The tedious Republican debate cycle: Rand Paul speaks! Trump gets booed! GOP 2016 already feels like a reality show that's past its prime

Just because last night's debate wasn't the usual clown car pile-up doesn't make it useful

Published November 11, 2015 2:42PM (EST)

  (Fox Business)
(Fox Business)

The great thing about a trainwreck is that if everyone survives, just getting through the tunnel on the way home seems like a triumph. The second and third Republican debates were so crowded with invective and misinformation and sniping at moderators – so free of substance – that the mixed bag of the fourth put it in Lincoln-Douglas territory by comparison. At least, whatever its flaws, this one wasn’t a clown car/shoutfest disaster.

Last night’s debate, set on a garish red-gray-and-blue stage in Milwaukee (following a weird bit of Wisconsin hype at the opening) and broadcast on Fox Business, was hardly perfect. The first hour, for instance, was often dull: Viewers have come to expect weird, sudden clashes between candidates and bad behavior from Donald Trump, so seeing this turn into a relatively civilized conversation about issues and policies almost felt like a letdown. It wasn’t until about half an hour in, with Marco Rubio’s bout of anti-intellectualism – “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” – that we got the first bizarre (and demonstrably false) statement.

And after crowding 10 candidates crowded onto the stage, the eight-is-enough debate also seemed lower energy than the others. The moderators – who patted themselves on the back at debate’s end – were just okay. They stayed out of the way, and they didn’t let themselves get walked on like the moderators in the third debate, but they did not bring a lot of verve – intellectual or otherwise -- to the evening.

Candidates dodged questions – including the perfectly reasonable one about job creation under Democratic presidents being higher than under Republicans – and gave shallow answers to others.

But many of the answers were crisp and polished, if predictable. We heard the story of humble origins (Rubio’s father was a bartender, John Kasich’s carried mail), we heard about the evils of Hillary Clinton, we heard how entrepreneurial energy is good while taxes and regulators (“who have descended like locusts on small business,” in Ted Cruz’s words) are bad. These are all lines we’ve heard before, in various forms.

Jeb Bush’s handlers clearly told him to pump up the volume, and after appearing forced early on (“the growth we don’t have makes the deficit grow,” he offered in one of his first statements), he managed to summon some energy as the evening went on. He even got off one of the best lines of the night, when he tossed out “They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this” in response to talk of deporting millions of immigrants.

Trump, for his part, has been so bizarre throughout the race that last night’s garden-variety weirdness – shouting about Carly Fiorina “interrupting everyone” and getting booed, boasting about hanging out with Vladimir Putin on “60 Minutes” – seemed tame by comparison.

One of the odder things about the debate was that despite a purported commitment to the economy, much of the most substantial applause came from talk about foreign policy. Rubio nodded to Israel, and drew applause urging us to “take this threat seriously.” (Haven’t we invaded several countries because of various supposedly serious threats?) Bush talked about the dangers of terrorism in the Middle East. (Really?) Fiorina urged us to pressure Putin and boasted that we have “the strongest military on the face of the planet – and everybody has to know it.”

In this crowd, Rand Paul – who reminded the audience that the U.S. has a military as big as the next 10 countries put together -- came across as the voice of reason. (He doesn’t have much to lose at this point, and his debate performance showed it.)

Speaking of applause, Fiorina rode it like a surfer on a wave. She’s a gifted demagogue, and in a lot of ways a scarier presidential prospect than even Trump. Stubborn, self-assured, fond of saber-rattling, truth-bending, and, apparently, mass layoffs, she made a strong impression to party loyalists – who loved her “we must take our government back” line. But she did nothing to humanize herself last night.

And was Fiorina really surprised that a 40ish woman she met worries about her family’s future? Apparently Carly needs to get out more.

Rubio will likely get a polling bounce from the debate, and came across as genial and well-prepared. But outside the packaging, he’s not exactly pushing his ideas forward. (Can someone really govern on the principle of generational change or by intoning “21st century” over and over?)

While Carson came into the debate with momentum, he didn’t break out forcefully. He didn’t need to, and, in a throwback to the last debate, turned an important question about his mendacity into another attack on the liberal media. Despite what was likely substantial coaching on foreign policy, he still seems to be making that part up as he goes along.

And what is it about Texans who want to eliminate federal agencies? Ted Cruz said he wants to kill five of them, and then only named four. (Did Rick Perry laugh or cry seeing this?)

So, some real discussion of policy and politics, few surprises, and some obfuscation. Making this one far more grownup than what we’ve seen lately.

The downside is simply that anyone who’s been following the race and seen a few of the previous debates was likely craving something besides the same old lines. At its best, there was more political substance than we’ve gotten in the GOP debates. But it’s also beginning to feel like we know these people pretty well by now. It’s starting to seem like a reality show that’s gone on a bit too long.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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