Why The GOP Primary Debates Are Must-See TV

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2011, file photo, Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, stand together before a Repub... FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2011, file photo, Republican presidential candidates, from left, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, stand together before a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. It's easy to forget there was a time when Bachmann was the surprise breakout from the GOP primary field. To be replaced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And then others. Romney pulled the plug on his first presidential run on Feb. 7, 2008, and immediately served notice that he wasn't about to fade away. "I hate to lose," he told conservatives that day. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) MORE LESS
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Christmas came early in my house last month when Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced he was running for president. The GOP presidential primaries are my favorite TV show, and I’ve been waiting so long for the 2016 season.

You are thinking I’m joking. But I am actually dead serious. Serious as an uninsured American facing a grave illness (a situation which prompted cheers from a 2011 GOP presidential debate crowd). I love the GOP’s primaries. I watch every second of the debates. I devour the coverage. I pore over candidates’ websites for issue positions and dream about campaign gaffes. This is as good as political entertainment gets, and it’s Must-Watch TV in my house.

It’s true that the GOP’s primaries offer a showcase for some horrifying, brutally consequential ideas. A hypothetical Scott Walker Administration would have non-entertaining consequences for women’s health, the global climate, and gay rights (inter alia). But paradoxically, the gravity of the situation raises the GOP primaries’ entertainment value. This is a show where the American conservative id fully unravels in public—and gets heavy media coverage. Which makes it one of the few times that the key differences between the two parties are on full display.

The Democrats’ primaries are relatively boring. Why? Because they don’t have an empowered fringe. Their candidates operate pretty securely within the Overton Window of political possibility. The GOP’s empowered, hard-right wing makes their primaries way more interesting. Anything can (and does!) happen in those debates, and that requires voters and journalists to explain how this fits the common “false equivalence” story: the view that both parties are equally unreasonable and equally responsible for federal dysfunction.

So while lots of people are interested in handicapping the candidates’ (i.e. Can Cruz win?), I’m asking a different question: Can my favorite TV show retain its vitality and momentum after the blockbuster, series-defining 2012 season? From cast to narrative to culmination, it was a season good enough to swamp the show entirely.

There are so many unanswered questions! Absence may help the heart grow fonder, but even an excited fan gets nervous. It seems impossible that the rumored new characters can replace the glittering talent of the show last season. Is there anyone in the 2016 casting buzz who can match the extraordinary, surrealist political entertainment talents of Herman Cain—let alone his tragicomic rise and fall? I doubt it. This is a man whose fame came from his previous life as a pizza magnate, who quoted the Pokémon Movie in his campaign, who became a frontrunner on the strength of a goofy tax plan with a goofier name, and then evaporated in a cloud of rumors of marital infidelity.

And what about Newt Gingrich? The political entertainment legend has signaled that his tenure on the show may finally be coming to an end. While self-absorption is something of a casting requirement in the series, Gingrich blended narcissism with a certain scorn for the process that is simply irreplaceable.

Sure, some of the old standbys will be there. Trump is reprising his flirty will-he-won’t-he routine, and Giuliani is doing double duty by adding a whiff of John Sununu’s culture war conspiracy theories to the mayor’s usual tough-guy shtick. But these guys are character actors, bit players who can’t carry much more than a news cycle, let alone a whole season.

It’s enough to make a political entertainment junkie despair. Even former Congressman Ron Paul has left the show for good. That feels like a mortal blow to the series.

And yet early casting seems promising. Cruz is an erratic politician, which is another way of saying he’s a reliable entertainer. Cruz blends some of Gingrich’s sharpness with red-meat conservative traditionalism. In other words, he’s a more clever and dynamic version of Rick Santorum. Anyone who reads Dr. Seuss as part of a faux-filibuster (as part of the Right’s 14,652nd failed attempt to defund Obamacare, no less) has pyrotechnic political entertainment potential.

Add former Johns Hopkins brain surgeon and walking Godwin’s Law catalyst Ben Carson to the mix, and the 2016 cast might just have the season’s requisite wild-eyed cultural references covered. I’ve heard fellow GOP primaries enthusiasts hope that he can replace Cain on the show. But Carson actually bears more resemblance to one of last season’s unsung entertainment heroes: Michele Bachmann. What are the odds of Carson calling Obama a “psychopath” or comparing him to Hitler on a primary debate stage? I think they’re pretty good, and I want to be watching (and on Twitter) when it happens.

Meanwhile, former Hewlett Packard CEO and failed California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina could bring the show an echo of Cain’s corporate-speak rhetoric and even his flair for weird campaign commercials.

Of course, while it’s easy to focus on the blazing dramatic and comedic talents from the 2012 show, we shouldn’t overlook the slow, steady glow from last season’s leading man. Mitt Romney captured some of Al Gore’s brittleness, glossed it up a bit, and brought his own special brand of bumbling to the campaign. As a one-time resident of nigh on every point on the political spectrum between Gingrich and Bill Clinton, Romney spent most of the 2012 season dancing around. And political theater devotees loved the act (just as they did in 2008). Romney was Bud Abbott to everyone else’s Lou Costello: a straight man who audiences could nearly relate to, but who almost always wound up the target of their laughter instead. And that was fun, even if he never captured viewers’ hearts like Bachmann, Palin or Cain.

Those are big shoes to fill. Romney was to the GOP political primaries as Serena Williams sisters is to tennis: He was so good for so long that folks started to take him for granted. For what it’s worth, I actually think there’s another Romney waiting in the 2016 wings. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio brings similar good looks and political klutziness, even if he’s a bit younger.

And there are some other great plotlines off to the side: The quadrennial fog of low-risk, impotent bromides on partisan rancor has already bubbled out of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. But perhaps there’s fun lurking here, since Snyder’s platitudes are just a less punchy version of the everyman frustration boiling out of walking Garden State caricature Chris Christie.

There’s so much more! Can Rand Paul fill his dad’s shoes as far as wild-eyed libertarian rhetoric? (Spoiler: no). Who will replace Huntsman as the hapless “moderate” who attracts media hype without building any popular support? (I think it might be Lindsey Graham.) Will returning stars Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry reprise their folksy-cum-ditzy roles—or shake things up? And above all: WILL LOUIS GOHMERT RUN?

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