Second GOP Debate: 5.5 Hours of Surreal Insanity

From Reagan's plane to Trump the "humble" to Margaret Thatcher on the $10 bill, Wednesday's debate was both long and strange

The second GOP presidential debate was held at the Reagan Library Wednesday. Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Getty

Once, years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to try to live-blog a broadcast of NFL RedZone. Not just an hour or two, but all six hours, plus overrun, trying to see what happened when your brain attempted to put it in some kind of order.

It didn't work. The human mind isn't meant to create narrative out of 22 people colliding on every down, then instantly switching to 22 other people, 400 times without relief. Any stimuli, no matter how meatheaded, will eventually overwhelm you. Lights overexpose, detail fuzzes out, colors kaleidoscope into involuted patterns. Things make sense only to themselves, on their terms, and everyone surrenders to it.

This more or less happened last night, at the second 2016 Republican primary debate, at the Ronald Reagan presidential library.

Five-and-a-half hours of primary debates is too much. CNN kicked off the night at 6 p.m. Eastern with analysis for the JV debate, interrupted briefly for CNN's Blitzerian moments of breaking news (the second debate will have 11 candidates, but this one only has four, so there are only four podiums now, but later there will be 11), then over an hour of debate, then more hiccups of analysis (boss! boss! there's a plane in the background!), then over three hours of slog. It was a credit to CNN's Jake Tapper that he was still asking sharp questions until the end, when the skull contents of everyone on Twitter had long turned to oatmeal.

Ordinarily, length should be a luxury, something we welcome. Most of us are, by dint of having lives, addictions or internet pornography, lower-information voters than our best selves would be in a better universe, where we go to the gym every morning, drink less and get out of the house to support our local sex workers. Three hours of debate should tell us more than two.

But this is modern politics, unfortunately, and more specifically the Republican Party, which is less a debating society and more a traveling society of ritual incantation. You know what these people believe and what they will say: war, crime, tax cuts, slash social programs, something nice about Jesus, a repeatedly shoehorned anecdote about a great-grandfather who abandoned a life of competitive bog-eating in County Meath to be horsewhipped around a track by one of John D. Rockefeller's bastards in his Irishman Steeplechase. The only question is in what order this cut-and-paste junk appears, and whether someone knocks over a binder full of women or forgets which federal social services department goes on the Kill List next to the more memorable ayatollahs.

You could witness the inevitability throughout the CNN pregame analysis: Jeb Bush would need to step up to get away from being cowed by Donald Trump; Donald Trump would need to be a bit more humble to get away from being Donald Trump; Rand Paul and Scott Walker needed to assert themselves; John Kasich needed to keep undermining Jeb as the chosen Establishment Candidate; Marco Rubio needed to be energetic and callow; Chris Christie needed to memorably bully; Ben Carson needed to wake the fuck up; more of the same, please, Carly Fiorina. All of this pretty much happened as expected.

The program began with the manufactured dance in which two parties desirous of looking good allowed one to lead and the other to follow. CNN asked each arriving candidate what they'd done that day to bone up for the debate, and each of them lied. Every single one probably spent the morning frantically going through flash cards, and every one said he or she had played pool, gone hiking, hit the treadmill or just got on a plane. Anything but act like they didn't already have this shit down. It's the fuck it, man, I got a B+ but I didn't even study school of expectations management. A bad showing looks worse if you actually tried.

The only real standout from the ritual of arrival and tamping down the hype came when Marco Rubio was shown to his podium, looked at the tape with his name on it and drew a cross beside it. Like CNN teeing up "nah, man, I was benching at the gym all morning" replies when asking if anyone studied, Rubio drew his little in hoc signo vinces to remove any doubts nobody had about his Christian faith, and CNN obligingly reported it. If he'd known that not one of the herd of CNN analysts would have snorted at such a performative display, poor Mike Huckabee might have marked his podium with lamb's blood to suffer not the destroyer to fuck up the pow-wow.

Of the two debates, the JV version actually provided the most surprises. Jim Gilmore was gone, claimed by the same extra-dimensional Mystery Spot that took all-star shortstop Ozzie Smith. Bobby Jindal finally returned to his roots as one of the fastest talkers Times-Picayune beat writers have ever heard, probably realizing that throwing a ton of words at the wall of voters in the limited time left for his campaign might get more things to stick than just simpering in a way he surely means to look beatific and which looks far more like gas pain. 

But the debate belonged more to two strains of aberrant realism nobody expects to see the like of again. In between telling all of us that we are going to die — and soon — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said that his administration would feature a lot more casual drinking with the opposition, then stopped to lecture Jindal on the mathematical reality of which Senate votes are not veto-proof and how they waste everyone's time. Meanwhile, former New York Gov. George Pataki dropped another unwanted ninth-grade civics lesson, this time on Rick Santorum. Like a tired dad telling his son that closing his eyes doesn't make him invisible, Pataki asserted that there is something called the Rule of Law and that the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling was a part of that. Santorum asserted somehow that the First Amendment superseded the Supreme Court's power to interpret the First Amendment, and that he would pass the First Amendment Defense Act — which would allow Congress to base a law on the First Amendment that somehow exempted it from the Supreme Court's ruling on the First Amendment and one guesses the Fourteenth as well. Absent that, he also insisted to Pataki that, as president, he would simply defy the Supreme Court's ruling anyway, which has historically always worked out really well for people. Barring tons of mad money from his pal Foster Friess, and a miraculous showing in Iowa thanks to shoe leather, you probably witnessed the last of Rick Santorum, unless he decides to embark on some unelected version of a Jacksonian genocide. In which case, of course, we wish him well.

