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Debates as un-reality TV

Posted: December 9, 2011 3:43 p.m.
Updated: December 12, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Karl Rove, a star political strategist, is outraged that Donald Trump, a star real-estate mogul and reality show host, is staging a reality show with real Republican presidential candidates and calling it a debate. Yet, with all due respect, Trump is only exploiting a process that political strategists like Rove already hijacked.

Trump, you may recall, earlier this year considered a presidential run and says he might yet consider one again. Meanwhile, he will host a debate on Dec. 27 in Iowa that will be televised on the conservative Newsmax website and the ION cable television network.

And with the typical Trump hyperbole that would embarrass P.T. Barnum, the website describes the event as "the most important meeting of the major Republican candidates before the Iowa caucus and primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida!" Exclamation theirs.

But Rove, speaking on Fox News Channel Monday, sees the event as an abomination.

He accused Trump of helping to "trivialize the most important decision that we Americans have, which is who we're going to elect as our president."

Forgive me, but I see a certain poetic justice that Rove is riled. After all, he is one of the reigning kings of the political spin-doctor community, an industry that has taken over the political process in the TV age with the gusto of Occupy Wall Street protestors planting themselves in city parks.

Yet, with or without the consultants, TV is a reality that candidates cannot ignore. With that in mind, Rove, now a Fox News contributor, raises at least a couple of legitimate points for anyone who might mistake Trump's event for a conventional debate. One, Trump has said he intends to endorse one of the candidates later. Indeed, don't look for impartiality in this debate moderator. Look instead for something like the glowing respect paid to The Donald by the contestants on his reality show "Celebrity Apprentice."

And, "More importantly, what the heck are the Republican candidates doing showing up at a debate with a guy who says 'I may run for president next year as an independent,' " said Rove. "I think the Republican National chairman ought to step in and say we strongly discourage every candidate from appearing in a debate moderated by somebody who's going to run for president."

Trump characteristically responded by attacking Rove. The mogul called the consultant-commentator "highly overrated," not "a smart person" and "basically ... a loser." That's also pretty much how Trump described Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, the first candidates to flatly turn down his invitation.

By contrast, Trump was all smiles after a meeting Monday with current frontrunner Newt Gingrich, who accepted Trump's invite in keeping with Newt's tradition of taking advantage of every offered microphone.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus washed his hands of the spat Sunday, leaving it up to individual candidates to make up their own minds. That's wise. Leave it up to the candidates and ultimately the voters -- and TV viewers -- to decide whether Trump's latest reality show is worth watching.

By the way, I'm using "reality" in the way the broadcasting industry uses it, not to imply that I believe, say, "Jersey Shore" or Kardashian family's televised adventures reveal anything very real. That is, unless your concept of reality is talent-free people clowning it up for ever-present TV cameras.

"Unscripted" is more accurate description. It is the possibility of surprise -- like Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "Oops!" as he forgot one of three government departments that he wanted to cut -- that keeps the curiosity suckers, uh, seekers coming back for more.

In that spirit, I offer this suggestion to Trump: Why not go all the way? Bring in some guest judges "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars," to help the audience make up its mind.

Imagine, say, "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson gushing, "I really dug your deficit reduction plan, dawg!"

Or "Dancing With the Stars" judge Bruno Tonioli with his grand hyperbole. "Mah-vel-lous! Your rhetoric soars! It glides like a drone missile over Islamabad!"

Hey, we want to get more people to care about politics. Maybe a little show biz is the price we pay.


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