POLITICS
12/22/2015 08:53 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2015

Fox Business Network Won't Put The Undercard Debate Out Of Its Misery

Bold new criteria may winnow the main stage field to six candidates, but there's a bigger lifeboat for the losers.

For as long as there's been a 17-person field for the GOP nomination, mankind has longed to winnow that field -- first to a number that could plausibly fit on a stage, and now, to a number that could plausibly fit in a van.

Well, there's some good news on that front. Fox Business Network has announced that its next debate, scheduled to take place in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 14, will be governed by exacting new criteria that may limit the number of onstage candidates to as few as six.

As you might expect, there is bad news as well: Rather than winnow the field, Fox Business will hand everyone who loses out on the main stage the opportunity to appear on another one of those undercard debates.

So there you have it: Fox Business is pro-bailout.

And it's a pity, because by the looks of things, this upcoming debate might have boldly limited itself to candidates who could actually win the presidential nomination. Per Politico's Hadas Gold:

According to debate criteria that will be announced Tuesday, host Fox Business Network will consider both early-state and national poll results in deciding which candidates make the primetime forum. That main debate will feature candidates who place in the top six nationally, based on an average of the five most recent national polls recognized by Fox News, or place within the top five based on an average of the five most recent Iowa or New Hampshire state polls recognized by the network.

By Gold's calculations, this is good news for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and -- somehow, some way -- Jeb Bush. That means the end of the road for Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul, none of whom figure prominently in HuffPost Pollster's national primary poll average, and -- with the exception of Kasich's showing in New Hampshire -- none of whom show any evidence of doing well in an early primary state.

The candidates who find themselves in this lowly position can't complain about not having their chances. There has been, after all, ample debate opportunity. So much opportunity, in fact, that both Fiorina and Christie have survived earlier setbacks to earn a shot back in the spotlight. 

So, then, it's long past time that those who've failed to do something with these opportunities did the honorable thing and, if not quit the race entirely, at least exit the debate stage so that the actual contenders aren't left begging for time amid Kasich's karate-chop laden explainers or Paul's dogged attempts to reshape the GOP base in his image.

Besides, it's a new year, with actual primaries ready to be run, so limiting the field is a good look for the first debate of 2016. Or, at least it would be, except for Fox Business' decision to keep the damnable undercard.

There was a time where the undercard debates felt like a good idea. At the beginning of the debate season, it was a decent way of ensuring that someone for whom the voters might develop a real affection didn't get left out of the opportunity to get on television, answer the questions of moderators, and spar with some of their peers. After the first undercard debate, political pundits and reporters generically observed that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina was manifestly superior to the other candidates at the kid's table.

Voters agreed, and the bump she received in the polls after her undercard appearance was nice and natural proof that the undercard had fulfilled some valuable purpose. A candidate, facing that challenge, showed some quality, impressed the voters, and won the right to be promoted into the top tier. When it looked as if Fiorina might be denied the chance to participate in the upper echelon, it felt palpably unjust.

In the undercard debates that have followed, many of the same pundits and observers have found that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, by clearing the low bar of not being a howling and unreasonable Islamophobe, was the contender who'd demonstrated worthy enough qualities to move upward from the lower tier.

This time, voters said, "Yeah, not really though." And so Graham, quite decently, quit the race. 

That no one has followed him to the exits is quite absurd. The other three people who last competed in the undercard debate with Graham, and who decidedly failed to rise up to even the low standard he set, were Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Mike Huckabee -- three candidates who, whenever they are clapped in the room together, make the main characters from Sartre's No Exit feel less bad about their eternal damnation.

There's no good purpose to the undercard debate anymore. Its too-few days as a catapult to newer and better things are over. It no longer represents possibility, or opportunity -- only inexorable gravity endlessly pulling these erstwhile contenders down into its mucky irrelevance.

That Huckabee, Santorum, and Pataki, stay down in that pit, wallowing in its ichor, passing on every opportunity to leave its confine and return to the world of the living, is depressing and even a little terrifying. They're not candidates for president anymore. They're barely even men. They're more like the angry, tortured darkseekers from the movie "I Am Legend," eternally scheming from their shadowy lair to lure other human beings into their grasp, ensuring that none outside of their cursed domain might live.

Paul, Fiorina and Kasich are headed out of the presidential race. "They had a good run," goes the saying, and while that's not -- strictly speaking -- true, it is kind. Or at least, it's kinder. Kinder by far to say, definitively, that these candidates have arrived at the end of their journey, than it is to pretend that the undercard debate is anything other than a sad way of putting off the inevitable.

You know what's also kind of great? Every single one of these candidates is nonsensically affluent, will only be handed more golden opportunities to accrue wealth, and will be forever inoculated from having any of the worries that normal American voters face on a grueling, daily basis. So actually, none of this matters!

~~~~~

Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So, That Happened." Subscribe here. Listen to the latest episode below.

CONVERSATIONS