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.