It’s painful. It’s horrendous. It’s grotesque. It’s another Republican presidential debate. Gazing at the behaviour of the candidates at the last Republican primary debate in Arizona, and the shop of horrors is bursting. Newt Gingrich tried to show how he should be less pleasant after his daughters had suggested he assume a presidential manner; Rick Santorum that he is, in fact, an alpha male (so claims Elspeth Reeve in The Atlantic Wire, Feb 22), Ron Paul that he is the farthest one from the lunatic fringe, at least in terms of foreign policy, and Mitt Romney that he is always there to scoop up the remains and limp to the next stage.
Commentators rarely rise about the subject they are commenting upon. The themes here are not Shakespearean, and chances of getting some gravitas from any of the candidates is nigh impossible. This is Reeve again: ‘When Newt laughs, he looks like one of those old-fashioned pictures of the moon laughing in a scary-jolly way.’
Some of the arguments also had a celestial quality to them. Topics were light, and when heavy, rarely occupied the candidates for long. Romney argued for a ban on earmarks, a self-serving scheme where law makers direct money into targeted home-state projects. ‘Sometimes the president, the administration, doesn’t get it right,’ Santorum weakly countered (LA Times, Feb 22).
Obama was attacked for ‘infanticide’ regarding his stance on birth control in general and the position that religious employers provide contraception in their employee insurance plans. Santorum saw an opening to jab Romney, suggesting that Obamacare was simply Romneycare writ large. Ron Paul, just to boost the comedic aspect of proceedings, came up with the assertion that shows that the Republican Party is somewhere in the twentieth century. ‘The morning after pill is nothing more than a birth control pill.’ Pills, after all, ‘can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society.’
All the candidates cheered on tougher immigration restrictions, and lauded Arizona’s mad dog confrontation of Mexicans. A great wall along the US-Mexico border was suggested. Romney: ‘I think you see a model here in Arizona.’
Back to the light nonsense then, with the four candidates being asked ‘what word’ would best describe them. Delusions permitted. Paul: consistent; Santorum: courage; Romney: resolute; Gingrich: Cheerful. Astonishing.
In the end, while Santorum is huffing and puffing and attempting to blow the Romney house down, his seriousness beyond his role as rabblerouser is questionable. He throws bombs with childlike fury, yet barely knows what he is targeting. He sees a creeping totalitarianism without even understanding the meaning of the term. John Cassidy in The New Yorker (Feb 20) pulls no punches, suggesting that Santorum is really operating a failing, vaguely ridiculous rearguard, ‘a religious extremist, a militarist scaremonger, and a peddler of very many views that would prove poison in a Presidential race.’ His views are so extreme they are hysterical. Obama, if one is to believe him, is leading the nation to the guillotine. (Obama, the Jacobin, revolutionary drunk rebel – how sweet.)
Gingrich does not come across much better, suggesting in anachronistically absurd terms that Obama is engaging in a ‘war on religion’. The other candidates agree. But the only clear thing to come out of these debates is their thinness, their vapid deliberations, the back biting that is doing the candidates no favours at all. While there is no reason for Obama to put his feet up, he will be pleased at the way things are going so far.