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.