Thoughts on last night’s Republican debate
Except for the absence of soon-to-announce candidate Governor Rick Perry, last night’s debate was the first in which essentially the full roster of candidates was on-stage. But even with the addition of former Governor Huntsman, it seemed like a rather claustrophobic affair, with Fox News and The Washington Examiner’s questions somewhat relentlessly focusing upon four candidates in particular: Congressman Ron Paul, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, and former Governor Mitt Romney. Sometimes this was useful — as when we got a chance to see whether Tim Pawlenty, given a second chance, could, without seeming as meek and uncomfortable as he did in the last debate, take-on Romney and present himself as on the nominal front-runner’s level (he couldn’t) — but most of the time it was exasperatingly petty and frivolous. As Bachmann and Pawlenty went back-and-forth, making no effort to conceal to anyone involved that their antipathy for one another was very, very real, I was reminded of the old saying about how it’s best to never argue with fools because, from a distance, people can’t tell who is who.
Romney, meanwhile, did not impress. Last go-round, he had quite an easy time simply floating above the rest of the participants and adopting the perpetual vacant but well-meaning grin that I suppose his advisors have determined reminds people of Reagan. This time, however, he was challenged — not only by Pawlenty (who was the most aggressive in this regard) and the other contenders, but by the hosts, too. I don’t think equipped himself particularly well when this happened; at one point, in reference to criticism of “Romneycare,” he rather peevishly and condescendingly asked moderator Chris Wallace if he’d ever read the Massachusetts constitution; he almost immediately seemed to register that he was losing his bearing and his much-practiced air of perpetual affability, but his attempt to recover was shaky; and he never shook my impression that despite all the improvements he’s made since his 2008 run, he still is a candidate who cannot thrive unless he is in the most micro-managed and artificial circumstances. Referring to his earlier comments that day about corporate personhood would reinforce the impression that he stumbles under pressure.
My biggest disappointment was with the way Huntsman performed. I was hoping he’d be able to differentiate himself and use what at times appears to be real charisma — and a very strong argument of being the most electable candidate in the field — to brush off all the talk of his campaign being a stillborn affair of vanity. But he looked not only nervous but overwhelmed in the few moments he was directly addressed by the moderators; and his answers were often woefully delivered and premised on an incoherent mix of high-brow platitudes and overly technocratic prescriptions. In particular, I couldn’t help but smirk at his criticisms of American policy towards China — especially insofar as he narrowed his charges to the current Administration in particular. As the former lead practitioner and representative of Sino-American policy on Washington’s side, he’s not exactly the most credible messenger in this regard. If he’s not able to comport himself with at least the same level of self-confidence as his fellow Mormon, he stands no chance of becoming anything more than the Giuliani of this cycle’s campaign — his main, perhaps only, constituency being the media.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul did his Ron Paul thing, delighting and pissing off the audience in equal measure with his somewhat frantic insistence that America dial back its foreign policy and that “we mind our own business” with regards to the rest of the world. I think it’s nice to have Paul there as the gadfly to the GOP’s otherwise rigid adherence to militarism above all else in foreign affairs; but it also grows somewhat tiring after a while to hear the man consistently shouting into the dark. Especially when, whether his acolytes (who seemed to be much of the audience; I guess Paulites are like Dead-heads and travel well for their beloved) wish to admit it or not, he stands no chance of making it past the first-round. Gingrich was better — looser, more combative, and more frequently referring to his considerable experience — but, realistically, his chances are not much better than Paul’s; and besides his righteous slamming of the anti-democratic “super committee,” nothing he said could last five minutes under scrutiny or before a general election electorate.
And then there was Bachmann, doing what she does — sounding belligerent, extreme and utterly sincere. She’s pretty good at this, really; her answer on why she voted for Pawlenty’s bill, that she was forced to choose between taxes and the unborn, was inspired. And I thought she did a good job responding to the somewhat disrespectful question about whether or not she’s “submissive” to her husband (which drew boos from the audience). I wouldn’t say the question isn’t reasonable, considering she’s the one who said it; but something about the way it was phrased and delivered dripped with a tabloid vulgarity. Considering Iowa is the land in which Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan once thrived, I’d say it’s almost certain that she’ll win the state before fading into insignificance thereafter. I’m sure we’ll all miss her dearly.
If you’re looking for some more policy-based or high-brow analysis, I think Ezra Klein’s take is the best so far. But these debates have long since left the realm of seriousness and substance. From the set design to the questions to the ways in which candidates were allowed to trample over the rules of conduct, this was theater through-and-through. If you were like me and watched the online feed, it was amusing to see the internet-only panel that come on in lieu of commercials. They trashed the debate thoroughly, seemingly embarrassed by their party and the farcicality of it all. I was a bit surprised, to be honest, considering the fact that at least a quarter of Fox News’s purpose is to elect Republicans. One would think Ailes’s desire to unseat Obama would overcome his need to notch sky-high ratings and inspire water-cooler chatter. Judging by last night, though, he either has thrown in the towel already, or has all his hopes riding on Perry.
Assuming it bothered to watch, what did the peanut gallery (that means you, dear reader) think?
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)