president.
The major debates should present opportunities for the consideration of more serious and substantive matters. However, in addition to the unfortunate use of time even there to ask silly questions and to stir up confrontations for better TV or whatever reason, a large amount of the discussion after these events centers mainly on who is perceived as the “winner.” I’m not sure that we need to try to find one at all already among so many participants, but I also think we need to give some thought to a couple of questions. What do those using the term mean by it? And, what criteria should be applied to select the winners of Republican presidential debates? Should this designation go to those who have the smoothest presentation, take up the most airtime, or come up with the most clever put-downs of their opponents? Or, should we instead be looking first for candidates who demonstrate in their answers that they understand the issues and have ideas for addressing them, hopefully informed by a solid conservative point of view? I’d say the latter, but I very well may be in the minority.
The system used to select presidential nominees has never struck me as ideal. It usually seems as if candidates are written off very early in the process if they have low poll numbers or don’t win in one of the first contests, and too often, the ultimate decision has already been made before the people in many states even have a chance to vote. It would be great if we could come up with a better process, but what might that be? Since many seem to be approaching the race for the nomination as entertainment already, maybe we should just go ahead and embrace the concept of politics as a high-stakes reality competition and design a series around it. I speak mainly in jest, of course, but there could actually be some good points to such a notion.
(Those of you who are fans of popular talent programs might like to join me in the little imaginative exercise that follows. Others might find their eyes quickly glazing over.)
There are many different types of reality programs out there, and more than one kind might provide some useful ideas, but I’ll state up front that I would not ask candidates to fend for themselves on an island somewhere, eat bizarre and horrifying things, or even face judgment in a business board room (at least not this year -- we can’t have any unfair advantages!) What I have in mind would be based on popular talent competitions and would be intended to give the candidates opportunities to fairly present themselves to the public. This proposed Presidential Idol or So You Think You Could Be President program should ideally air on one of the major broadcast networks or PBS (or alternate episodes amongst them) and be simulcast on news radio stations so that pretty much everyone who wishes to do so would have a chance to follow along. Since we currently start the campaigns a very long time before the eventual general election, the series could have a nice, long run with no rush to choose a victor too soon.
To give even those candidates who aren’t well known a chance to be heard, I’d suggest the first few programs consist of 5 or 6 candidates each night having the chance to give an extended (15 or 20 minutes) presentation, in which they could explain their previous experience, their reasons for seeking the presidency, some things they would hope to accomplish if elected, or whatever else they’d like to share with the American people. These speeches might be rather similar to those given at events like the Red State Gathering or the Values Voter Summit, and they should give potential voters a more thorough idea of who the candidates are and what they believe than a couple of brief answers to debate questions posed by others. Subsequent episodes could involve “theme nights,” where each candidate would be asked to answer questions about and/or discuss particular topics such as taxes & budgets, health care & entitlement programs, foreign policy, etc. Again, each person should have his or her own dedicated segment or everyone should get equal chances and speak in turn. There should be no situations where some participants are asked ten questions and others only two, and there should be no “cutting in” to talk during another speaker’s allotted time. Once several of these rounds have taken place, there could be a few more conventional debates, still designed to be as fair and substantive as possible.
So far, these suggestions would basically just change the nature and frequency of widely broadcast forums made available for presidential candidate participation. If desired, other features could be added with the goal of increasing the entertainment level of this venture and making it truly more like a reality television program. Choosing an appropriate host would be important. A conventional news personality would be one option, but perhaps someone more associated with show business, like a Pat Sajak, for example, could add an interesting touch to the proceedings -- if Ryan Seacrest is too busy with his multitude of other jobs to be available, of course! Having a panel of “experts” could be beneficial, as well, but the best way to utilize it would have to be determined. I don’t think they should actually “judge” the candidates by assigning scores or anything like that, but they might offer commentary at the end or beginning of each show and/or serve as moderators or facilitators of question and answer sessions, discussions, or debates. The role that the expert panel would play, as well as its makeup, could possibly vary from week to week. I’m sure that it would be challenging to decide who would be allowed to select the members of such a group and what criteria would be sought in the panelists. It might be nice to have a representative from more traditional news media (like a Brit Hume, for example), one from newer media or talk radio (do you think Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin would come on board?), and a respected former officeholder or other government official (if there are any who aren’t already running for president themselves...)
On many competition programs, it is common to show short video features about the participants. For our purposes, this type of thing could be used to show the candidates out on the campaign trail or preparing for their TV appearances or to provide some background about their earlier lives and careers, their families or outside interests, etc. If done correctly, videos of this type could give the public some additional insight into the people running for president, but the pros and cons of their use should be carefully weighed before adding them to our format. If we let each candidate’s team create its own videos, they might be seen as just another batch of campaign commercials, but if a TV network or other entity produces the features, we might well wind up with unequal treatment of candidates that could unfairly affect public opinion. If selective editing or slanted video production for dramatic effect can essentially wind up sabotaging the chances of dancing celebrities (and I believe this has been the case), imagine what could happen to politicians dealing with controversial issues and playing for the highest of stakes.
Finally, there is the matter of audience participation, which is very important in reality competitions. People voting for their “favorites” online or by phone, text, etc. could serve as an extra opinion poll and provide valuable feedback to help the candidates gauge how well they are connecting with the public. I would suggest waiting until the audience has had a chance to hear from everyone at least twice before having any votes, and I think that the full results of each vote should be revealed. I would personally be reluctant to suggest using the audience vote to actually eliminate anyone from the presidential race, as this is too important a choice to treat lightly. However, if the candidates were to agree beforehand, this might possibly be an acceptable way to narrow the field just a little at the end of the “series.” In any case, if the presidential nomination show were to air every couple of weeks beginning in August, it could wrap up by the end of January, by which time the audience should have had the opportunity to see and hear enough upon which to base well-informed opinions about the candidates before the actual primaries and caucuses begin.
Well, after speculating about this fictional scenario, it’s time to get back to the real world. And in that realm, I think it’s fair to say that reality television shows can be very enjoyable, but anyone who wants to watch one already has many options from which to choose. Since people can seek “entertainment” from programs featuring chefs or inventors, bachelors & bachelorettes, celebrities doing any number of silly things, and a plethora of other themes, perhaps we can try our best to look at presidential politics in a serious and thoughtful way instead.