October Sweeps

Can the Democratic debates be made interesting?


If Nietzche was right that whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger, then last night's plodding California gubernatorial debate may have given us the courage to make it through today's even grimmer political battle royale.

Indeed, as the unimpressive and largely unwatched reality TV series known as The Democratic Presidential Debates trudges along into mid-season (the third of six planned episodes airs tonight on the Pluto and Uranus of the cable universe, CNBC and MSNBC), even diehard party loyalists must be facing a harsh truth: The Dem debates are about the least interesting and edifying political spectacle since Adlai Stevenson dined alone. Like Hollywood producers with an obvious dud on their hands, Democratic party leaders should be screaming for the rewrite boys to come up with a whole new premise for their show. If the Happy Days gang could take over a dude ranch to squeeze out an extra couple of ratings points, the Dems can certainly tinker with their dreary debate dramedy to pull a few more eyeballs.

During the first two debates, the only truly memorable moments came courtesy of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who didn't even make it to the first contest and who struggles to maintain the level of seriousness evinced by the late comedian Pat Paulsen during his multiple bids for the White House. Last time around, Sharpton cheerily shouted down rude supporters of conspiracy monger Lyndon LaRouche and, when asked the toughest question of the night—What is your favorite song?—replied without missing a beat: "Talking Loud, Saying Nothing," by James Brown. It wasn't clear whom he was talking about: President George W. Bush, the other Democratic hopefuls, himself—or possibly all three.

Even the much-ballyhooed entry into the race by Gen. Wesley K. Clark is unlikely to provide more than a firecracker's worth of excitement. As a candidate whose sole credentials are winning a minor war nobody remembers and being against a major war that most people favored, Clark is about the least appealing military man to run for president since cashiered Union Gen. George McClellan took on his former boss, Abraham Lincoln, in 1864.

Sorely lacking from the televised debates are, well, the elements of good television, especially reality television: drama, tension, plot twists, ritualized humiliation, and the elation-inducing elimination of annoying cast members. Given that politics is the ultimate realty TV series, it only makes sense that the Dems retool the debate format to mirror the most popular trend in programming. Indeed, as the Republicans start dreaming of retaining the White House and consolidating power in both houses of Congress in 2004, the Dems' survival may well hinge on aping Survivor and its TV kin. Here are some format changes they might consider:

• The Survivor option. Who wouldn't tune in to watch presidential candidates be thrown overboard from a ship at sea, the starting point for the latest version, Survivor: Pearl Islands, of the hit show? Not only would the swim to shore immediately thin out the too-big herd of candidates (bye, bye, Joe Lieberman), the team-based challenges would let voters see who leads and who follows. The tribal councils, in which candidates vote off the player everyone hates (see ya, Dick Gephardt) in a secret ballot, would keep folks glued to their sets to the very last minute of each debate.

• The Fear Factor option. At least three candidates—John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Gen. Clark—lay claim to a tough-as-nails persona. A fourth—Carol Moseley Braun—has gamely bounced back from the suicide-inducing humiliation of losing a virtually guaranteed-for-life Senate seat. Others—Dennis Kucinich, Bob Graham—are Milquetoasts desperate to prove their mettle. But how brave are any of them really? Being buried in a box of snakes or bungee-jumping into a passing motorboat—or honestly talking about the tradeoff between cutting deficits and raising taxes—would give voters a clear sense of whether candidates really can walk the walk.

• The Weakest Link option. While it faded as a primetime game show after making a huge initial splash, The Weakest Link, featuring an abusive host (Rev. Sharpton, this may be your true calling) and easy questions designed to snag stupid players, is tailor-made for politics. Better still, at the end of every round, candidates would explain exactly why they are voting off one of their own. Best of all, the rejected player gets 20 seconds of unrestrained vitriol directed at his betrayers (finally, the carefully coiffed John Edwards might genuinely express himself).

Whatever path they choose, the Democrats should get on it faster than the couples fall apart on Temptation Island. In a two-party system such as ours, politics works best when the opposition offers a vibrant, compelling, and clear alternative to the group in power. With a presidential election only a little more than a year away, the Dems still haven't gotten their act together. No wonder so many of us have tuned out their debates so far.