The Washington Post

Boring mid-season episode of Republican Presidential Debate


The answer, for the CNN National Security Debate, was, “No.”

This was an uninspired mid-season episode that was probably necessary to advance the plot. But there were no real cliffhangers, except at the very end of the debate when Rick Santorum began to say something about militant socialists and radical islamists in South America bonding together to destroy our way of life. But no one pays attention to his subplot, anyway.

It was like watching a figure skater fail to qualify for medals. It was perfectly fine. Nobody fell. No one exploded in flames. In fact, the most exciting part of this debate was what didn’t happen. Herman Cain didn’t bring up 9-9-9. Perhaps this was a good thing. The definition of a successful day, when it comes to national security, is a day on which nothing too eventful happens. Sure, there’s the color scale of Increasing and Decreasing Threat-i-ness, ably represented this evening in some of the candidates’ ties, but, by and large, you try to avoid too much excitement.

This is not to say it was devoid of moments. Rick Santorum said that Africa was a country. (I think, after the success of that flub two debates ago, each of the recurring characters is contractually obligated to reprise it at least once, as long as the show runs.) Michele Bachmann referred to a mysterious entrepreneur named Steve Gates. Newt Gingrich made the somewhat wild-eyed suggestion that we could collapse the price of oil within a year by boosting U.S. production. Rick Perry said he favored the Monroe Doctrine, but you had the sense that it was only because he thought she was so good in Some Like It Hot.

The camera kept cutting to Ron Paul for no apparent reason. This was especially exciting because people often began their sentences with “I agree with Ron Paul,” and he sometimes got a terrified, harried look as they began industriously shovelling words into his mouth, the look a hedgehog crossing the road sometimes gets when it catches sight of an approaching steamroller.

Other than that, it was very routine and somewhat dry. If this debate walked into a bar with the other debates, it would have to work pretty hard to induce anyone to take it home. It’s a six, at best, and some of these things have been eights. Even Herman Cain’s referring to Wolf Blitzer as “Blitz” wasn’t enough to redeem it.

Perhaps the trouble was that homeland security inspired only occasionally substantive answers. You had the sense that everyone was debating with an eye on the clock. Cain at one point said that when it comes to deciding whether to continue foreign aid, “it depends upon priorities....It may be worthwhile to continue. It may not,” which is a polite way of saying, “I am unprepared for this question, kindly ask someone else.”

Huntsman kept saying that the real national security threat was the economy, which seems like one of those tricks they advise you to do on the essay section of the exam if you are unfamiliar with the question being posed.

Mitt Romney continued to inspire aggressive indifference in everyone around him, except Rick Perry, who seemed to notice for the first time that Mitt has been repeating a line about magnets and immigration at every debate and appeared momentarily terrified that he was stuck in some horrifying recurrent nightmare in which he shows up at a Republican debate for which he is unprepared.

But even he wasn’t so bad. Pity. Train wrecks are fun to watch. This was no train wreck.

I suppose people will agree that Gingrich won. He didn’t lose. He never loses at talking. He would be more likely to lose at breathing. His strength lies in stating things in a way that makes people watching at home nod vaguely to themselves and murmur, “Yeah, I see his point.”

All in all, it was the sort of episode where they announce that no one is going home and you shrug and admit that that probably makes sense. Cut to commercial.

I, for one, am starting to be impatient for the finale.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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