There is, in these early moments before the field is culled, an inevitable “Gilligan’s Island” aspect to presidential debates: a motley crew of off-beat personalities stuck together for what can seem like an interminable period. Thursday’s Republican debate in Iowa was “Gilligan’s Island-Family Edition.”
There was Grumpy Grandpa, Newt Gingrich, griping about gotcha questions and — there he goes again — Lean Six Sigma. Scary Weird Grandpa, Ron Paul, popping off about how we don’t really need to worry about Iran anyway.
Folksy Grandpa, Herman Cain, who can’t stop saying the darndest things but comes off as likeable nonetheless. “America’s got to learn to take a joke,” was my pick for quote of the night. Or maybe a good slogan for the GOP field.
There was the whiny cousin, Rick Santorum, complaining about how nobody ever asked him questions, ever. The irrelevant, kinda goofy-looking uncle, Jon Huntsman, seeming slightly out of place, like the distant relative who wandered into the family reunion.
The bickering Minnesota non-twins, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, endlessly sniping in the back seat. Your record’s nonexistent. You endorsed cap-and-trade. Mo-om, she’s sitting on my side. Make her mooove.
Pawlenty came off the loser of the two. Hint to Tim: If you’re trying to look like the grown-up who can take on Mitt Romney, best not to offer to mow his lawn. And give voters credit for being able to know a canned jibe — “I’m limiting it to an acre!” — that’s passed its sell-by date. Didn’t we do the rich-guy-with-big-houses thing with John McCain? And don’t Republicans like rich guys, not resent them?
Which brings us to Dad — Ward Cleaver in the body of Mitt Romney, stuck at least for a while with this sprawling, unruly brood. Cue dog-in-crate-on-roof joke.
Actually, Romney should hope the whole gang stays around as long as possible. In the field of Cains and Pauls, a stiff, generality-spouting Romney looks like the only president on the stage. I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food.
I was impressed, again, with Bachmann’s stagecraft, and her ability to cloak the most outrageous statements in non-threatening garb. Bachmann, post-downgrade, boasted of leading the charge against increasing the debt ceiling. “That turned out to be the right answer,” she said. Really? Failing to increase the debt ceiling would have made this week’s stock market roller coaster look like the kiddie ride.
When the Washington Examiner’s Byron York had the guts to ask Bachmann about her statement on submitting to her husband’s edict to study tax law — you go, Byron! — Bachmann had the actor’s instinct to milk the audience reaction as long as possible. When the boos started, she smiled, and waited, and smiled again, like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse she knows is fatally trapped. I think I saw her lick her lips, before saying, sweetly, “Thank you for that question, Byron.” He ought to have followed up —“So if submission means respect, does that mean your husband submits to you, as well?” — but who can blame him? At that point I’d probably have submitted, too.
Then again, it is hard to see Bachmann going the distance. The Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act sounds like something out of the Onion, not a serious piece of legislating.
Speaking of serious legislating, I haven’t said much about the substance of the debate because, honestly, there wasn’t much in the way of substance. A field that raises its hands in unison to renounce a 10-for-1 of spending cuts to tax increases is not a group that can be taken seriously. I kind of hoped Bret Baier would keep going to test the limits of their anti-tax craziness. Twenty to one? Hundred to one?
Over time, new candidates — welcome, Rick Perry — will join the crew. Some will be voted — or, more precisely, not voted — off the island. But judging from Thursday’s discussion, the real campaign debate may have to wait until the spring. By then, the silly jousting over who is the ideologically purest of them all will have ended. And maybe a serious debate about the country’s future can begin.
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