“I want to see this thing continue because iron sharpens iron. Steel sharpens steel. These guys are getting better in their debates. They are getting more concise. They are getting more grounded in what their beliefs are and articulating what their ideas are for getting America back on the right track and getting Americans working again. If I had to vote in South Carolina in order to keep this thing going, I would vote for Newt, and I would want it to continue. More debates, more vetting of candidates.”
— Sarah Palin, Hannity, January 17
Apart from global appeal, intentional comedy, puckish charm and hints of a first-rate mind operating under a veneer of stupidity, Sarah Palin has something in common with Bart Simpson. I’m specifically talking about the scene where Grandpa, forced to babysit the kids, refers to a note card provided to him by Marge. It reads: “Always do the opposite of what Bart says.” Too bad the GOP isn’t as smart as Abe Simpson.
Peep this slate of torment, which is unbelievable in its relentlessness—we’re in the middle of four debates in ten days. A decisive Romney victory this Saturday in South Carolina can render them basically irrelevant. They were already mostly so; it’s just that people will have a hard time arguing otherwise.
Even during the general election, America’s debate format differs little from hovering behind a walker-bound elderly person scanning the contents of a salad bar at Sizzler. You move imperceptibly forward; someone tells you whether they like kidney beans (or school vouchers); they convey their opinion in five seconds; they spend an additional 85 seconds riffing semi-coherently on a concept unrelated to kidney beans. Put as many as six candidates on the stage, and you’re essentially getting heckled by a rest home as you propose new menu items. Worse: You are interrupting Murder, She Wrote.
While the debate format itself—limitless topics, absurdly limited time—inhibits someone from saying anything real, more debates damn everyone to hearing the repetition of white (in more ways than one) noise. The first time it’s an insult; the fifteenth time confirms that you’re in a polite fiction so dully routinized that nobody bothers with the polite aspect anymore. Candidates would hold iPhones and play MP3s of their best zingers if they could. They know that movement conservatives will applaud on command when candidates treat gays and immigrants as subhuman, blame the darkies, praise millionaires for their sacrifice and encourage the diseased to learn a lesson about improvidence by making sure not to expire on someone else’s tab. It’s so simple only Rick Perry could fuck it up.
Things might be different if the debate participants weren’t just Republicans talking to Republicans. The GOP’s rigid orthodoxy admits little ad-libbing and zero apostasy. While Ron Paul mixes things up by having opinions that are at least based on (mis)reading history, he’s drowned out by those faithfully reading memos, one bullet point after another. Thus you have those moments when Romney and Gingrich—or whoever—turn to face each other, conflate minor quibbles into massive ideological breaches and bitchily try to undermine each other like a pair of Real Housewives.
More than anything, this explains why Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain (and to a lesser extent, the just-departed Rick Perry) were so fascinating: We already knew everybody essentially agreed with everyone else; they were just so monumentally goddamn stupid. These were the sorts of people who could fuck up a two-car funeral. Now they’re gone, and the simple math of “mourners + hearse” will no longer result in six living people buried, while the corpse officiates the murder. (The corpse in this example is Ronald Reagan.)
Newt Gingrich offered the only respite from this verbal death march. Unworried about making shit up, Newt frees himself to turn a good phrase. The debates made his candidacy, in part because he seemed like the only non-moron willing to make them fun. But his biggest highlight is also the biggest indicator of their absence of value.
This week, a supporter told him, “I would like to thank you for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place,” referring to a series of contemptuous and quotable replies Newt delivered to a Fox News moderator. Now, we can get into all the obvious baggage here: Williams is black; he’s a moderate incorrectly assumed by conservative hardliners to be an Obama agent; he challenged Gingrich on his race-baiting food-stamps comments; this was in Confederacy-loving South Carolina....
We can talk about all that, but it doesn’t matter. The real nugget here is that the highlight Newt’s campaign put on its website the next day came from Newt scoring off a debate moderator. That Newt peddled dog-whistle racism and somehow still managed to imply that the black guy (who was fired by NPR) was the bad guy for being a political-correctness enforcer is a tour-de-force of Newtness. Juan Williams isn’t even a candidate, but Newt won the debate (according to none other than Williams himself) by ripping into him.
Debating an avatar of race or the president is enough to move the needle in South Carolina GOP in Newt’s direction. But if he doesn't come through, a decisive Romney victory would mean that Mitt could no-show the rest of this long, pointless debate schedule. Ironically, these uninformative spectacles were one of the few tethers the vacillating and unaccountable Romney campaign had with the ground. A close primary, on the other hand, will mean more slapfights over who has the best Reagan glitter collage, more news stories about Newt’s disgustingly liberated sex life, more of Newt branding every black person in sight as a REVERSE RACIST. And soon enough, it’ll be time for the general election debates. Finally—the real issues!