The first Democratic candidate debate gets underway tonight as as Brian Beutler reminds us, compared to the GOP circus and all the clowns, the Democratic party affair is going to be almost boring by comparison.
Relative to the two Republican presidential primary debates already behind us, Tuesday night's Democratic primary debate is expected to draw a modest TV audience. Back on January 31, 2008, when candidate Barack Obama was still a political phenom, CNN logged the most-watched presidential primary debate in its history to date, drawing an average of 8.3 million viewers. With the second Republican primary debate last month, the network nearly tripled that.
We surely have Donald Trump to thank for the disparity. Had he sat out the race this year, he would have deprived Fox News and CNN of his singular combination of fame, media savvy, insensitivity, and cringe-inducing combativeness. But even absent Trump, Republican primary debates would probably draw bigger audiences than their Democratic counterparts. It isn’t wrong or biased to say that Democrats make comparatively boring television. But that isn’t a strike against Democrats, either. It’s a reflection of the fact that the Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, is dominated by reactionary voters, which makes its candidates prone to saying or doing outrageous things out of a sense of necessity.
A similar dynamic prevailed in 2012, even absent a uniquely incorrigible figure like Trump on stage to channel the modern right-wing Id. The GOP primary debates back then teemed with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and homophobic sentiment. On different occasions, conservative audience members booed a gay soldier and cheered the proposition that the uninsured poor should be left to die.
Many observers blamed the toxicity of those debates for dragging Mitt Romney into adopting unsupportable positions—including, most infamously, the view that U.S. policy should be made so inhospitable to immigrants that they’d voluntarily “self-deport.” But in hindsight it’s actually striking how little of the craziness stuck to him.
The contrast on display this week is an occasion to remember that the eventual Republican nominee will be the candidate representing the portion of the electorate that elicited these moments.
As Beutler says, the adults will be taking the stage tonight. I'll be tuning in to see what they have to say.