Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about Ireland’s vote on same-sex marriage, the GOP primary circus, and why, exactly, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley is running for president.
Ireland’s vote to approve same-sex marriage redefines that country’s relationship to another historically powerful institution: the Catholic church. Does what happened in Ireland hold any implications for the U.S.?
Not directly. Same-sex marriage is well on its way to being a done deal in America. But the fact that the Church has lost its once-tight hold on the Irish populace does have some resonance. That power had been enormous: Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Ireland until 1993, and divorce wasn’t legalized until 1995. The decline in the Church’s civic authority in Ireland is directly attributable to its loss of moral authority owing to scandal, some (though hardly all) of it involving pedophilia. The effect on the Church’s clout was rapid and devastating. Roughly 62 percent of Irish voters approved of same-sex marriage, an unimaginable phenomenon two decades ago.
It’s worth noting that as the Irish voted, a scandal broke open involving one of the most politically well-connected and moneyed organizations opposing gay and women’s rights in America: the Family Research Council, the evangelical Christian propaganda and lobbying organization founded by James Dobson. The organization’s Washington operative Josh Duggar was confronted with multiple allegations that he had molested children when he was a teenager. Duggar, who is now 27, is also a reality-show star on the TLC series 19 Kids and Counting, itself a religious-right propaganda effort in opposition to birth control. Before the revelations, Duggar had sidled up to Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee, who continues to defend him even after the revelations of his assault on children. Duggar has now resigned from the Family Research Council, but perhaps on a small scale, this latest scandal will further undermine the hold that family-values hucksters still have on GOP stands against gay and women’s rights.
Fox News, which will broadcast the first Republican presidential debate later this summer, plans to limit invitations to the top ten candidates only. (The count of likely candidates currently stands at 18.) Is Fox’s control over this event good for the GOP, or not?
Potentially very good indeed. Say what you will about Fox News, Roger Ailes is one of the most brilliant showman that television has ever seen. Should he take advantage of this opportunity, it’s a win for both his network and his party.
Right now, that would not seem the case. The announced plan for the August 6 debate, in which the field is narrowed to ten by some loosey-goosey formula of unspecified opinion polls, promises a tedious result: a rushed round robin of rapid-fire talking points and canned one-liners. No one would watch except Fox’s elderly hardcore audience and the political press. Worse, there’s a real possibility that Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — beards needed by a GOP eager to demonstrate that it isn’t hostile to women or African-Americans — may not even make the cut. The ensuing controversy would turn an otherwise instantly forgotten event into a public-relations disaster for Republicans.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The primary debates are not subject to the tight Presidential Debate Commission rules that govern the debates in the run-up to the election. Ailes can do whatever he wants. Nothing else is happening in August. Why not turn this ho-hum event into dynamic television? Why not put all 18 candidates on stage to slug it out in a daring new format not built around static flag-decorated podiums? Why limit the running time to two hours? Why stick to the dutiful and predictable moderators Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace? What about a Great Republican Debate Marathon that would bring in an unexpectedly large audience, allow a real testing of the contenders’ wit and policy positions, and put the tightly controlled campaign of Hillary Clinton on the defensive? This would seem to be a no-brainer. And there is no one in television news or television fake news who has the ability of Ailes to pull it off.
What would the format be? One outside-the-box idea might be to bring back the boxes of the old game show Hollywood Squares. Allow the candidates to dress however they want and to use props if they care to. (Of the 18 candidates, surely one of them must be an amateur puppeteer who can help bring back the glory days of the Squares fixture Wayland Flowers and Madame.) The prized real estate of center square, once monopolized by the late, great Paul Lynde, must be assigned on the basis of talent, however, not polling — which means it must go to Donald Trump, a proven prime-time entertainer and a master of Friars Club–vintage insult humor. Just in recent weeks, he has mocked Fiorina for getting “viciously fired” from Hewlett-Packard, called Jeb Bush a “total fool,” and said of Marco Rubio, “I don’t even know how he could be running for office.” Would people tune in? You betcha. But Ailes is such an original, he could probably devise an ingenious format of his own. The 75-year-old media guru who first came to prominence as the guy who miraculously repackaged the woebegone Richard Nixon for television in 1968 has a chance here for a triumphant last hurrah.
Martin O’Malley is expected to announce his bid for the White House on Saturday. Bernie Sanders is the more obvious Hillary foil — why is O’Malley running for president?
To be vice-president? Hard to imagine that will happen either. O’Malley’s big calling card was his record of reducing violent crime in Baltimore when he was the city’s mayor. As David Simon — who slammed O’Malley in The Wire — has been tirelessly pointing out since the killing of Freddie Gray, O’Malley’s policing policies helped pave the way for the city’s implosion this year. And Baltimore is as violent as ever: there have been some 30 homicides just since Gray’s death. What’s more, O’Malley was so unpopular in his own state before leaving the governorship this year that his hand-picked successor lost the 2014 race to the Republican, in one of the country’s bluest states.
O’Malley’s rationale that he will offer an alternative to the left of Clinton is vitiated by Bernie Sanders, a more convincing left-Democrat than he is. But at least he adds a third participant to what promises to be among the most little-watched and mirthless primary debates in the history of the genre. Not even Roger Ailes could spice them up.