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not so hot in cleveland

there are definitely better things i could be talking about than the first republican candidates' debates last night, like for instance the debate that took place here in canada between our political leaders, which will get less attention and have more of an impact on my life. but it's like giving me the choice between broccoli and french fries. i like broccoli. i would happily eat broccoli. but it's really difficult for my green friend to compete with the greasy, nutrition-less appeal of a plate of fries. it's just so mindlessly comforting and at the same time carries the allure of sin. i did eat my broccoli last night, and i had much to say about it on twitter [and i'll get around to saying some of it here, eventually], but later in the evening i gave in and devoured a messy, two-hour serving of fries.

"the republicans" has to be my favourite television reality show ever. i was sad to see it end last time, especially since the boring guy was the last one left and then things had to get all serious and election-y. that will happen again, of course, but until then, i'm going to enjoy every meretricious minute of the spectacle that is the nomination process, being fought between a group of people i would never, ever vote for.

i think the fact that i would never vote for these people gives me an objectivity that a lot of people are lacking, and it is in that spirit that i present to you my unbiased evaluation of everyone's performance last night.

first up, let's talk about the "kids' table debate", or the "b-team debate", or whatever demeaning name you want to call it to ensure that the people participating feel that much worse about their position. before getting into that, though, i strongly recommend you check out rachel maddow's thoughts on the organisation of the debate and fox news' treatment of the seven "likely going to be out of the race soon thanks to fox news" candidates. like me, maddow doesn't have a horse in this race, but she's been doing a pretty eloquent job of standing up for people like rick santorum, lindsey graham and rick perry, all of whom doubtless think she's going to hell.

i concur with her that forcing candidates into "tiers" rather than simply hosting two debates with an equal number of candidates is a horrible idea, all the more so because no one here in canada even televised the first damned debate, so i've only seen clips of it. here are my truncated thoughts based on what the media have chosen to show me:

carly fiorina :: generally acknowledged to have been the break out star of the evening, ms. fiorina shook off the embarrassment of having left her closing remarks on a hotel printer, where they were found by one of rand paul's campaign staff. you'd think that the former head of hewlett-packard would know how a printer works. then again, seeing what she did at hp, maybe you wouldn't.

dom joked when she first started talking that she was basically like lucille bluth brought to life and now that's all i can see. i really hope that she comes to the next debate [where she'll likely be invited to sit with the adults, based on the comments from last night] with a vodka martini in hand. this campaign needs more vodka martinis.

in point of fact, nothing that i saw of fiorina really convinced me that she's that special, but she speaks with a certain authority and knows how to get a good witticism in, and based on the fact that she gave the speech she left on the printer pretty much verbatim, she's clearly good at memorizing things, which will be useful when meeting foreign dignitaries. the effusive praise directed at her from the media, i'm reminded most of the first republican debate last time around, when michele bachmann benefited from low expectations, kept her inexperience and her crazy in check and smacked down the boys at their own game. she dropped out the night of the first primary in a state where she'd won the dubious-value straw poll a couple of months before. i expect no less of fiorina.

jim gilmore :: i'm not gonna lie, i had to google this guy in order to write something about him. he used to be governor of virginia but is most noted for being a loser these days: he tried the presidential run thing two campaign cycles ago and dropped out a year and a half before the election and he tried running for the senate in virginia, where voters in his home state handed him a crushing 2-to-1 margin defeat. last night, his key points were talking about 9/11, how he was on a committee that warned that an attack was coming [apparently forgetting that the people not heeding the warning were republicans] and how americans need to prepare themselves for a long war against isis. i'd say that those comments are likely to turn americans off, but most americans will never get to hear them. i expect that gilmore will stick around just long enough to beat his previous time in the race and then we'll never hear of him again.

lindsey graham :: the man who single-handedly made the attack on benghazi a major expense for taxpayers and who said that all iranians were liars had somehow emerged in this campaign as the likeable one. footage of him getting emotional when talking about joe biden and his admittedly funny video response to donald trump giving out his cell phone number at a campaign event made the long-time politician a little more approachable and human than any of his counterparts. but you know what they say about nice guys.

indeed, lindsey graham appeared to fumble through the proceedings, perhaps aware that just being in the depressing empty arena was harming his campaign. anyone as politically canny as he should have opted out of the losers' circle and just posted a youtube video of him commenting on the big boys debate or something. anything would have been better than what happened. i was looking forward to watching the candidates try to out-benghazi each other at some point in the future, but it looks like for that to happen, someone else will have to carry graham's pet issue forward.

talk to ben carson
bobby jindal :: last time around, jindal said he was fed up with the gop being the party of stupid people. now that he's running for their nomination, our boy bobby has embraced the stupid full-on, but it doesn't seem to have helped. he was so invisible last night that i can't say with any authority whether his performance was good or bad. his closing comments, posted on his web site, did seem to bring the stupid with such authority that even rick perry looked surprised.

