GOP political circus: The disturbing spectacle of the viral Idaho debate

A political conversation goes off course, and that's not a win for anybody

Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 16, 2014 6:28PM (UTC)

Maybe what makes for amusing video isn't the greatest argument for the beauty of the democratic process. On Wednesday, Idaho Public Television broadcast the only Republican gubernatorial debate before Tuesday's upcoming GOP primary. It was a meeting of minds and a clash of platforms between incumbent C.L. "Butch" Otter, Sen. Russ Fulcher – and a pair of ranting eccentrics. Ain't that America?

The event was full of quotable moments, prompted by three moderators who had to, with straight faces, treat the fringe candidates with equal seriousness. Candidate Harley Brown explained his support for marriage equality by noting that observing that members of the gay community "have true love for one another. I’m telling you," he added, "they love each other more than I love my motorcycle." He answered a question about the "bigoted jokes" and "disrespect" on his website by launching into an explanation of his "Harleyisms" and declaring, "I'm about as politically correct as your proverbial turd in the punchbowl. And I'm proud of it. I'm going for it." And he later added an anecdote about what happened after "God told me he was going to make me president." He was living, he would like the voters of Idaho to know, "in Fat Jack's cellar" at the time. Bearded father of 16 and vigorous abortion opponent Walt Bayes, meanwhile, listed among his credentials the fact that he'd killed a wolf, "when it was still an endangered species." He also had some incomprehensible things to say about atomic energy, wood and the Bible. 


Naturally, this display of Idaho's leadership options – a debate in which the governor himself had pushed for the long-shot candidates to participate in – made for enough spectacle to go viral. The Washington Post called it "the best debate ever" and Time similarly described it as "the best gay marriage debate you’ll see all year," while Boise Weekly said it "won the Internet" and NPR called it "amazing." Colorful characters are a familiar part of political campaigning, and the age of YouTube can make an overnight star of a person for declaring that the rent is too damn high. And hey, hahaha it's easier to laugh at two individuals who certainly appear to be grappling with significant mental health issues, paraded out in what's ostensibly a debate on the issues, than to actually focus on the governor's current active fight against marriage equality or his championing of reproductive rights-restricting fetal pain legislation. And why care about where Otter's Tea Party Republican opponent stands on the issues? Isn't a sideshow more fun, somehow?

I like to point and laugh at stuff too, but I wonder why the incumbent governor "insisted" on including two people who will never be elected in the circus that was supposed to be a debate. And I have reached a point in life where seeing people rant nonsensically just doesn't have the same novelty it once did. I see someone who says that God told him he's gong to be president, who talks about how his ex-wife's restraining orders prevented him from seeing his children, and I don't find that so awesome or the best thing ever. I find it a disturbing and crass manipulation of a vulnerable human being, and the audience watching him. And I vote no thanks.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Butch Otter C.l. "butch" Otter Harley Brown Sen. Russ Fulcher Tea Party Viral Walt Bayes

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