Tuesday night there was another Republican presidential debate. I don't know which one. Like eating four pieces out of a family bucket of chicken, it's somewhere past too many and still short of halfway there, and you will be dead by the end.
This was Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus' plan. He didn't want a repeat of 2012's endless march of debates, where the issues became a meaningless background hum, while moderators brainstormed novel ways of surprising candidates, and casual fans and politicos alike only watched for the gaffes. No, this time, it was going to be simpler, fewer, with a quicker resolution and a candidate around which the party could coalesce.
The result, however, has been the worst of both worlds. The debate process won't go on long enough for every candidate to eventually experience a berserker-crazy breakdown moment via rage or exhaustion, but it's already gone on long enough that no sane person could possibly stand to watch another one.
You already know what the Republican candidates believe in. The party is a collection of begged questions, tautology, nativism, existential paranoia, flagrantly imaginary mathemagic and urban legends about an actor. Anything else is an anecdote about someone a candidate "met" in some place "back home" or "in the Heartland" that is "totally not made up."
You can learn everything about these people after one debate, and even that is probably more than enough. Really, Reince should just staple a bunch of flash cards saying the same thing to the front of each podium, then staple a different wig on the top of it. Americans could vote for the most compelling wig by texting "President" to different numbers. This sounds crass until you listen to Ben Carson and realize that he is dumber than a sack of hair.
As is customary, the Junior Varsity debate seemed wholly less unreasonable than the main event to follow. Gone were fatally abortion-tolerant George Pataki and the endlessly quotable Lindsey Graham, and in their place stood Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, both demoted from the big stage.
The highlights were few. Rick Santorum again struck one of the most populist notes by arguing for good jobs for people out of high school, not college, as part of his call for a revival of Rust Belt America. He also cited his record of winning elections in a blue state by omitting his last election, in which he was defeated by 17 percent. Huckabee also went to the populist well, defending Social Security and Medicare, stating, "Those are not entitlements, and those are not welfare. That's an earned benefit." Then he soured things by claiming the War on Poverty "was designed" to have a "poverty industry so the people in the poverty industry could have jobs." So that explains the Head Start program, a Trojan horse designed to screw poor people in order to insidiously grant a subspecies of public pimps one of the most casually reviled jobs in America. Then he proposed aiding Syrian refugees by somehow determining how endangered each one is, then putting them in "encampments."
Chris Christie had by far the most interesting strategy, essentially pretending that he was debating Hillary Clinton alone on the stage. He argued that she planned to "raise your tax to 70, 80 percent," that "Hillary Clinton's comin' for your wallet, everybody. Don't worry about Huckabee or Jindal, worry about her," and that "Hillary Clinton does not want one minute of me on that stage when I'm debating and prosecuting her." He used the word "prosecute" twice. Subtle.
Bobby Jindal retold an urban legend about a bunch of people flushing toilets at the same time.
The main debate was the usual tornado of nonsense. At one point, the Fox Business moderators drew the audience's attention to a "word cloud" of terms important to voters, and it was easy to imagine them whipping in a vortex, suddenly animated as if in the Harry Potter universe, swirling around the heads of the audience and slapping them into a confused frenzy of limbs and signifiers, a people with values under attack.
John Kasich again played the role of fed-up dad, wagering that his best chances come from eating into Jeb Bush's establishment base by sounding like a more amped-up, angrier version of him. Kasich dismissed Donald Trump's fantasy of rounding up 11 million people and deporting them, before Bush eventually jumped in, and Kasich signaled his support. He also thought he had a winner in shaming Donald Trump with, "False little things, sir, don't really work when it comes to the truth." He nailed it, a revelation of such sublime self-evidence that it almost beat out the front of a trolley car I saw earlier in the day.
After that opening, the evening descended into the candidates' confused assortment of statements that strained the concept of language as a tool for expressing anything at all. Each came ostensibly in response to something, whether or not it occurred or was said in the room, each its own individual oysterless pearl, a jewel beyond context.
—Carly Fiorina suggested, "Let us try in health insurance the one thing we have never tried: the free market." Ah, yes, the free market, essentially the only constant thing that has determined how health care has been obtained and administered in the post-feudal era — let's finally try that. If this makes no sense to you, but you've ever played a game like Civilization, think of it this way: It's like someone walking up to you in a massive plain of pyramids, obelisks, ziggurats and temples surrounded by totemic funerary decorations and saying, "Hear me out: What if we finally developed ceremonial burial?"
—Neil Cavuto, a man who looks like his head was shaped both physically and academically after home plate, asked, "Whose plan would God endorse?" Neil would wind up the night in the spin room repeatedly chuckling to himself and saying, "Take it from a guy who wears makeup… Take it from a guy who wears makeup."
—Maria Bartiromo asked Ted Cruz a question she could have asked of any of the candidates: How he could slash tax revenues while raising military expenditures and somehow create zero debt. Ted Cruz's reply, after a flurry of verbiage: "Go to my website."
—Bush generally acquitted himself well, although he asked us to envision what it would be like if more businesses opened than closed, which makes you wonder why he doesn't just walk down Main Street in the morning instead of the evening. He also stated, "We are not going to be the world's policeman, but we need to be the world's leader." You'll be surprised to note that Bush, who was an early signatory to the Project for a New American Century and whose foreign and military policy staff is littered with retreads from his brother’s and father's administrations, elucidates no functional difference between global policing and leadership.
—Carly Fiorina's military policy provisions during the debate were the same as the ones she outlined during the first. Every single one is completely meaningless if not utterly screwheaded, having been debunked already, even by the notoriously liberal rag Stars and Stripes.
