The Republican presidential candidates were in a Las Vegas casino Tuesday night for a twin-bill CNN debate slate that bent the fabric of morality into bold new shapes. First up was the JV squad: Graham, Pataki, Huckabee and Santorum, all scratching for relevance like a drowning man grasping for the boat rail. Afterward came Bush, Trump, Cruz, Christie, Paul, Kasich, Rubio, Fiorina and Carson, and it was like being trapped in the worst elevator in the world.
There were a thousand moments within the confines of this double-barreled horror that quite simply defy language, but none more so than this. Hugh Hewitt, one of the debate panelists, is a right-wing talk show host whose main claim to fame is having overseen the construction of the Nixon Library. At one point, Hewitt asked Dr. Ben Carson about his qualifications to be commander-in-chief, and did so in chilling fashion.
"We're talking about ruthless things tonight," said Hewitt, "carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?" After Carson replied with an anecdote about his experience as a pediatric neurosurgeon, Hewitt pressed: "So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians?"
In this line of work, if you do it long enough, you tell yourself that you've seen everything. Nothing can surprise you. It's a comforting fiction, a callus on the soul that allows you to observe and report without being subsumed by it all. Nothing is more unnerving than being deprived of context, to arrive at a moment when you can't say, "Well, I've seen that before." I have no metric for what I witnessed last night.
A debate moderator sought to test a candidate's qualifications on the basis of how many children that candidate is willing to kill. This wasn't some basement-born hack-ass radio show that only reaches three blocks. This happened on CNN with banners flying and theme music to boot. The audience, to its credit, had the decency to boo Hewitt. Nevertheless, it happened. That is where we are. That is who we are.
Carpet bombing. Toughness. War. Fairly encapsulates the night. I stopped counting the instances when a candidate said the words "Kill us all" after 50. This was a fear festival that puts the darkest Stephen King nightmare in deep shade. It was also, make no mistake, a big hug for ISIS. One can imagine them huddled around a television, laughing, saying to each other, "Look how frightened they are. Look how they are frightening others. This is more than we could have hoped for."
A few things I learned last night: Santorum thinks terrorists are bad unless they want to buy a gun. Graham believes we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here, a pitch-perfect echo of George W. Bush, whose presidency Graham said with podium-pounding passion that he misses. At one point, Mike Huckabee intoned, "You've got to bake your own bread in order to fight the battles," at which point my brain went into vapor lock. The Iraq war never happened, and it's all Hillary Clinton's fault. Ted Cruz said, "Ronald Reagan defeated Soviet communism. I will do the same thing." Look out, Soviet communism: The Batman villain from Texas is gunning for you.
The podiums in both debates looked like garbage cans, which was appropriate for the occasion. The degree to which every candidate on that stage perverted, misinterpreted or just outright ignored recent history was a wonder to behold. The United States has been at war in Iraq and the region for 25 years, and matters have only gotten worse. Their solution? More war.
The entire evening was a gala of brigands hosted by a "news" network that treated the whole thing like Monday Night Football. The kid's-table debate got "God Bless America" for openers, while the main show got the national anthem. Sandwiched between and beyond was a litany of fear, bombast, ego and ignorance that beggars likeness. For a time, they were actually trying to talk reasonably about the use of nuclear weapons. It was that kind of a night.
There you have it. We may as well nuke ourselves, because we're clearly doomed according to the "best" (ha) GOP candidates - unless one of the bloviators on that stage last night kills enough children to prove their standing to be president. Salvation by slaughter. A new Gospel, inked in blood. Again.
Speak into the garbage can, candidates. Real terrorists wear tailored suits.