Imagine Donald Trump squaring off 20 feet from Bernie Sanders arguing about the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Imagine Martin O’Malley jumping out of his seat to interrupt Mike Huckabee’s comments on gay marriage with a question. Imagine these things happening in a theater filled to capacity but equally divided between Democratic and Republican activists.
It does not have to be farfetched. These presidential candidates could create a new debate product which benefits their campaigns and the electorate.
Bernie Sanders is telling the DNC he wants more debates, and wants them sooner. Martin O’Malley has to make his mark in early caucus and primary states if he’s to have any chance next year. Republican presidential candidates are trying to figure out how to distinguish themselves in a ten candidate debate format and worried they might not even make that cut.
Why don’t Sanders and O’Malley become debate partners willing to take on any two Republican presidential candidates?
There are a lot of debate formats. Some formats, such as the American Parliamentary Debate Association (www.apdaweb.org), utilize teams of two. In this particular format, you could take one hour on one issue and let four candidates get after it.
The particular format and details do not matter so much as remembering that presidential campaigns can make up their own rules. You don’t have to wait for the DNC or FOX to decide how it’s going to be. Reagan’s famous quote “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green” reflects that his campaign made up its own debate rules. A presidential campaign is theater and nobody ever said you are limited by the vision of a party or media outlet.
We know that this is not a tactic which makes any sense for Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley need exposure. They need Democrats to see them articulating a progressive vision for America. They also need to be willing to run some risks to which a frontrunner simply need not expose herself.
I have to believe the same holds true for some of these Republicans. Republican activists go through these marathon cattle call events in which candidate after candidate says a whole lot of the same. For Republicans, some type of variety might by itself be merciful.
Is there an audience for this? Well, Sanders and O’Malley have been drawing impressive crowds in Iowa recently. Regardless of the eventual outcome, there is a hunger amongst Iowa Democrats for the process – we want to see candidates talk issues. We’d love it even more if we could see O’Malley and Sanders put a couple of these over-the-top Republican candidates in their place. I am sure there are also Republicans who would like to see Bernie Sanders get his butt kicked.
Just think about Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley versus Ted Cruz and Chris Christie in Dubuque, Davenport, flying out to Manchester, New Hampshire and then coming back for another round at the Iowa State Fair. I’d pay to see that, more than once.
So, Senator Sanders, meet your new debate partner Governor O’Malley. Issue the challenge. There are a bazillion Republicans running for president out there. If there aren’t two of them who have the confidence to take you guys on then you get to go around telling everybody that the Republican presidential candidates are chickens – if they can’t stand up to O’Malley and Sanders how would they stand up to Putin and Kim Jong-un?
As things stand right now your crowds are great but you are probably not going to win the Democratic nomination. Create your own rules and shake things up. Presidential campaigns are theater but they don’t have to be boring, rinse and repeat theater. Frontrunners may opt for the comfort of carefully choreographed network debates. You can produce an entertainment product that will shatter the mold and elevate the expectations.
Expectations are waiting to be exceeded by somebody. Unscripted debates where the candidates engage each other directly can only catch on if first popularized by candidates who need to make a breakthrough. A Socialist and a reality television star seem like a reasonable place to start.
by Nate Willems