(An optimistic report from a possible future):
As the Democratic and Republican nominees prepare to square off in their final, critical debate before the election, Americans are tuning in not for fireworks, but for the contest of ideas poised to define the next four years--or more.
Beyond all hope, the 2016 contest has come to comprise not slogans and gaffs, attacks and deflections, and above all a selective rendering of "facts," but rather competing solutions to pressing problems; a democratic choice between differing interpretations of undisputed facts.
And America's future President was brought to this place of reason and dignity by a man who embodied neither: Donald Trump, through his callous campaign from the abyss of American politics, ended up re-aligning the whole selection process to elevate, rather than debase, democratic leadership.
We should be so lucky.
The best possible outcome of the Republican primaries would be its transformation into a contest of ideas--policy, not personality--that produces a nominee focused on doing the work of the presidency.
But while a fundamental shift away from the long-developing political culture in America would take more than one election cycle, the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 contest did show that, faced with the funhouse mirror that is Trump's campaign, candidates can and will embrace substance over theatrics--to a point.
There are two possible approaches to dealing with a candidate like Trump: one is to play his game, and ride the celebrity train throughout the primary process. The other is to play a different game entirely, focusing on facts, policies, and the duties of executive leadership, rather than a cult of personality. By acting more presidential than Trump, GOP hopefuls have a chance to angle the whole contest back toward substance and away from antics.
To an extent, this shift was visible in both of the Thursday debates (even the one in the afternoon not featuring Trump on stage), where candidates put policy first--with a little bit of personality thrown in. After all, at this point (more than a year to go before the election), name-recognition is the leading factor driving poll numbers, so candidates can hardly be expected not to make any play for bombast and self-promotion.
The most notable exception was healthcare, where Republicans to a name pronounced the doom of Obamacare upon their first days in office, should any of them be elected. This might qualify as substantive policy prescriptions, were it actually supported by the alternative legislation Republicans claim they will invoke as part of their "repeal and replace" approach to Obama's signature law.
Instead, as hospitals and clinics across the country grapple with the twin challenges of implementing electronic healthcare records and ICD-10, the new language of medical claims, they must also do their best to accommodate the demands of the Affordable Care Act while hedging against it all being for nothing once a Republican president enters office and declares the whole law null and void.
All evidence suggests that, along with across the board negation of the ACA, Republicans plan to replace the law with something entirely new, yet strikingly similar, retaining the more popular, less-controversial features of Obamacare like prohibiting denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, allowing dependents up to age 25 to stay on their parents' plans, etc.