Already in a condition of satire, the opening of the Tea Party-hosted GOP debate on Monday night in Tampa presented the eight Republican presidential candidates as good-looking characters—“The Diplomat” “The Newcomer” “The Firebrand”—who would have to battle one another off the electoral island. Music, brassy and tense, and a baritone voice-over let you know that this reality show was part of the ongoing Apocalypse Lite that has infused our television programming and made the networks almost unwatchable. There was little even Jon Stewart on his show the next evening could do to make fun of what was often comedically predigested—except to say that the red, white and blue stage looked like the inside of Betsy Rossʼs, well, sewing room. Iʼm paraphrasing.
There is always something if not a lot to learn by watching a circus—one is both amazed by and sorry for the animals. The clowns are clearly just pretending. The self-pity one arrives with enlarges to become societal. In a certain way all the candidates on Monday struggled admirably. The Mormons (Huntsman, Romney) as well as the Catholic Rick Santorum actually knew the words to the national anthem and were the only ones to sing along. They seemed like mamaʼs sweet choir boys. The others, with more husky snark and testosterone, and I do include Ms. Bachmann, did not sing, and nothing in the eyes gave a look of knowing what song it might be or what verse anyone was on. But everyone’s hands were on their chests or in anatomically approximate places. (Romney may have been clutching his side—his performance next to high-testosterone men has not always been good. In 2008 he withered next to McCain and sometimes looked as if he might burst into tears; he is somewhat more confident now but similarly dweeb-spirited next to Perry, whose voice is gruffer and lower—perhaps too gruff and low to sing.)
In the Tea Party audience on the Florida State Fairgrounds even fewer seemed to know Francis Scott Keyʼs words.
It is indeed the audiences who are getting scary. The MSNBC crowd last Thursday applauded the state of Texasʼs record-breaking death-row executions. On Monday in Tampa at least one person cheered the prospect of (in a question posed to Ron Paul) an uninsured man in a coma being left to die. Monday’s audience also booed Perryʼs defense of public education for children of illegal immigrants, as well as Paulʼs skeptical remarks about American exceptionalism (“We’re under great threat because we occupy so many countries. We have 900 bases around the world.”). This kind of hooha heartlessness is recession road rage at its worst, and that this is the electorate these candidates are trying to court often seems to startle even them, though this is reflected less in the policies they endorse than in their faces, which can veer to and from their lecterns in disorientation and fog.
Each of the candidates did have something genuinely interesting to offer: Ron Paul is strongly antiwar. Perry would like to give the children of illegal immigrants the right to go to university. Bachmann seemed to have the goods on Perry (a genuine scandal involving the pharmaceutical company Merck, a former staffer who was a lobbyist for Merck, and Texasʼs executive mandate for a controversial vaccine made by Merck). Cain would like a simplified tax system with no loop holes and a rule that says no congressional bill can be longer than three pages. Huntsman has a more progressive though also flattened tax system (you can see him, with nervous dismay, counting his island days). He is also trying to keep science in the platform and religion out and would (like Perry) work to wind things down in Afghanistan. Gingrich is working on his wittiness, something of which heʼs always been proud (Bachmann brings her loud rough laugh to it all, so he may be flirting with her). Romney is tall. Romney also arranges his face warmly when others are speaking—unlike Perry who often looks concussed, though Perry’s beauty, a cross between Burt Reynolds and Hillary Swank, springs to life when the suggestion that he can be bought for only five thousand dollars comes up. He has a price, he seems to suggest, but itʼs much higher than that. And—as reports roll in—so it is.
The garish red theatrical set of last Thursdayʼs MSNBC debate, which caused most of the candidates to show up in popping blue ties (and Bachmann in a high collar blouse, an attractive style she is ruining for Democratic women), had on CNN’s Monday debate become mostly blue, making it a red-jacket (Bachmann) and red-tie affair although a few seemed not to have gotten the memo (Gingrich, Paul, Santorum). Romney and Perry were once again put center stage and this time Perryʼs suit was slightly lighter and browner suggesting that perhaps he will be the running mate in what is shaping up to be the likely GOP ticket—in imitation of that other cowboy and nebbish team of former Democrats, Reagan and Bush.
Throughout the many subsequent debates thatʼs what we are going to be watching: Mitt and Rick getting to know each other. Itʼs up to everyone else to go after them. That this will be going on while the tired but dignified Barack Obama tries to get his jobs bill passed and has to endure the wrongheaded wave of Clinton nostalgia that has swept over his party is our democratic system at its circus-saddest. But Obamaʼs situation is a reminder that despite the seeming meaninglessness of the debates, until election reform really takes hold (a key reason to explore space for other inhabitable planets or at least for other supreme courts), the primary matters. It can create divisions that haunt for years. The voters that now complain the most about Obama are the skeptical ones he never had in the primary to begin with. In a system of government designed for gridlock by eighteenth-century visionaries in a hurry and a huff, one can long for a parliament with a prime minister, something we almost had with LBJ. Who then got out, exhausted. But with a legacy.
Well, weʼll have Boston-Austin again, but it will play very differently.