03.18.11

Sell the GOP Presidential Debates!

Why shouldn’t the Republican National Committee auction off the agonizingly boring presidential debates to the highest bidder? They can’t get any less consequential, says former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer.

Someone at the Republican National Committee finally has come up with a capital idea: to sell the broadcast rights for future GOP presidential debates to the highest bidder. If only cable had a Sominex channel. The Republicans could make billions.

Most Americans, of course, could not yet name a single Republican presidential candidate—for the simple reason that there isn’t one. Yet such trifling matters will not interfere with the grand designs of the politicos and reporters of D.C. who long for something new to talk about. They have scheduled a GOP debate anyway. It is taking place May 2, six weeks from now, at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California. This is a brilliant strategy for debate junkies who just want to get things started: Woe to those would-be GOP presidents who snub an invitation from Nancy. Debate buffs out there will recall that the library was the setting for a rhetorical joust in 2008 between those masterful orators John McCain and Mitt Romney. And oddly enough, the man who triumphed in that matchup is guaranteed to win this year’s Reagan library debate as well. His name is Ronald Reagan.

There should be plenty to titillate the chattering classes: Is Newt Gingrich organized enough to get to the debate on time and, if so, will he go to the right location?

A confession: I am a debate junkie, always have been. Back in 2008, when I was working in the Bush White House, I was transfixed to every single encounter between the candidates. Days before the event, some of us would talk about what we believed would happen. We would sometimes watch the encounters together and share in the post-debate spin of who won, who did well, who lost. Sometimes President Bush, who for understandable reasons paid close attention to the encounters between his potential successors, would comment too.

And yet for all the millions of dollars spent to put the debates together, all the millions of viewers who watched, all the times I was sucked in, nothing changed. On the GOP side, these were dreary affairs. McCain remained the mavericky front-runner, grim-faced even when he smiled, while the other candidates tossed the same dreary talking points at each other—gays, guns, the Gipper, and God, in that order.

For the Democrats, after a seemingly endless stream of encounters between the deadlocked Obama and Clinton, they emerged from each debate still…deadlocked. The encounters were not exciting, but exhausting. By the time the Democratic battling had finally ended and Clinton sort-of, kind-of dropped out of the race, the New York Post offered the all-time classic front page: a picture of Mrs. Clinton departing some event with a headline scribbled across the page, “EXIT: DO NOT BLOCK.”

And yet the debate industry goes merrily on—an army of always sage commentators, hysterical headline writers, well-fed campaign spinners, insta-poll takers and analyzers, and various focus groups of bored citizens from Ottumwa, Iowa, trying to appear earnest. The debates must go on—if not, what on earth would Frank Luntz and his professional focus group participants find to do?

No sane person, of course, expects the debates of 2012 to offer any surprises. None of the candidates will hold an intelligent discussion on an important issue or admit to one of their rivals something as embarrassing as, “You have a point. I never looked at it that way” or “I am not as schooled on this subject as I would like to be.” But it does not have to be a replay of the “Thrilla in Vanilla,” either. There should be plenty to titillate the chattering classes: Is Newt Gingrich organized enough to get to the debate on time and, if so, will he go to the right location? Who will make the first joke about President Obama’s use of teleprompters—and will they do it from a teleprompter themselves? How many consultants will work this year to make Mitt Romney’s hair appear casually tousled? If camera hogs Ron Paul and Donald Trump are together in the same room, will there be a rip in the space-time continuum?

As a debate-a-holic, incidentally, I pray every day that Mr. Trump will run. At least the Republicans would finally have someone on stage who understands what makes good television. But I know this is too much to ask. Yet again, I will fall for the media hype and waste several more hours of my life this year watching debates in which nothing happens.

Still, the Republicans may be onto something with charging for political events, and it is a concept our public servants should consider more often. Let CNN pay billions to buy the exclusive rights to next year’s State of the Union address. Everybody wins: The federal treasury gets some extra money, CNN can claim to be the “news” leader, and, more important, the rest of us can watch something more riveting, like a rerun of Maude.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.