Worth Our Time?

The question that mattered as the first Republican “debate” ended last night was not who had done best or worst, but had watching three and a half hours of political posturing been worth our viewing time?

It’s not a tough call. We don’t think so.

Beginning with what the press likes to call “the undercard,” the one and a half hour intro to seven candidates for the Republican nomination who had not made the cut, i.e., whose public survey ratings were below arbitrariness, managed to prove that those whose fates were not being sealed even as they spoke were no better nor worse than standard issue.

The south’s Senator Lindsey Graham gave his patented “I’m a warrior” speech; Carly Fiorina came on tough but general. Rick Perry promoted his economic resuscitation of Texas (a feat many will deny). Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum was unchanged, still feeling clearly that having produced seven children in the midst of international chaos proved his bravery and guts.

Former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia rambled pleasantly, clearly a man with a past and very little future. Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal sparkled for a second and then fell back into God’s hands. And George Pataki, perhaps the most qualified candidate in the group, spoke well and managed to convince no one.

The event was largely painless, but also largely meatless, but for Ms. Fiorina’s drive and directness. She perhaps more than others benefitted from the exposure.

After “Happy Hour,” the real fireworks were supposed to take place. Here there were some definite advances.

We suspect someone got to New York’s Donald Trump and told him to shut up unless spoken to, to stand straight and look severe and presidential. He took this advice seriously but within five minutes had, if one is a Republican or even not, torpedoed his chances with the long-suffering Republican opposition by not promising to support whomever the party nominated. He also would not promise not to run as a third party candidate. The Cleveland hall echoed with disdain and boos. Thereafter what Mr. Trump had to say was either insulting (to the female Fox moderator) or simply unattractive generally. He seemed to take every bit of disapproval personally (as well he might) but he was not gracious about accepting criticism. He’s a guy’s guy, and his affection for and friendships with other nominees was evident.

And if we’re not mistaken, we thought we heard him say that Hillary Clinton would not be the Democratic nominee.

With no record of political success or activism, apart from having donated to various candidates’ campaigns over the years, Trump had little else to say, and no direct, informed, thoughtful answers to questions about the world in which we live today. As a blusterer he’s the top. As a candidate a disaster.

And yet he probably didn’t do himself in, not completely, or certainly not quite yet.

Who surprised us was Mario Rubio and Chris Christie, and Ohio’s Governor John Kasich. More of these anon, after we report that the adult in the room this time really was Florida’s former Governor Jeb Bush, who performed stalwartly and steadily and who alone of all ten candidates seemed presidential.

Kentucky’s Rand Paul appeared as the little brother no one wants to play with who won’t be left behind. He pestered his big brothers and reminded them as often as he could that he, too, was there, had ideas, agreed or disagreed. He was a child.

The neurosurgeon Ben Carson was uninspiring until the very end of the program when suddenly he caught fire. Least familiar of the ten, he enhanced his chances with humor and directness and honesty, and impressed a great many focus groups.

And Arkansan Mike Huckabee has returned to form, speaking easily, comfortably about terrible things. He elevated his own stature last night, perhaps even returning to the level of his last appearance on the national stage eight years ago.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came off smirking, behaving like a smart-aleck.

Texas’ Senator Ted Cruz, he of the vaunted debating style, did himself no favors by pretending to be Ted Cruz, caped Crusader. He reminded us of why we always feel relief when he promises to support and then doesn’t show up to vote.

For all his youth and lack of experience, Florida Senator Marco Rubio pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made a solid and surprising impression, one consisting of thought, word, and deed, and the ability to be serious when required. This guy deserves some of our continuing attention.

And so does Chris Christie, coiled like a prize-fighter, ready to punch or please. He seemed direct, honest, forthright, and capable, whether or not one agreed with his positions.

Governor Kasich of Ohio, on home ground, was buoyed by his local backers, and for most of the hour and a half sailed undisturbed through treacherous waters. Only near the end did his ship begin to show a little wear, its sails luffing noticeably in his conclusion. But here’s a guy with experience, know-how, who is currently in office, running a major operation in Ohio, with ideas, even-handedness, and foresight. He may have snuck onto the line-up thanks to the Republican National Committee, but he was a good choice, and would be.

What we learned? We have months and miles to go before we, any of us, sleep comfortably in the knowledge that the country is in competent hands.


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