The Speed-Dating “Debate”

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I have mixed feelings about the two hours I gave last night to the Voters First Presidential Forum. On the one hand, it exhibited about as clearly as is humanly possible the ideological uniformity of the vast GOP field; we heard fourteen versions of pretty much the same rap. On the other hand, the speed-dating format–a radio host firing mostly softball questions at the fourteen candidates, three of them appearing remotely from Washington with awkward tape-delay pauses, eleven hustling on and off the stage so rapidly that you feared one of them would bust his or her posterior perching on the bar-stool chair made available–meant these birds were allowed to get away with rhetorical murder.

In some cases, that provided an opportunity for viewer fun. Every time Carly Fiorina mentioned her ascent to the CEO position at HP, no telling how many people out there yelled at the screen, as I did, “and then I was fired.” (Similarly, when she was asked the toughest thing she had ever had to do, “laying off 30,000 employees at HP” came to mind pretty quickly).

By and large, though, the absence of any clash or follow-up encouraged a lot of straight spin and false impressions. Ben Carson was able to float above the fray with pleasant-sounding generalities; if you didn’t know his world-view was a crazy as a sack of weasels, you didn’t find that out last night. Similarly, Bobby Jindal’s presentation of himself as the chief executive of a happy, exquisitely governed state was rather starkly at odds with his abysmal approval ratings back home and his manifest eagerness to get the hell out of Louisiana at every opportunity.

Did anybody “win” or “lose?” Hard to say. Ted Cruz was at his oily best, unless you objected to his depiction of bloviating on the Senate floor as a profile in courage. Lindsey Graham got to show off his famous sense of humor, which in this case meant a poor-taste revival of Lewinsky jokes. John Kasich, probably unknown to 90% of viewers, managed to reduntantly get out his Reagan-era resume and his “voters want to know we get them” version of compassionate conservatism. Speaking of Reagan, I heard five references to the Great One. Scott Walker very efficiently presented his electability argument. As promised, Rand Paul gave us a taste of his old man’s anti-interventionism, and coped pretty well with the only hostile questioning of the night (the moderator clearly loved him some surveillance programs).

The worst speakers in my judgment were Marco Rubio, who was really flat, and Rick Perry, who seemed frantic, and Jindal, who managed to be both rushed and repetitive. It would be easy to call Donald Trump, who refused to appear because the principal sponsor, the Union-Leader, had insulted him, was either the big winner for avoiding the cramped format or the big loser for missing a chance to be superficial. But probably the big winner was Fox News, whose much-maligned first official debate will seem airier with its mere ten or eleven candidates, and a chance of occasional clash.

And that leads to the strangest thing about last night’s clambake: it was all premised on a whine. It was the project of early-state newspapers who resented Fox News’ substitution of national poll numbers for hours spent trudging through New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina as a measurement of candidate standing. And so we got the conceit, expressed by the moderator and a few pandering candidates, that this was the real deal, placing real voters in real places in their proper place as winnowers of the big field. Trouble is, they didn’t do their job.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.