The Democratic debates are going to be an absolute mess

Bring it on

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Scott Olson/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Sean Rayford/Getty Images, Iuliia Kanivets/iStock, helgy716/iStock)

On Wednesday evening, like a million or so other Americans, I am going to watch three senators, two current members of the House and two ex-congressmen (including one who skateboards), a governor who is running a single-issue campaign, a former minor cabinet official, and the progressive mayor of a large city who is universally loathed by progressives talk in one-minute snippets for two hours.

Why? It can't be because we are hoping that at some point between the introductions and the questions from a rotating chorus of moderators and the (I hope frequent) commercial breaks we want these people to have a measured, thoughtful conversation about "the issues," whatever those are. Everyone from DNC bigwigs to the candidates themselves expect the first televised Democratic debate to be a mess. We also want this to be the case.

This is especially true when it comes to the fringe candidates, the roughly 90 percent of the field who know that they will never receive their party's nomination, much less be elected president of the United States. They are there for all sorts of reasons. One of them is to entertain us. Can you imagine what would happen if the well-spoken moderate Rep. Scott Goodwin of Indiana called the president a "jacinthe cockalorum"? Neither can I, because there is no such candidate, but I'm sure if he existed and he did employ this sort of old-timey language, people would talk about it long enough for the plausible-sounding but made-up candidate in question to go up 1 or 2 percent in the polls and get invited on a few of the late-night shows. We all want these things to happen, the same way we all wanted Donald Trump and Marco Rubio to talk about their penises three years ago. These things make us laugh, and the laughter helps us to ignore the small but unmistakable voice in our heads that says this country is going to hell regardless of who wins next November.

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The television networks understand all this, which is why they allowed the host of The Celebrity Apprentice to derail Jeb Bush's painful attempts to explain his 85-point plan for block-granting Medicare with yo mama jokes for months on end until the former became the unquestionable front-runner and, eventually, the GOP nominee and the latter retired from politics forever. This isn't about public service. If it were, there would be only one or two debates featuring the five or so candidates with a realistic shot. They would be aired on C-SPAN and the moderator would be someone sensible like Brian Lamb, the last and indeed perhaps the only truly great television journalist in American history. But if the TV people only care about ratings, I think there is a good deal else they could be doing to ensure that we tune in. Have a special musical guest — maybe those affectless dorks from the Super Bowl? I doubt they could afford Beyoncé, but with a crowd-funded campaign and a well-timed appeal from some influencers on Instagram, you never know. Alternately there could be a talent show portion, in which Cory Booker shows us how to block a blitzing linebacker and Beto plays the first track from Mogwai Young Team and Elizabeth Warren chugs Miller High Life.

But the best idea I have heard yet is letting Trump (who has already announced his plans to live-tweet the debates) on stage. The possibilities here are infinite. He could argue with all 10 candidates simultaneously or pose questions to them as a moderator. He could divide the candidates into teams of two, assign them ridiculous tasks ("Devise a white paper to reduce carbon emissions by 10 percent while keeping the debt-to-GDP ratio within the range of current IMF forecasts"; "Pick up my laundry"), and ceremoniously "fire" one or two them at the end of each round. In addition to making the 2020 Democratic debates very likely the most popular program in the history of television, such an arrangement would have the additional benefit of making it much easier for the party to actually select a nominee. Heck, we could just cancel the primaries.

As an American poet once put it: Here we are now. Entertain us.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.