As said, the main event played out about how you'd expect. Like a kung fu movie, each candidate charged Donald Trump black-ninja style and many landed a blow before being knocked out by a Trump jab or his own colossal indifference. Rand Paul attempted to shame Trump for his ad hominems about other candidate's appearances before Trump shot back that he'd never gone after Paul's appearance despite the ample material to work with. Scott Walker tried to get some press by telling Trump that, after Obama, America didn't need another apprentice in the White House before Trump bodied Walker about his campaign cratering and Wisconsin running deficits. The wording of the deficit claim is mostly false — although Walker's repeatedly had to make spending cuts and raid different funds to paper over the gaps his tax cuts have generated — but nobody who likes Donald Trump is going to care. Carly Fiorina had the best dig of the night, commenting on Trump's describing her face as unelectable by saying, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said."

But the flash-card recitation got lost in the petulant dramatics. In the first hour, Bush and Trump reenacted a grade-school fight over whether Trump was able to build a casino in Florida. Their mouths formed real words, but after five seconds, all anyone could hear was "Nuh-uh" and "Yah-huh" repeated with a Wabbit Season/Duck Season relentlessness. Trump eventually won the exchange by smirking at Bush, "More energy tonight. I like that" It was pure Internet trollerythe fact that you're getting mad is the only thing keeping me from getting bored. Bush also objected to Trump dragging his wife Columba into the immigration debate and — to shield her from further scrutiny, perhaps as a clever Opposite Day gambit — pointed her out in the front row and angrily asked Trump to apologize to her. Trump ignored him. Over an hour later, Trump told Bush, "Your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama. The last three months were so bad, not even Abraham Lincoln could get elected." Bush, at this point nearly seething —punching Trump might have given him five points in the polls — said, "There’s one thing I remember. He kept us safe." Compared to the 310 million citizens in the United States, maybe Bush thinks the 3,000 Americans dead on 9/11, the 1,800 dead in New Orleans and the 4,500 dead in Iraq are a rounding error.

Things got weirder in the second hour, as Trump and Fiorina devoured what felt like most of it in going head-to-head trying to prove who had the more disastrous career. Fiorina brought up Trump's multiple bankruptcies, while Trump brought up Fiorina's laying off tens of thousands of people at Hewlett Packard, her acrimonious dismissal, her shaky handling of Lucent and, contrary to her earlier bragging about its state, the fact that HP that day announced up to 30,000 more layoffs. The slapfight went on so unbelievably long that it was almost a mercy when Chris Christie gave voice to an analog of girls! girls! you're both ugly! by saying, "You’re both successful people. Congratulations," then steering the conversation to the middle class.

But if a great unkindness of wealthy ravens all demonstrably trying to be unimpressed with each other was weird, the third hour entered into the surreal. Trump was asked to give his opinion on whether vaccinations cause autism (for fuck's sakes, they don't), which led to Ben Carson denying any causal connection, then ultimately agreeing with Trump's walk-back answer that infants' intense vaccination schedule may cause problems. He even used Trump's insult to joke, "He's an OK doctor." Somewhere after that, when all the candidates were asked who to put on the $10 bill, Bush replied, "Margaret Thatcher." All right.

Rand Paul and Scott Walker essentially disappeared. Carson showed up as much as he ever does — really effectively, if you happen to like him, or like a sweet-natured older man tottering around in a stocking cap and saying half-liddedly pleasant things if you don't. Ted Cruz repeatedly said utterly bugfuck things of interest to nobody living outside Jade Helm's Deep. Kasich likely continued siphoning money from Bush donors. Everyone considered Christianity under attack, Iran an existential threat, and Carly Fiorina made up details about the Planned Parenthood videos that never happened. On that point, neither Jake Tapper, Dana Bash nor Hugh Hewitt corrected any candidate on the fact that the videos were heavily edited and that their claims about Planned Parenthood are unsubstantiated and most are already illegal under existing law. In fact, Tapper, ever game, kept reading actual printed quotes from candidates only to hear the candidates deny they ever said them.

At some point, the night blurred. It's probably impossible to glean all the information presented over a three-hour verbal forced march like this, but then again, most people probably don't try. If you're a Republican voter, you probably go in with one candidate you really like and a couple more you are curious about, then mentally filter for their comments or topics of particular interest to you. If you're not writing this down, if none of it needs to be used for a future argument, the information gets triaged, the vibrant stuff taken home to be nurtured, the borderline cases treated with care, the terminal ideas shipped down to the tile room in the basement. It's the only way to handle this much intake.

But if you're committed to assimilating the whole thing, you're going to get loopy. Even if it's nonsense, talking points reiterated ad nauseam and unbounded by data, it's still too much input. Your mind wanders to the fact that they're standing in front of a goddamn airplane. There could be hijackers inside, ready to fire the sumbitch up and get us out of here. This whole venue isn't even a Reagan library, it's a Reagan hangar. It's a hangar because you can fit more America in there with the plane bearing the names of our sweethearts. It might even be large enough to have its own Americasphere inside. Sometimes, even when it's dry out — like when Marco Rubio is making light of the worst drought in 500 years by kidding about his water bottle gaffe — it could rain inside, God's tears showering down upon the most blessed plot in his creation.

Sometimes, you could even get loopy enough that you turn toward a pouty-faced real-estate developer demagogue who's spent the last three hours burying you and your brother somewhere in the same Iraqi trench and, as Jeb Bush did, give him a low-five and smile, then laugh at his joke. At this point, it makes as much sense as anything else.