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No More Trophies in POTUS Debates

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Republican Party debates have become much like today’s Little League contests: everybody who shows up gets a trophy. In this case, every breathing, self-identified candidate occupied a stage in DesMoines, the main event being the second most watched program in Fox News history. How the heck did we get here and what does it mean?

What started me thinking about all this was an excellent piece by my friend, Dr. R. B. A. DiMuccio, “Donald Trump, National Review, and the Battle for the Conservative Mind,” which appeared on Grove City College’s Vision and Values website January 28th. I won’t reprise what Bo DiMuccio wrote, but it made me think further about the central question in 2016—heatedly debated every four years for at least the last fifty: Just who’s a Republican?” When asked that very question recently, I responded without hesitation: “Anybody who isn’t a committed Indie or Leftie.” If that’s a correct answer, it’s a real problem or a real opportunity.

Going back to the Eisenhower “Big Tent” era, with only one real departure—that of Goldwater in 1964—the GOP has welcomed any and all to help it win many elections, most notably the Reagan presidencies, during which many blue collar Democrats jammed themselves under the big top. That didn’t signal a leftward tilt so much as a haven to people with conservative leanings, even if not on every issue. Reagan was the last, best master to harness those many horses and guide them toward the city on a hill. We are all the better for it.

Contrary to the left’s portrayal of Republicans as scary edge-huggers, what remains to be true is that millions of people see themselves as responsible traditionalists who may not be conservative in the purest sense, but want an America steeped in a work ethic and moral values. The socialism of Bernie Sanders and Hillary’s pandering to his voters with endless freebies are driving even more people into the Indie and GOP ranks.

All of that describes a 2016 party with many disparate, clamoring voices. My answer to the question above is a correct one, then, and the resulting problem would be otherwise manageable but for the parallel social development that may have begun with the “Me Generation” in the 1980s. One of its fruits began falling from the political tree in the last cycle and the ground is now littered—with candidates demanding an equal voice, whether they’re Little League or Major League.

That’s an interesting dilemma for Republicans, who for the most part, fervently believe in the competitive nature of capitalism. Free trade, free markets, and the rule of economic Darwinism. Yet, even most conservative, competitive parents go along with the current operating rule for children that demands we never hurt anyone’s feelings. No winners or losers. Trophies for everyone.

Even if you agree with such an approach for pre-schoolers, letting the same rule apply to presidential debates is both dangerous and defeating to Republican and conservative aspirations.

Only muddled car buyers, house hunters, and mate seekers keep more than a dozen possibilities on the string for any length of time, so it’s puzzling that at this point in a presidential race for a four to eight year job, that a smart, free-market party still has have eleven of them. Asking Iowans or anyone else to have to choose amongst so many will likely leave way too many candidate-committed voters unhappy with the results.

While the pundits and talking heads become breathless over the political cornucopia this weekend in Iowa, isn’t it time for the party and the networks to insist voters hear more from the choicest voices rather than plenty of voices? Can we not require—in advance—a 5% poll average, entrance fee for debate stage presence by mid-January of the election year, and perhaps, 10% by March 1st ? Or more simply, could we just hear the top four or five to start with, as long as each one has some sort of following?

Oh, for all the others jockeying for the second slot, an ambassadorship, or a cabinet post, we should offer our heartfelt thanks for their able citizenship—but no trophy.

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