As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
The political chattering classes would prefer primaries and debates to be run for their own entertainment and are generally annoyed at the patience and caution with which the vast majority of voters approach the process. No one votes for six months yet but they are already tired of the candidates, bored by substance, and itching for juvenile name calling to begin. Their annoyance with the first debate earlier this week highlights why you should be annoyed with them.
Every four years a host of candidates spend numerous months exploring a presidential campaign and begin introducing themselves first to a very few insiders, operatives, and reporters. They then branch out to the few actual voters interested very early in the process and graduate to the electorate at large.
The marathon-like length of the process provides a premium to candidates interested in discipline and showing patience. Unfortunately, it also means boredom can set in for the operatives who pay much too much attention compared to normal people and also the reporters and other information providers we rely on to help us learn enough to make an informed decision.
The debate season is a very early stage in the primary process but it comes after reporters and the chattering classes have sent as much as three years listening to and talking about specific candidates. To that very tiny group that has been paying attention for far too long boredom long ago set in. But normal humans are just now starting to kick the tires and get to know bits and pieces of information in the hope of making a final decision sometime next year.
The unusual size of the Republican field this year has frustrated much of the insider class. There are 17 candidates who might be referred to as serious — former governors, senators, etc.
Normally, a reporter can be expected to have to sift through five or six candidates in a given party. With so many they are at a loss.
Debate organizers are particularly distressed. Ideally they have two or three people who might yell at each other or make dramatic gestures. Seventeen candidates make entertainment more difficult.
But democracy can be sloppy. In the good old days, a few power brokers made sure the right people got nominated and things weren’t open to just anybody. The wrong sorts weren’t allowed to compete openly with the guys who had carried water for us in the past. The primary system ruined all that. Now anyone can run, talk directly to voters, and try to build momentum. Very messy.
The sloppiness of so many candidates had led some broker to create early elimination deadlines — the Republican National Committee through its monopoly debate franchisees had dictated that only those in the top 10 in national polls may participate despite a primary system that used to be based on state primaries rather than national advertising.
Flouting the RNC and its monopoly, a group of early states had a debate — I’m sorry it’s a “forum” lest we anger the monopoly beast into retribution against candidates who dare be so open. Three early states insisted all candidates be invited and introduce themselves to voters.
Many candidates appeared but each received equal time to introduce themselves. Pundits the next morning however fretted the lack of opportunity for candidates to “engage” with each other. These pundits were sad that candidates talked about themselves and their ideas rather than take potshots against each other. The punditry pouted because there were no fireworks.
The other complaint of the politically obsessed was that they “didn’t learn anything new.” Insiders didn’t want to hear the candidate’s talking points. Instead they need fresh phrases each time out.
These complaints are less about the needs of voters than the boredom of the chattering class. It is a useful thing for someone learning about his or her choices to see all of the candidates one after another talk about each of their ideas. We learn more from Rick Perry talking about himself, his record, and his ideas than we would if he had been persuaded by the reportorial blob to attack one of the others.
This forum demanded candidates talk about themselves and their ideas. It is less thrilling than a boxing match and there is the horrific danger that some pundit may have heard that idea before. But it is the substance that we all pretend we want.