Just because I’m not into pro football or UFC doesn’t mean I don’t get a kick out of watching millionaires beating the crap out of each other on TV. And just because I snobbishly look down my nose at reality television doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a panel of sassy judges stirring the pot to make contestants snap at each other. Thursday night’s debate between Republican presidential candidates was a catty, bitter, largely substance-free street fight between ten men desperately trying to land more Twitter-worthy, attention grabbing zingers than the others. It was exactly the sort of debate America deserves and I loved every minute of it.
The 2010 Citizens’ United ruling, which amended most of our campaign finance laws to read “MAKE IT RAIIIIN, BITCH!”, has upended the traditional primary process. Whereas candidates used to have to build consensus and woo party chairmen to stay in the race, now pretty much anybody who’s chummy with a billionaire or two can be a serious contender for the party’s nomination. This unruly new order was on full display for the first time Thursday night, when ten men, each representing a different cabal of wealthy people’s favorite flavor of conservatism, went head to head in what could have been the XFL’s take on a college debate tournament.
Moderators Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier, and Chris Wallace set the tone for the evening, proving that they're all talented and capable journalists who simply choose to forego all semblance of integrity in their day to day jobs on Fox News. Between detailed, rapidly fired policy questions, the moderators prodded the candidates to squabble amongst themselves and relayed comments from the Internet asking about important issues, such as how often everyone received messages from God.
Rand Paul came out of the gates swinging, probably because it’s aggravating when your grassroots, upstart campaign with all its innovative policies and minority outreach has to resort to releasing videos of you chainsawing stacks of paper to stay relevant. Between abysmal fundraising, infighting, and a few indictments, Paul’s campaign is going down in flames, and onstage he apparently decided to at least try to steer the burning wreckage toward Chris Christie to take him down too. In one of the debate’s most Oh snap! moments, Paul and Christie came within sweaty, blustery inches of a full on slap fight over the PATRIOT Act and the relative merits of hugging President Obama versus hugging the families of 9/11 victims.
For his part, when moderators pressed Chris Christie on the fact that New Jersey is 44th nationally in job growth, his out of the can response was, “You shoulda seen it when I got there!” Which is a snappy line, but it would probably land a little better if there were more than 50 states. Moving your state from absolute bottom of the pack to slightly less than the absolute bottom of the pack isn’t the most compelling success story.
When Marco Rubio starts talking he gets this look in his eyes like the crazy guy in Full Metal Jacket. His piercing, seemingly all-seeing gaze never changes, whether he’s talking about making the GOP the party of the future or strongly denying that he’s ever wanted rape victims to be able to have abortions.
Jeb Bush’s most memorable line was, “In Florida, they call me Jeb,” which is also what we call him in California, probably because that’s what his campaign logo shouts at you. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s debate prep apparently consisted of coming up with as many brain-related one-liners as possible and then steering every answer toward them at all costs. Mike Huckabee got a lot of good promo footage for the Fox News show he’s going to start hosting in early 2017. Scott Walker rides a Harley. Ted Cruz wants us all to remember what it was like when Ted Cruz was the craziest person running for president.
Ohio governor John Kasich spoke eloquently about how his Christian faith compelled him to accept the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling and expand the state’s Medicaid program to help the poor, and the crowd went wild. The moments when Kasich talked were virtually the only bullshit-free moments of the night – the guy comes off as an intelligent, moderate, compassionate conservative. The fact that a Republican presidential candidate could get huge applause for defending his decision to expand part of Obamacare would have been the big story from Thursday’s debate – were it not for Donald Trump.
Trump won the debate. Trump will win every debate he participates in. In a time of extreme voter apathy, a record 24 million people tuned in to watch a bunch of men on a stage arguing about politics because Trump was one of them. That means 24 million people saw him tell moderators that he would not rule out a third-party run if he doesn’t get the nomination. 24 million people saw him make a crack about Rosie O’Donnell being a fat slobbish animal, to cheers and laughter from the crowd. 24 million people saw him claiming the Mexican government is purposefully sending the dregs of their society to undermine America.
I wish I could not write about Trump, because there’s so many other candidates with so many other qualities to make fun of. But until he leaves the race it’s impossible not to write about him, because he is the race – and if he makes good on his threat to run as a third party candidate, he can effectively end the race for whoever the GOP nominee is.
It’s probably a bad sign that our political process can be so easily hijacked by a foul-mouthed two-time Wrestlemania host. But the way I see it, if this is what it takes to get tens of millions of people engaged in politics again, it was all worth it.