The ABC News Republican Debate in New Hampshire was a nightmare — specifically, the recurring nightmare I’ve had where the Republican candidates try to talk to me about contraception. It was exactly as awkward as you’d expect. “I can’t imagine a state banning contraception,” Mitt Romney said, in response to a question about contraception that George Stephanopoulos wound up repeating three times, marking the only time anyone has wanted to hear Mitt Romney say more on the subject. “Given the fact that there’s no state that wants to do so.”
And thus began the seven most awkward minutes of our collective lives.
Social issues in debates are always a bit of a sticky wicket, if that’s the phrase I want. This one was no exception. I suppose these questions were to be expected at the first debate where Rick Santorum, who was taking hard-line stances on social issues when he was in diapers, stood at one of the middle podiums. Santorum recently spent a pleasant hour or so yelling at an auditorium of students about how gay marriage was like polygamy. It was, predictably, uncomfortable.
But the moderators showed no mercy — to the candidates or to the American people, whose only wish for 2012 was not to hear whatever Romney — or, for that matter, anyone else in the field — might have to say about contraception. It hardly seems to be a priority for anyone onstage. Santorum had seven children, as does Jon Huntsman; Romney, five — one named Tagg, in the classic Romney tradition of giving children names that imply you forgot to come up with a name and just sort of glanced around your kitchen at the last possible moment.
Again and again Stephanopoulos asked about contraception, finally flustering Romney so much that he suggested they ask Ron Paul instead and noted, “Contraception, it’s working just fine, just leave it alone.”
The audience laughed. I think it was Freud who said that laughter was a mechanism we’ve evolved just for occasions like this, when Romney is telling us how well contraception works and our subconscious wants to go leap off a bridge somewhere, but our conscious mind is required to keep us in our seats at the Republican New Hampshire debate.
Finally Paul leaped in to talk. For Ron Paul, contraception is largely a matter of the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution. This came as a surprise to no one. Most things, with Ron Paul, come back to the Constitution somehow. One pictures his foreplay as consisting of very slowly reading the Article I, Section 8, to you as fife music plays. For forcing me to imagine such things, I fault only ABC.
And the social-issues questions continued to come hard and fast.
Soon the questions turned to gay marriage — if all the candidates oppose it, what options do committed same-sex couples have?
Newt Gingrich began to talk about “those things that are most intimately human between friends,” but perhaps sensing the audience’s desire to melt into their seats, never to be seen again, he ended the sentence by another path.
Next Huntsman made the calculated decision that it might actually be less awkward to return to contraception than to reiterate his support for civil unions. “I have seven kids,” Huntsman said. “Glad we’re off the contraception discussion.” The camera cut to his children, who had about the expression you would expect someone to have if one of your parents had joked about his use of contraception on the air. The entire audience felt seasick and tried to teleport elsewhere.
Santorum somewhat bewilderingly went on to explain that gay marriage was a federal issue, but gay adoption was a state issue — it makes little sense, he argued, to be married in one state and not another, but, apparently, losing one’s parents every time one crosses state lines is just another of those hazards of being a child nowadays.
And before they got through with it, Rick Perry insisted on bringing in Barack Obama’s war on religion, a favorite subject of his ever since he made that commercial accusing gay soldiers of destroying Christmas.
After this, to hear everyone launch into Serious Foreign Policy Questions came as a positive relief. Bomb Iran? Seems a bit harsh, but anything to get off the topic, for the love of all that is holy.
The only thing more awkward was when Newt Gingrich tried to appear to be a man of the people by saying that, were he not here, he’d be watching the college championship basketball games.
“Football,” corrected Santorum.
Yeeegh. Everyone winced sympathetically.
That was the debate all over.