The GOP debate's weirdest twist: That one moment where it was almost possible to like Rand Paul

In an event filled with saber-rattling histrionics, it was hard not to appreciate Paul's vaguely contrarian stance

Published December 16, 2015 3:12PM (EST)

  (AP/John Locher)
(AP/John Locher)

When CNN finally, mercifully took a commercial break more than an hour into Tuesday night’s GOP debate, I wandered into the living room to ask my brother and sister-in-law if one of them would mind stabbing a barbecue fork through my eye and into my brain.

They laughed, but they had been stringing lights on the Christmas tree throughout the debate. They didn't know what the Republican candidates for president and their supporters know: that we are living in an America beset by jihadi terrorists, sold out by a feckless and weak beta male of a president who had failed at every turn to stop the global war machines of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Vladimir Putin. If they knew what all the Republicans knew, they would take the kids and the cat and lock themselves in the basement until the apocalypse was over.

That was the last GOP debate of 2015: a cornucopia of haunted-house terrors, desiccated (RADICAL ISLAMIC!) skeletons, headless (BEHEADED BY RADICAL ISLAMISTS!) corpses and giant (PROBABLY RADICAL ISLAMIC, SURE, WHY NOT!) spiders all dropping from ceilings or popping out from behind rotting wood doors to scream and shriek in tongues in an attempt to give us suckers who shelled out ten bucks a ticket our money’s worth.

Watching every GOP debate this cycle has been an exercise in masochism, but this one felt worse. It was a foreign policy debate, but the major points of disagreement among the candidates were all ones of degree: which of them would deport the most immigrants, bomb ISIS soldiers (and the civilians laboring under their rule) into the smallest and most atomized fragments, establish a no-fly zone over Syria so as to shoot down the most Russian jets, punch Putin in the nose the hardest. The one notable exception was Rand Paul. After a typical blustery “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” speech from Chris Christie, Paul seemed to shrug as he told the audience: “If you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate.”

And for the briefest, most fleeting of moments, it was possible to like Rand Paul. It won’t be enough to move him up in the polls, not with his party in the grips of a xenophobic paranoia so strong it could power the nation’s failing electrical grid, but I was glad that CNN bent its rules to let him onto the main stage. Even if his relatively clear-eyed take on the consequences of our constant foreign military adventurism was the equivalent of shoveling shit against the tide with this crew.

As for the other candidates: Christie talked about his time as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey in the years after 9/11 as if he had been serving in a combat zone, heading into his office in Newark every morning dressed in camo with a Colt 1911 strapped to his hip. Not to be outdone, Carly Fiorina talked about the executive decisions she had to make to secure Hewlett-Packard in California the day planes were flying into buildings on the East Coast, neatly inserting herself into the tragedy like a pilot fish latching onto a shark. She repeated her demagoguery from earlier debates about how on her first day in office she would tell Russia to go fuck itself and the leaders of Iran that they are living in Carly’s world now, dammit, and they better get used to it. The thought of her with access to a button that turns on her home espresso machine, let alone one that launches nuclear missiles, remains utterly terrifying.

John Kasich said some stuff, but I was too busy dodging his flying karate hands to listen. Jeb Bush actually had a good moment or two punching back at Donald Trump’s insults, but mostly he just looked like a man wishing for a sinkhole to open under his feet. His continued presence in this race baffles me. The GOP has long since passed the Bush family by. Compared to the Republican Party of 2016, Dubya looks like a liberal and Poppy Bush might as well be Che Guevara.

Marco Rubio, again, looked like three small children stacked on each other’s shoulders wearing a suit. He spent much of the evening sparring with Ted Cruz over their respective positions on immigration. When he wasn’t doing that, he was repeating the same canned answers he gives to every question. Usually, a Rubio answer starts with an anecdote about his upbringing as the child of Cuban immigrants, then devolves into a blizzard of words that tickle the Republican g-spot – opportunity, America, great, unleash, America, capitalism, America – before his sentences just sort of meander into a nothingness of a point that lies flat on the ground, as if beaten into a coma by its own banality. In past debates he has gotten by because no one ever challenged him too directly. But in this debate he got some tough questions and took some shots from other candidates, and he looked uncomfortable and out of his depth.

Ted Cruz said “radical Islamic terrorism” a lot, and not much else that registered. Which for him is a good night. If he really is becoming the “compromise” candidate between the evangelicals and the establishment, he might as well try and hurry the moderates through the bargaining and depression stages so they can arrive at a grudging acceptance before the convention.

Which leaves us with Donald Trump. The Donald was by turns pugnacious, tart, and insulting. In other words, he was himself. Challenged on a point by Bush, he bragged about how his poll numbers were 39 points higher than the former Florida governor’s. When other candidates attacked him, he grimaced, waved his hand as if dismissing an underling. Or he would pucker his lips and sneer, his butterscotch-colored cotton-candy hair practically glowing with disdain. He did get some boos from the audience, which leads me to think it was an establishment-friendly crowd. Still, his candidacy remains unkillable. The polls could be off by 20 points and he would still be in the lead. It’s possible some air will leak out of his balloon for a few days, but before Christmas he’ll say something outrageous about sending all the Muslims to work in a salt mine in Greenland or something, and his numbers will recover.

It was a foreign policy debate, but of course no one talked about climate change, despite the historic international agreement that came out of Paris just a few days ago because the rest of the world recognizes the threat and wishes the United States would as well. The foreign policy advocated by eight of the people onstage involves sending thousands of Americans to be killed and maimed in Middle Eastern deserts, but while there was a lot of talk of rebuilding a military stretched thin by a decade and a half of war, not one candidate mentioned the Veterans Administration, or the Herculean effort it will take to care for all the wounded soldiers their policies would leave haunting Walter Reed and every other VA hospital in the country. Mostly we heard about how President Obama and Hillary Clinton have wrecked America’s standing in the world, an assertion that gets the chest-thumping right-wingers cheering while having the added benefits of being (a) subjective and (b) totally unprovable. But say it with authority enough times and you can slide a few more delegates into your column.

No, fear is all any of them have to sell. Even Ronald Reagan at least had his shining city on a hill. In the 2016 GOP field, that city is a ruin, the buildings having collapsed into rubble and the rich people having all fled to Galt’s Gulch. If anyone had brought the metaphor up last night, the Republican candidates would have said the city is Chicago and blamed Obama for wrecking it.

And we’re nowhere close enough to the end, despite the field being in desperate need of some winnowing. It will go on and on and on, as long as the billionaires are willing to fund this execrable embarrassment of a primary, and the Murderer’s Row of ambitious and craven idiots on that Vegas stage who continue to be willing to debase and embarrass themselves in the hope that they can scare a few more hayseeds in Iowa into voting for them.

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