—Rand Paul had a good night, evidently realizing that having an interesting opinion could not possibly be more devastating to his campaign than what he was already doing to it. He directly engaged Marco Rubio's globally aggressive foreign policy by chiding, "Marco, Marco, how is it conservative to add a trillion-dollar expenditure to the federal government?... You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you’re not going to pay for." Of calls to establish a no-fly zone in the Middle East to challenge Russia's growing influence in the region, he said, "That is naive to the point of being something you hear in junior high."
—Each candidate took the opportunity to trip over their own shoes on Dodd-Frank. Bush claimed that it required less bank capitalization, which is the opposite of what it does. Rubio claimed that it "codified too big to fail," which is not only fatuous, but isn't even original; it's the line Mitch McConnell started floating against it on day one. Carly Fiorina simply said, "This is how socialism starts, ladies and gentlemen." Which, OK, sure — under terms of causality that rigorous, Dodd-Frank is also how the unicorn ass orgy starts, ladies and gentlemen. The conversation then moved on to bank bailouts, which prompted John Kasich — a former employee of Lehman Brothers, a firm that helped break the world — to declare that "the problem with Wall Street [is] there's too much greed." Ted Cruz merely ducked any answer about future bailouts by going on about philosopher kings and the gold standard. So, when the chips are down, Ted Cruz is willing to rescue the United States with the political and monetary system of a Greek guy who died about 350 years before the birth of Christ. Cruz also proposed eliminating five federal departments and named the Department of Commerce twice, but to be fair they didn't even have one in Ancient Greece when macroeconomics was perfected.
It wasn't all fun and games, though. Neil Cavuto explained to the audience that keyword searches of Facebook turned up over 900,000 instances of people being anxious or serious or rebloggy on the subject of bank reform. This is some statistically heavy shit, and he and Fox should run with this metric. Next time, look for him to open a line of questioning with, "We've run a keyword search of the entire Internet and found that over 900,000 people are talking about 'being cucked.' Dr. Carson, is it physically possible to grow horns after being cucked?"
Carson himself now defies categorization. Describing his answers as naive and "something you hear in junior high" insults an educational institution teeming with spontaneous aggression and fervid masturbators. His replies invariably start out sounding like something printed in a book with hard cardboard pages toddlers can chew on with impunity and end up as something orbiting a distant planet. It is impossible to diagram the connective tissue between a Carson idea and conclusion, because causation is dependent on things existing in reality. Ben Carson not only doesn't know the answer, he may not be able to recognize most of the nouns in any question.
He believes that the United States became the world's number-one economic power by 1876 because "we had an atmosphere that encouraged entrepreneurial risk-taking and capital investment," apparently unlike all the other countries. He claims that "putting the special ops people in [Syria] is better than not having them there because they — that's why they're called special ops, they're actually able to guide some of the other things that we're doing there." We can also defeat jihadists by making them look like losers by "destroying their caliphate." Oh, so only that? OK. Somewhere in there, he talked about a general telling him, "Outside of Anbar, there's a big energy field." He probably meant a field above a lot of untapped oil or natural gas, but you never know with Ben Carson. It could be a giant invisible barrier to trap a gas being or imprison a false god who will then take over the starship Enterprise. It could be the sort of thing our phasers are totally ineffective against.
But the big winner of the night, whose name you are doomed to hear again and again, was Marco Rubio.
If you've heard Rubio's stump speech before or remember his book in any detail, you have already heard every debate answer he has. Rubio wins points with strangers for his youthful energy, conviction and ease with his statements, but the first is literally the work of chronology, and the next two are memorization of material and ad-libbing segues that take him from the questions back to the memorized material. By these lights, any finalist in a high school Extemp Speech competition qualifies as presidential: Everyone looks in command of a topic if they are reiterating rehearsed lines.
The problems appear when you look at lines in the context of questions asked and the larger conversation, and in that case, Marco Rubio is just babbling when he isn't merely crushingly inane. He explained the roots of Islamic terror as, "They hate us for our values." Earlier, Neil Cavuto asked Marco Rubio which Democratic "giveaways" he would take back, and his response was the umpteenth overwrought exposition of his immigrant parents' arrival in America and struggle and opportunity and America and liberty.
This isn't debating. This isn't even thinking. This is a preferred storyline and preferred engagement on autopilot. This is you asking a 6-year-old boy how he's liking first grade so far, his staring somewhere into the middle distance and saying, "MY FAVORITE IS CHARMANDER, EVEN THOUGH CHARIZARD IS BETTER. CHARMANDER IS A FIRE-TYPE POKÉMON. LET ME SHOW YOU MY CHARMANDER."
At the end of the debate, Rubio was asked for his closing statement, and he returned to his riff about a New American Century — not the project that destroyed Iraq and brought you ISIS, a new new one — which is part of his larger theme about being a candidate who is younger than the other Republicans and Hillary Clinton. The newness of the new American century can only be harnessed with the newness of Marco Rubio, who is the opposite of old.
Then he added:
"So tonight, I ask you for your vote and I ask you to join us at my website, MarcoRubio.com.
BARTIROMO: He's funny."
Look at him vault over that high bar.
This is the man that serious people have decided is your prohibitive frontrunner, after the "unserious" candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. In four days, in response to the next debate, he's going to have to change around a few adjectives and the order of his stories when he starts charismatically, smilingly incanting the assortment of noises he prefers to make in response to the ones he likes to pretend not to hear.