I tend to generally like Rachel Maddow's show. I also tend to record it so that I fast-forward through various parts. This include the often 8-10 minute openings at the beginning of the program when she gives history lessons. To be clear, I like that there's a news anchor who is willing to put news in perspective, especially with a younger viewing audience that might not know the background. It's just that sometimes she takes SO long to saying what the actual top news story is, and I don't want to play guessing games. I'm watching the news, for goodness sake. Tell me the top story and then put it in perspective. And sometimes I know the history just fine, so on a personal level I don't want to sit through 10 minutes of refreshing. Though on occasion I do find them interesting.
There are other things I fast-forward, but that's unimportant here. The point is, after all, that I generally do like the show, which is why I've seen it enough to know these quirks. And in the end, they're quirks. We all have them.
But that brings us to a separate matter -- a jag she's been on for months that I don't agree with her about. And the fact that she's been on it for so long and with such almost-joyful repetition that I think it's worth noting. The issue in question concerns how "Fox News" is limiting the number of participants in the upcoming GOP presidential debate to the 10 top candidates in an average of five national polls.
To be clear, I think Rachel Maddow is right to ridicule what a terrible policy this is, and how awful it is that a political party has seeded decisions for its presidential primaries to a TV network, and what a mess "Fox News" has made of things. So, that's all fine. But -- it's that she makes such a massive and repeated emphasis that by doing handling the debates this way, "Fox News" has essentially eliminated the candidates who don't get into this upcoming debate from having any chance of getting the nominations -- and that's where I think she's not only totally wrong, but repeatedly and unrelentingly wrong.
First of all, I don’t think most people even watch primary debates. So, whoever is not in the debate is not going to be missed by most voters, any more than whoever IS in the debate is going to get all that much attention either. TV networks have traditionally put on reruns in the summer, because so many people are on vacation or turn their brains off, and so viewership is down. To think that these same people who can't be bothered to watch a sitcom in the summer are going to be so intensely riveted on instead watching a political primary debate in these same summer months is deeply misguided. I do think more people than usual are likely to watch this time around because they'll want to see if Donald Trump crashes the train, but -- a) "more people than usual" doesn't mean much because the "usual" is so paltry you can hear the crickets, and b) viewers will be watching for the circus effect, not which political candidates are worth their support.
Second, it’s SO early, and what happens at a debate in August (half a year before the Iowa caucus) will be meaningless for most voters. So, whoever does, in fact, watch the debate isn't going to let it have much of an impact on them. There's far too much going on in their lives between August and the voting next year for it to matter much next month, if at all.
Third, the reason the earliest primaries and caucuses are in Iowa and New Hampshire is precisely because they're small states, and that allows the candidates to get more personal contact and individual news coverage than most elsewhere. And also the cost of buying ad time on television is less, so all candidates -- including those not on the debate stage -- will be able to blanket the air more readily in these states than most place.
And finally, fourth -- and this might even be the most important point of all -- there will actually be other debates before the voting and most of them won’t be handled by Fox! So, just because someone doesn't make the debate stage on "Fox News" in August, they might likely be on the stage in September. And October. Long before the voting months away next year in 2016.
I do understand that it's important to get on the debate stage because you have a chance to say something, to say that one snappy line that gets on the news and is remembered, which helps push a candidate to prominence. But that's not only rare, the candidates will get all those other upcoming debates to get their bon mots in.
Yes, it's a debate debacle that "Fox News" has created that is causing so much consternation within the Republican Party, and it's worthy of the attention and ridicule. But to think that this mess will specifically be the reason candidates are forced out of the race is just crushingly-wrong analysis. And it is my hope that, at some point, someone gets the point across to Rachel Maddow so she can get off it already.
In fact, in her interview this week with Rick Santorum -- who has been a vocal critic of the Republican Party for ceding the rules to Fox and who himself is not likely to qualify for this first debate -- even he was unflustered by it all and dismissed its important when Ms. Maddow brought up how problematic for him not being in the debate must be to his candidacy. Now, in fairness, some of his dismissal of her point was because he couldn't show his campaign being hurt by anything, but mainly he was pretty calm in his unconcern of its impact. And explained his reasons -- the heart of which was "People won't remember what they hear in a debate in August." He didn't like the procedure because it's bad procedure, and he does, after all, want to be in the debate. But as for it crushing and ending his campaign not being on the debate stage in August...the impact, he said, was negligible.
And it is. The Fox Debates are a mess and a joke. But they're a mess and a joke for how they were set up. Not for any great impact they'll likely have. And I do so hope that Rachel Maddow eventually gets that and focuses her ridicule on the aspects of the Fox-mangled debates where it's deserved.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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