With the final word coming down from the DNC that there are ten candidates who qualified to participate in the September 12 Democratic presidential debate, it was as if I was transported back to those childhood days watching Miss America. As anyone who has ever watched pageants knows, the real show doesn’t start until we’re down to the semi-finalists.
That’s went we got the evening gown competition, where each contestant was gussied up to the gills, including ‘60s lacquered hair and an assortment of hairpieces that Joan Crawford would have envied. The swimsuit competition (which is no longer part of the pageant but continued long enough to become an anachronism) boasted young women in bathing suits and high heels. It was painfully close to fetishism on parade.
But it was the talent portion of the program that took the biggest chunk of time, usually with decidedly mixed results. There were pianists and singers, violinists and dancers. I remember a ventriloquist or two, someone playing the xylophone, and—of course—some baton twirling. There was even aspiring actress who tried to channel Vivien Leigh and did the “I’ll never be hungry again” speech from Gone with the Wind.
All of this could be written off as harmless kitsch, except for its objectification of women and its casting of the audience as arm chair judges. American Idol took it one step further and gave us interactive status with phone lines to register our support for particular contestants.
So it’s really quite natural that we should proceed to reduce the political process to this kind of “beauty pageant” competition. The ten semi-finalists for the coveted title of Democratic Presidential Nominee for 2020 will no doubt strut out on that stage, smiling like Phyllis George and waving at the crowd with both hands.
No one will be wearing sequins and bugle beads, but that doesn’t mean care won’t be taken in choosing what to wear. It’s not the 1980’s so we won’t see any oversized shoulder pads, so I expect the women will wear simple suits with either pants or a skirt, paired with sensible low-heeled pumps. (Except perhaps for Kamala Harris, who does like a high heel—reason enough for me to want to see her keep going.)
The men will wear nondescript well-tailored suits with ties that aren’t “too” much, while the question will remain whether Bernie Sanders actually has a tailor, the word “rumpled” seemingly have been invented for him. Oh, and Andrew Yang, who probably will continue to forego the tie in what looks like strategy masquerading as a sartorial statement, leaving me cold and giving side eye.
Like any good Miss America contestant, they will have evaluated their own strengths and weaknesses and will play to the former and try to diminish the latter. Even more importantly, they will have performed the same analysis on their competition and will be looking for an opportunity to land a punch. After all, American politics is a blood sport, only slightly less so than a beauty pageant.
The candidates will try to get in as much policy substance in two minutes as they can, but they all know that health care or climate change or anything else can’t be actually defined in so brief a time. And inevitably, at some point, we will watch the debate devolve into ten candidates in search of a sound bite.
Fortunately, there is nothing about the debate that is akin to the swimsuit competition. And for that, at least, we can all be thankful.