Nationals’ reliever shows us how to organize GOP presidential debates

Last year, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Aaron Barrett bested the Rockies’ Brandon Barnes in an epic post-anthem standoff at Coors Field that didn’t end until seconds before the first pitch of the game.

So it was particularly bold — perhaps foolhardy — for the Phillies’ Aaron Harang to challenge Barrett yesterday on his home field. That contest wasn’t decided until after the first pitch was thrown.

Aaron Barrett wins epic post-anthem standoff,” Chelsea Janes writes in a pitch-perfect report for The Washington Post:

The game hardly mattered by the time it began. A mere baseball game, especially one played in May between the charging Nationals and the sputtering Phillies, could not possibly carry the emotional weight of the test of human spirit, of will and of hope, that preceded it. The Nationals won Friday night’s game, 2-1, and that was good, of course. But first, Aaron Barrett won one of the longest post-anthem standoffs in recent memory — one the baseball world will little note, but one those who witnessed it will long remember.

As with many of baseball’s inexplicable but time-honored traditions, the origins of the post-anthem standoff are obscured by the blur of numbers on jerseys, of bored players, of long pregame ceremonies and long baseball seasons. It sums to this: “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays to a reverent crowd, and both teams line up, hats off, held over their hearts. The song ends, the crowd cheers, and the players disperse. Most of them, anyway.

One hearty soul on one side stays. Someone on the other side notices, considers consequences of surrendering without standing up for himself, then engages. The standoff ensues. Barrett said later he did not want a fight Friday night. The challenge came, and he did not back down.

OK, you may be thinking, so what? It’s just a bit of silliness from men who play games for a living. Sure, it’s kind of funny when ballplayers parody the hypermacho staredowns of heavyweight fighters at their weigh-ins, but who cares?

Well, I think Barrett and Harang may have just shown us a better way to organize the overflowing Republican presidential primary debates — and thus how to move forward in this great American experiment in democracy.

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 3.53.01 PM
The Winner. (Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton — click for full article.)

So far, more than a dozen candidates have announced that they are (or will be) seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president. I’ve lost count at this point, but the running total seems to be somewhere between 16 and 22 candidates. And no one has any idea how to organize a televised “debate” among 22 candidates.

Both CNN and Fox News seem to think that a meaningful debate among 10 candidates might be manageable. I think even that is overly ambitious and optimistic, but let’s give the news networks the benefit of the doubt on that point. That still presents them with a big problem — how do you decide which 10 candidates to invite to the debate and which 10-12 candidates to exclude?

And — even trickier — how do you do so without baldly admitting to the role that supposedly objective media coverage and media decisions play in elevating some candidates and dismissing others?

Martin Longman looks at the different strategies that Fox and CNN have announced for selecting their Top 10 Debate-Qualified GOP candidates. Fox is going with the crudely straightforward approach of only inviting the 10 candidates who are leading in the polls come July when this decision will need to be made. CNN is opting to do the same, but also to hold a second debate for the second-tier of candidates — an approach Longman says recalls the relegation system of premier league soccer:

This will introduce something British into American politics, which is the concept of relegation. In most football/soccer organizations, there are tiers of leagues, somewhat like what we have in minor league baseball. The difference is that the worst two or three teams in a division will be dropped (relegated) into a lower division at the end of the season, and the top two or three teams from the lower divisions will advance (be promoted) to a higher one. This makes otherwise uninteresting games between terrible teams near the end of a season quite suspenseful, as getting kicked out of the English Premier League comes at a terrible cost for the organization and the fans.

To put this in CNN debate terms, we’ll all be asking if Donald Trump can do well enough in the first debate to avoid being demoted to the kiddie table for the second one. Meanwhile, we’ll be wondering who in the also-ran debate will shine and get an invitation to debate Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul the next time.

As he says, this will likely be entertaining and darkly amusing, but not particularly edifying — and a lousy way to go about choosing the nominee for one of our two major parties.

In both cases, for CNN and Fox, the prospect of being excluded entirely or relegated to a second-tier debate creates pressure for candidates to do anything — any stunt, any desperate grab for attention — to pump up their poll numbers, even temporarily, this summer. This is certain to be a spectacle but, again, not a pretty one.

Of course, the concern that candidates will be desperately shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” and attempting potentially embarrassing stunts to distinguish themselves from the crowd in order to qualify for these Top-10 debates only leads us to the same concern for the debates themselves. With Fox and CNN putting ten candidates on one stage for an hour — giving each less than six minutes to distinguish themselves from one another — we probably shouldn’t expect these “debates” to be debates at all. These will not be dignified conversations in which candidates are able to explore their distinct ideas and perspectives — they’ll be shouting matches and chaotic scrums.

No matter how the Top 10 are chosen, ten candidates is still at least twice as many as there should be for a meaningful televised debate. But trying to winnow the crowded field down even further only seems to exacerbate the problem facing the news networks.

So here’s my plan: Invite all of the candidates to Nationals Park for a post-anthem stand-off. The last four still standing — still on the field, caps held over their hearts — qualify for the televised debates on Fox and CNN.

It would be silly and stupid, but it might still be an improvement over the current process — which is, itself, a goofy parody of macho posturing and performative patriotism.

(And don’t worry, candidates Walker, Rubio, Cruz, Bush, Paul, Santorum, Trump, Carson, Fiorino, Huckabee, Graham, Pataki, Perry, Christie, Jindal, Kasich, etc. — Aaron Barrett is only 27, so you won’t have to go up against the champ.)

 

 

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