The Traditional Debate Format: Outdated or Reinvented?

Has the old-school debate format been broken? In the past, debate stages were crowded, debates were relatively few, and nobody really dared opt out of them—even during primary season. Now, it’s all just chaos.
Last night, in the fifth primary debate of this election cycle, hosted by CNN, viewers gleaned almost nothing. The stage was only populated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who still mostly ignored the elephant in the room: that both are them are currently being left in the dust by the true frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, who has declined to participate in debates thus far.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropped out of the race yesterday, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was not allowed onstage (“They didn’t use polls that were approved in previous debates that had Vivek at 10,” his press secretary told me, naming Trafalgar and Morning Consult as examples) so he ran his own counterprogramming event with Tim Pool and Candace Owens.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be shocked if viewership was low for this futile cage match (the first debate drew about 12 million; the second drew 9.5; the third drew 7.5; the fourth, 4.1). Haley mostly tried to construct an image of a failing, pathetic DeSantis, dropping so low in the polls; DeSantis repeatedly tried to portray Haley as…liberal.
The few bright spots mostly related to sound, fiscally prudent policy offered by Haley. “I think we have to acknowledge that Republicans and Democrats have both done this,” she said, referring to “wasteful spending” and that “$2.2 trillion COVID stimulus bill” as well as an “expanded welfare that’s now left us with 80 million Americans on Medicaid, 42 million Americans on food stamps.”
“We have to have someone that respects taxpayer dollars,” she continued (music to my ears), and “we’ll start by clawing back $100 billion of unspent COVID dollars that are still out there” and send the IRS “after the hundreds of billions of dollars of COVID fraud.”
Trump on fire: I switched back and forth between CNN and Fox, which were two wildly different shows. Trump was on his A game. Merely 15 seconds after I tuned in, he started going off about DeSantis’ “fancy shoes”—the Florida governor is a short king who wears lifts in his boots, which is kind of hilarious—during a meandering answer about none other than abortion bans.
“I am not going to be a dictator,” he said at one point—the type of thing where, if you catch yourself saying it, you may need to engage in some self-reflection and discern why.
At some points, he had answers that I imagine were fairly reassuring to middle-class Iowans. “We are not the radicals” on abortion, Trump repeated over and over, citing how many Democratic states permit abortions late in pregnancy.
When the moderator, Fox’s Bret Baier, asked Trump how he’d respond to accusations of being a “big-government Republican” due to him adding $8 trillion to the national debt, Trump responded: “You had to inject money. We gave businesses that were going bankrupt, temporarily bankrupt, but they needed money. We helped businesses.”
“If I didn’t do that, you would have had a depression in this country. That was a very good investment. And now what they should be doing instead of the kind of debt that they’re building at record levels, they should be paying down their debt and they ought to go into the energy business instead of this green new scam business that they’re in,” he added.
TLDR: In short, if you didn’t watch any of the debates or counterprogramming, you probably made a good choice. (For those who caught the Timothy Leary headline reference, I think that guy has some decent ideas for how to spend time, far away from the grips of CNN or Fox.)
But the fact remains that it’s actually kind of awesome how the pageantry of debates has been cracked open, how more formats than ever before are being experimented with (like that weird Gavin Newsom–Ron DeSantis debate), and how candidates such as Trump are making unconventional campaigning choices—opting out of all primary debates—in lieu of playing the game. If debates had been forums where legitimate policy differences were explored in a long-form, meaningful way, then I’d probably be frustrated by this chaotic turn. But they weren’t, they sucked, and now they’re (mostly) dead.
Houthis shut down: Yesterday, the militaries of Great Britain and the United States jointly intercepted 21 drones and missiles fired at commercial ships in the Red Sea. The Houthis, backed by Iran and based out of Yemen, are responsible for the projectiles.
American military officials told The New York Times that the U.S. government may be considering retaliatory strikes on the Houthis. “What I can tell you is that, as we made clear, and many other countries made clear, there’ll be consequences for the Houthis’ actions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters yesterday. “Watch this space,” said British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps.
The Houthis claim they are only targeting commercial ships that have ties to Israel, and that they are striking them out of support for Hamas and the Palestinian cause. This is a twisted argument, as being associated with Israel could mean all kinds of things. Moreover, it is not true: They are basically a terrorist organization (though not currently classified as such by the U.S. government), and they have targeted 26 commercial ships in the Red Sea, snarling global supply chains and endangering human life.
Meanwhile in the West Bank: Video has emerged showing what looks like three Palestinian men being shot by Israeli forces in the West Bank. There was no indication that these men posed a threat to the soldiers. “One of the wounded Palestinians was shot a second time after he got up and tried to hop away,” per an Associated Press account.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman contested that, saying “soldiers reported that one of the Palestinians—visible kneeling in front of an object just outside the frame—was igniting a Molotov cocktail when he was shot,” according to the A.P. But the first shot appears to have hit a man named Nader Rimawi, who says that the object was actually a pile of cardboard and papers he and the others were preparing to light in order to stay warm.
Scenes from New YorkThe cops and the Hasidim are fighting again, this time over…the creepy tunnels in the synagogue. To non–New Yorkers, this is a very weird story. To New Yorkers? We take Hasidic quirks in stride
QUICK HITS
It’s cute when the Jacobin folks try to read Hayek:
Why is California trying to ban tackle football for kids?
News from Congress:
It’s cute when the Jacobin folks try to read Hayek:
“Amazon held rolling layoffs in late 2022 and early 2023 that ultimately totaled more than 27,000 employees, the biggest cuts in company history,” reported Bloomberg. Now, more are on the way, in the company’s streaming department.