When I woke up yesterday morning I was excited and energized by the prospect of watching the first Republican primary debate. As I wrote here, they're usually a fun cause for some celebration among political junkies of all stripes, particularly those who fall on the left side of the dial. These particular promised to be especially entertaining, due to the large number of debaters as well as the fact that it was going to feature a Reality TV Star in his first major appearance on the debate stage. Unfortunately, I woke up this morning with a hangover of epic proportions and the feeling that I'd been abducted by aliens and taken to a foreign planet. Let's just say that spending three hours with Republican politicians and Fox News pundits and anchors wasn't nearly as much fun as I thought it would be.
We started off the first debate in a jovial mood, laughing and joking about the "Kids Table Debate" and commenting on the very weird fact that they held the thing in the empty auditorium before the main event. It was quite clear that Roger Ailes and Fox put all of 5 minutes into planning that debate, obviously hoping they could make it so embarrassing that the lower tier would drop out and save everyone from the humiliation in the future.
Virtually everyone watching agreed that it turned out to be Carly Fiorina's afternoon. She sounded prepared and crisp, although she didn't really say much of anything, which is often the hallmark of a winner as far as the TV pundits are concerned. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry weirdly seemed to call the 40th president Ronald Raven, but other than that he got through it without forgetting anything important. Former Senator Rick Santorum recycled his 2012 debate appearances, and current Senator Lindsay Graham pretty much did what he does every Sunday on the pundit shows: He screamed hysterically about how we're all going to die. Former Governor George Pataki talked about some stuff he did in New York once, and there was some guy on stage named Gilmore nobody had ever heard of. All of them made it quite clear that if they become president we will be going to war immediately.
The candidate who made the biggest impression, although hardly a good one, was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who boldly announced that he would immediately break the law upon assuming office:
"Planned Parenthood had better hope that Hillary Clinton wins this election, because I guarantee you that under President Jindal, January 2017, the Department of Justice and the IRS and everybody else that we can send from the federal government will be going into Planned Parenthood."
In the spin room later, he said he'd put OSHA and the EPA on them as well. Even Richard Nixon was more discreet about his beliefs that the president could use the executive branch agencies for political purposes. The fact that Fox has been relentlessly flogging a phony scandal over the Obama administration allegedly ordering the IRS to investigate Tea Party groups for years didn't seem to register among any of the participants, including the Fox moderators.
The Kids Table debate ended up being a rather statesmanlike affair, all in all, with a group of the guys heading out to dinner afterwards to bitch about how unfair it was that they weren't debating with the grownups.
The main event, meanwhile, started out as crazy as we could have hoped, with Donald Trump refusing to promise that he wouldn't run as an independent, and the allegedly independent Rand Paul immediately sniping at him like a fishwife for not being a Real Republican.
It was clear from the outset that Fox had decided to put Trump on the hot seat and he didn't like it one bit. Neither did his fans:
Megyn Kelly accused Trump of waging a war on women by calling them "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." Trump explained he only meant Rosie O'Donnell and the audience cheered wildly. (Because of course they did.) That was pretty much the end of the excitement.
Nobody really knows how Trump did. The normal rules of politics don't seem to apply to him, so although he didn't seem as commanding on the stage as his fans may have hoped, you just never know. For what it's worth, if my local news was any guide, Trump was triumphant. "He stood his ground and apologized for nothing." Online polls like this one have him winning by a mile, although it's always possible that he's paid people to vote in the same way he paid them to attend his campaign announcement.
All the same pundits who said Trump was finished after the McCain remarks said tonight's performance finished him off for real. Someday they're bound to be right. The polls will tell the tale.
The rest of the field was more easily critiqued. Many pundits declared the big winner of the night to be John Kasich, who seemed to have some of the edginess and informal affect of Trump and Christie, but with a friendly face, a good resume and a slightly distinctive philosophy. The positive impression he gave may have been colored by the fact that the debate was in Ohio and the audience was packed with his followers screaming like he was a member of One Direction every time he opened his mouth. But the positive reaction was there nonetheless.
I have long thought that on paper Marco Rubio makes the most sense on paper and he made his case immediately, all-but declaring that Hillary Clinton is an old bag and I'm young, handsome and Latino to boot. Well, perhaps he was a tiny bit more subtle than that:
I would add to that that this election cannot be a resume competition. It's important to be qualified, but if this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton's gonna be the next president, because she's been in office and in government longer than anybody else running here tonight.
Here's what this election better be about: This election better be about the future, not the past. It better be about the issues our nation and the world is facing today, not simply the issues we once faced... If I'm our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she -- how is she gonna lecture me -- how is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.
If I'm our nominee, we will be the party of the future.
Actually, that's not true. Kasich and Jeb have been around just as long as Clinton, but who's counting? And speaking of Jeb, he and Scott Walker duked it out all night for the title of most boring man on earth. There is literally nothing to say about either of them beyond the fact that Walker announced he has a wife and two kids and rides a Harley; and Bush weirdly declared that "in Florida, they called me Jeb, because I earned it." Okay.
Meanwhile, Chris Christie and Rand Paul tried mightily to pretend they were relevant. (Actually, their argument about surveillance would have been a meaningful and interesting debate if there were more than 5 people in the Republican Party who agreed with Paul on the issue.) Mike Huckabee announced that he wants to confer full citizenship on blastocysts and Ted Cruz said that on day one he will reverse every last one of Obama's illegal executive orders (which basically means he'll be taking it easy). When asked if he would bring back waterboarding, the mild mannered brain surgeon Dr. Ben Carson distinguished himself as the most bloodthirsty of a bloodthirsty bunch:
"What we do in order to get the information we need is our business and I wouldn't necessarily be broadcasting to everybody what we're going to do. … We've gotten into this mindset of fighting politically correct wars ... If we don't tie [the generals'] hands behind their backs, they will [fight wars] extremely effectively."
That's quite a statement, especially coming on August 6th, the anniversary of Hiroshima.
By this point, those of us who'd been watching the festivities were punch-drunk if not just plain old bombed. It's not as if we haven't heard all this stuff before --- most of what they said was boilerplate Fox commentary: "Illegals" (a demeaning term which even the Fox moderators used), Iran, Obamacare, ISIS, abortion, taxes, the usual. The country's going to hell in a handbasket and they're coming to kill us all in our beds while we sleep. And apparently, we're going to be talking a lot about bloody body parts over the next year, which should be very inspiring.
It's still early days and the field will be winnowed down soon enough, although not necessarily in predictable ways. The Big Money can keep their boys in the game long after they normally would have dropped out. (Jeb Bush and Scott Walker should be grateful, since they would be the Tim Pawlenty and Fred Thompson of this race otherwise.)
These Republicans are running on fear and anger and nothing more. Even their various ways of saying "let's make America great again" are demoralizing. It's understandable. They know they are unlikely to win the presidency as long as their angry, fearful, conservative white base insists on insulting everyone who doesn't look like them but they have no choice but to roll with it.
And the most depressing thing about that, brought home in living color tonight, is that the rest of us won't have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to help us through it.