It's one thing to joke about how much of a car-wreck the Fox Not-News Republican (now a Subsidiary of Koch Industries) Party Presidential Primary Debate is going to be. It's fun to dream up a drinking game set of rules of some of the more obnoxious and petty things that are bound to crop up between one man pandering with all his con-artist skills and nine other con-artist wannabes trying to keep up.
But let's try to focus on the reality, where these televised debates tend to be 50 minutes of boring blah-blah-blah and 10 minutes of commercial breaks. What is Thursday night's Republican debate going to be like?
Expect lots of aggrieved politics. The Republicans' platform is pretty much one aggressive campaign of White Privilege/Rich Man Resentment. It's a platform focused to keep lower-income and middle-income White males angry at or terrified of THE OTHER, be it Black thugs or Radical Feminists or Illegals Crossing The Border or Mooslim Terrorists. There's one big reason why Trump rocketed to the top of the primary polling among Republicans (unless Democrats have been sneaking into the interviewing areas at the shopping malls and skewing the answers): Trump's opening salvo was a broadside shot at Mexicans being violent drug smugglers and rapists. Even with the immediate outrage among Hispanic communities and a clear loss of Latino support for the Republicans overall, it helped Trump get to the top debate spot... and the other candidates have to recognize that and adjust their presentations to fit the party base mood.
The reason Republicans are even tolerating overt racial attacks - something that has to be scaring away moderate voters they'll need in the general election - is because they made this decision ages ago. Not just the Southern Strategy of the 1960s onward, but a clear refusal since the turn of this century to recognize the long-term demographic change the United States is facing. The GOP decided on a short-term agenda of immediate wins today while the older White male population is at its peak, rather than allow for a long-term agenda of appealing to a growing Hispanic population and rather than accept the inevitable loss of older more resentful voters to age and death.
The modern Republican Party is not hip to the younger generations like the Millennials who grew up pro-gay rights and who grew up in a more diverse racial environment, nor with the Generation X/Y crowd who grew up more libertarian on social-religious issues and are still open-minded compared to Baby Boomers and older surviving Americans. I doubt there will be any serious attempts on Thursday night to make appeals to younger voters other than "Oh hey check out my Tumblr." /headdesk
We should expect a lot of attacks at the Democrats, obviously. It would be rude to attack your fellow Republicans in-person (leave THAT to the SuperPAC ads running in 13 early primary states). Better to draw all ire at the Enemy, aka "Evil Overlord" Obama and "Wicked Witch of the East Coast Librul Elites" Hillary. There's a reason people asked me to add "Benghazi" as a trigger word for the drinking rules.
Otherwise, the debate is likely a placid affair: while some of the low-percentage candidates may try to float radical ideas out there to draw interest, most of the debaters are not going to want to pull any gaffes on national television. Jeb Bush, for example, is already reeling from a pre-debate screwup where he openly questioned federal funding for women's health, which drew howls even from fellow conservatives. Nearly everything we're going to see on-stage is going to be heavily scripted, rigorously controlled.
Even Trump, notorious for being an off-the-cuff speaker whose words have already blown up any civil discourse between the Republicans and the rest of the nation/world, is going to keep it cool. Despite his crude ways, he IS a con-artist who knows how to work a room (he's been giving motivational speeches since the 1980s: he knows what works). He'll stick to certain talking points, will never admit to a flaw or mis-statement, but he's not going to blow his lead with anything more outrageous than making more attacks on immigrants and foreign global competitors like China and Iran. He'll end up toeing the Republican platform about 99 percent of the way.
I am leaving open the distinct possibility of one of the wild cards - Cruz is likeliest, although Christie is another gambler who may try to muscle and bully his way into the spotlight - will bring up a crazy answer that appeases the Far Right but is something the GOP leadership would rather keep under wraps.
While attacking Planned Parenthood - the Target of the Year for the Far Right this season - is a given, there's a possibility Cruz (most likely, although any of the pro-fetus candidates could go there) will go full "Repeal Roe" or even argue for violent destruction of women's health care clinics to "end abortion once and for all". Previous anti-abortion crusades proved moderate general voters don't want to ban abortion outright - there's a sweet spot of "legal but rare" that always wins elections - which is why the Republicans have never given the pro-fetus movement in their Far Right fringe everything they've asked for.
But that's also one of the things angering the Far Right base against the Republican Establishment. Trump's rise to the top spot has more to do with the Republican base voters resenting their own party: they've gotten tired of being told one thing - ZOMG FEAR OBAMA AND THE LIBRULS THEY ARE TAKING AMERICA FROM YOU - and yet seeing little action from the Party to answer those fears. These are the voters in the primary season the candidates are hoping to win over. And while Trump currently has those voters in his thrall, the conventional wisdom is that Trump won't last - either he'll implode (not happened yet) or the Establishment will nuke him (likely by January 2016) - and that all those resented voters will need a new champion among the candidates whom the party bosses can't banish.
Hence the high possibility that the likes of Cruz - who speaks the same messages Trump has - or Christie - someone desperate enough to play that game and play it loud - will go there: try to Out-Pander Trump.
THAT'S where the possibility resides of the Thursday Night debate going off the rails.
So: Keep the beer handy, and choose a designated driver. Good luck, America, we're all counting on you.
And for those of you in France who visited my drinking game rules,
Blessent mon coeur /
d'une langueur /
(waits to see who gets the reference)