Political debates may be among the most overblown, over-emphasized aspects of our democracy. Viewers watch these spectacles with varying degrees of attention, largely relying on post-game reports to decide who “won.” As if you can draw a direct line from a man’s debating ability and his ability to run the country. As if this is anything more than light entertainment.
Still, debates occupy an important role in our political atmosphere. It’s not clear how many voters really rely on them to make up their mind about the candidates, but it’s probably a bigger number than you might like to believe. And there is always room for a candidate to sink his campaign in one big moment. Ask Rick Perry. Ask Mitt Romney. Ask Dan Quayle. He might have survived his big debate embarrassment, but that had more to do with Michael Dukakis’ ineffectiveness than Quayle’s recovery. Things can change in a hurry on the debate stage.
For these reasons, the Republican primary debate on Thursday promises to be one to watch. And one candidate will be more closely watched than any other. This will be the first time Donald Trump has faced his fellow contenders, and no one knows quite what to expect.
For his part, Trump is trying to downplay expectations. “These politicians, I always say, are all talk no action. They debate all the time,” Trump said on ABC Sunday. “I don’t debate, I build. I’ve created tremendous jobs, I’ve created a great company. Maybe my whole life is a debate in a way, but the fact is I’m not a debater, and they are. With that being said, I look forward to it, we’ll see what happens.”
A few things have conspired to make Trump the surprise frontrunner, but one of the biggest is how little he resembles the typical candidate. Voters appreciate his bigmouth approach to the issues that matter. His lack of polish. When Trump is asked a question, he answers it. He’s controversial, rude, and brash, and it’s a refreshing break from the usual politics. Will he bring that loud personality to the debate stage? Almost certainly.
And that’s what is going to make Thursday’s debate so interesting. Will Trump get caught by candidates who are smarter, smoother, and more experienced? Or will he run roughshod over the other Republicans, making them look like children afraid to stand up to the big bad bully?
It will also be interesting to see how Bush and company react to Trump’s presence. Anyone tempted to treat the real estate mogul as a joke might want to reconsider. Conservatives are willing to listen to ideas. They are willing to watch the other candidates make their case. But we will not tolerate mockery. If the establishment candidates don’t take Trump seriously, the voters may take personal offense.
The voters aren’t necessarily looking for a spokesman for conservatism. We’re looking for a president. But if Trump is able to prove that he can be both, the Bushes, Walkers, and Christies are going to have a long Thursday.