The Political Debate as Reality Show


It was the debate that was over in less than five minutes.

Although the setting was more dramatic as the numbers dwindled down to a precious few, the Thursday Republican debate in Charleston was another meaningless discussion signifying nothing. Once again, all the candidates, with the exception of course of Ron Paul, essentially agreed on everything of significance. And there was nothing new in what the congressman had to say, either.

This are debates?

No, they are festivals of nitpicking for the benefit of the mainstream media — aka, the Barack Obama drinking club.

Far and away the most exciting moment of the second South Carolina debate — in fact, the only moment of faint interest — was the first, when Newt Gingrich excoriated CNN John King for opening the debate with a question about his marital life. Newt made mincemeat of King — but even that we have seen before.

What we have been watching, ladies and gentleman, is the political campaign as reality show. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Gingrich and Paul — another episode of “The Real Housewives of South Carolina.” Or is it “Desperate Housewives.” Whatever. Next comes Florida.

I am not exaggerating in the slightest. For the South Carolina debate, I was sitting in the media center and saw it all. Unbeknownst to the national television audience at home, just prior to the actual broadcast, a warm-up guy for CNN came out to prep the audience, just as they would do at a game show. “Let ‘em hear you, South Carolina!” The audience, well accustomed to “The Voice,” “American Idol” and “The X-Factor,” did just what they were told.

While this was going on, the blase press corps around me scarcely looked up at the Jumbotrons. They had seen this dozens of times before, hoi polloi being manipulated. When the Pledge of Allegiance began, only a handful of the 400 or more journalists in the room put their hands to their hearts. The others continued typing and gossiping. Elite media, indeed.

And then, when Gingrich did his takedown of King, and the audience erupted into a standing ovation, there was not a ripple from the crowd in the media center. They knew this was directed at them. I looked over at Joe Klein, who had a smirk on his face.

This is what we have come to in our country. Politics as reality show. Rick, the family values scold. Randy Newt with his one-liners. Stodgy, reliable Mitt and loony old Ron.

It’s a great series, but something’s missing — democracy.

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