CNN’s Republican debate left viewers with the same disquieting feeling as a forced screening of Heaven’s Gate. That three hours felt like three years.
America is on the verge of its greatest century, blah, blah, blah, how we can fix a broken Washington, blah, blah, blah, every one of us has potential, blah, blah, blah, I’m ready to lead, blah, blah, blah, the United States is not to be trifled with, blah, blah, blah, the political establishment in Washington, D.C. in both political parties is completely out of touch, blah, blah, blah, we’ll reignite the promise of America, blah, blah, blah, the world desperately needs our leadership, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Eveready sounded like a battery-operated mannequin capable of uttering a limited number of programmed phrases. Donald Trump ripped off his facial expressions from Al Gore. Marco Rubio looked like a College Republican returning to club meetings long after graduation. His cadence even comes across as clichéd. A scowling and interrupting Carly Fiorina, excluded from the first debate, proved that hell hath no fury like a woman muzzled. John Kasich, channeling Phil Gramm’s charisma and borrowing Barney Fife’s posture, wants to work with Democrats on domestic policy and foreigners on matters of state—and alienate Republicans in matters of elections.
A few voices rose above the din.
Rand Paul noted the hypocrisy of his adversaries on the Tenth Amendment when it came to state laws legalizing marijuana. He said “there’s nothing more important than understanding that the Constitution restrains government, not the people.” And he told the audience that if they wanted Americans fighting wars for foreigners they had 14 other Republicans to choose from. “Had we bombed Assad at the time, like President Obama wanted, and like Hillary Clinton wanted and many Republicans wanted, I think ISIS would be in Damascus today,” he maintained. “Sometimes,” he explained, “both sides of the civil war are evil, and sometimes intervention makes us less safe.”
Mike Huckabee pointing out that Kim Davis’s position as an elected official in a state that opposed gay marriage by a 3-1 margin at the ballot box put her defiance of the courts (who defied the law passed by her state’s voters first) in perspective as one of compliance to democracy. “I thought that everybody here passed ninth-grade civics,” Huckabee reasonably informed. “The courts cannot legislate.”
Ted Cruz, despite Jack Tapper repeatedly stepping on his lines, relayed a counterfactual narrative about the Supreme Court nominees of “the Presidents Bush” that proved tremendously effective. “If, instead, the Presidents Bush had appointed Edith Jones (rather than David Souter), and Mike Luttig (rather than John Roberts), which is who I would have appointed,” he explained, “Obamacare would have been struck down three years ago, and the marriage laws of all 50 states would be on the books.”
The scripted Marco Rubio showed that he comes across better off the talking points by delivering the night’s best spontaneous one-liner, a subtle—a scarce quality in this crowd—jab at journalists not in their element in a room full of Republicans. When host Jake Tapper mistook Rubio for Rand Paul, Florida’s junior senator quipped: “I know we all look alike.”
The tone of the debate otherwise resembled the choreographed confrontation of reality television. The media that condemns such developments contributed to it. “Coming up, one of the hottest questions that you have been asking us via social media,” Jake Tapper teased the audience. “We will pose it to the candidates.”
Would it have killed Tapper to permit Dana Bash or Hugh Hewitt to ask another question instead?
Elsewhere, Fiorina stung Trump for an impolite remark about her looks, Bush demanded an apology from Trump for invoking his wife’s ethnicity, and the candidates devised clever Secret Service codenames for themselves. About the jibes he simultaneously described as “sophomoric” and “junior high,” Rand Paul asked: “Are we not way above that?”
He runs for what country’s presidency?
Perhaps the reality star in the room contributed to the atmosphere. But the atmosphere more accurately contributed to the reality star entering the room. When Fox, CNN, and MSNBC became more like the E! Channel, they ensured a politics that more closely resembled Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
The debate at times appeared less Lincoln v. Douglas and more Snooki v. Angelina, Omarosa v. Ereka, or Puck v. Pedro. The Donald exploits this lay of the land. He didn’t create it.
The republic survived without a debate among presidential nominees until 1960, with a handful of intraparty back-and-forths occurring in the years before the Nixon-Kennedy broadcast event but conspicuously following the invention of television.
The nation prospered sans the staged spectacles. The networks? Twenty-three million tuning into CNN suggests that the Fourth Estate needs the debates more than the First, Second, or Third do.