jindal's statement that "immigration without assimilation is an invasion" is probably an attempt to butter the toast of those who have been drawn to donald trump's arguments on the subject, but jindal should know that those people eat red meat, not toast, and they're not going to pay any heed to someone saying outrageous things about immigrants if he's not shouting and beating his chest [preferably literally] while saying them.

george pataki :: no one seems to know what the hell he's doing with this gang, least of all pataki himself. his web site hasn't even bothered to post anything he said at last night's debate, although they do push the fact that he's the top choice among republican voters in the state of new york [where he used to be governor]. that's nice, but last time i checked, registered republicans in new york couldn't fill a phone booth, so it's not really a big accomplishment. the better way to phrase that would have been to say that the fact that he was elected governor of new york should be taken as evidence that he can sway those all-important independent voters and moderate democrats, but his campaign is so damn boring that people probably wouldn't hang around long enough to let him finish the thought.

rick perry :: screwed out of a position at the big debate by fox news' shenanigans, perry had a lot of reason to be righteously angry. personally, given his performances at the debates last time around, i think it might have been a blessing that he got to practice his debate skills with the also-rans before trying them out on a larger stage. of course, having been excluded from the first debate, it's unlikely he'll ever make it to that larger stage. the clips i saw of him made it look like he did pretty well- sort of like the candidate everyone thought he would be last time. i imagine that's small comfort to him as he cries into his texas-sized mug of coffee this morning and sees carly fiorina hogging the tiny amount of glory reserved for the play-debate, but it's better than forgetting a major policy initiative live on air. [and donald trump has a point about the glasses.]

rick santorum :: pity poor santo. last time he ran a miracle campaign, kicking mitt romney's gold-plated ass through large swathes of the country before ultimately being bested by the party establishment and buckets of money. last time, he ran a hell of a ground game in iowa and came out the shock winner after languishing at the very bottom of the polls for virtually the entire time up to that point. but last time, he could get his message out through the same channels as everybody else. this time, his low standing in the polls condemns him to the second tier while ted cruz steps into his pavement-pounding shoes as the anointed one of the far right. from what i could see, santo's game is as good as it ever was- he's not the sharpest tool in the box, but he's disturbingly sincere in his views, which is what people warmed to last time. it's just that now, no one gets to hear him talk.

for what it's worth, i think that the party should have backed off and let him have the nomination last time. the chances of them defeating obama were always slender and giving the tea partiers a candidate they could really get behind only to have him lose badly would have allowed the moderates who supposedly dominate the party to right [or centralize] the ship for the more winnable 2016 election. but that's just me, and fewer republicans listen to me than are listening to santorum, at least for now.

that's it for the warm-up act, who should be flattered to even get that billing, since it's normal for the show promoter to let the openers have a damn audience, even if they are only there to whip eggs and heckle. [and by the way, when party administrator-in-chief reince preibus says that it would have been impossible to move a big audience in for the first debate, clear them out and then bring them, or another audience in for the later show, i can only assume that the man has never been to a movie theatre, where they do that every single day and night.]

so now we move on to... the headliners:



jeb bush :: cnn commentator and thinking person's man-candy van jones described bush's performance as being like watching oatmeal go cold and i can't really improve on that. i'm starting to wonder if this guy even wants to run for president, because for a lot of the time he was on screen, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else even more desperately than i did. the odds-on favourite to win the nomination and the man with the biggest balance in the bank sounded a lot like a balloon deflating for most of the night, which may turn out to be an apt metaphor for his performance. i swear i could hear the sound of his big-money backers figuring out where to shift their support. he lacked the energy to even flame out.

ben carson :: at times, the soft-spoken neurosurgeon seemed to have some interesting things to say, and by interesting, i mean "sane", which is not exactly what he's been known for up to now. seriously, i had trouble believing it was the same person. clearly, someone has adjusted his medication. while that makes him less entertaining for those of us wanting a train wreck, it probably makes him more interesting to those serious folk who are watching this early because they want to make an informed decision.

sadly for mr. carson, he also seemed out of his depth and it might have been better had he been able to start out at the kids' table, where he undoubtedly would have shone. the only questions of the night on race in america and the black lives matter movement was directed at him and only him and he should have taken the hosts to task, but instead he tried to play the "i don't see colour" card, quoting pretty much directly from steve carrell in "the office". he doesn't seem to get that racism isn't about how a black man sees others, but how others see him [and how that impacts his life]. this was his shot and he whiffed. expect to see him and fiorina change places if the debates are organized in the same way next time.

chris christie :: i was starting to wonder if the gastric bypass procedure the new jersey governor had had seen his balls removed as well. where was the guy who stumped so well [too well] for romney in 2012 [before hug-gate]? the combative, straight-shooter who republicans wished had run in 2012 had been seriously diminished by scandals that honestly seemed like the kind of thing leaders are normally able to shake off. apparently, people in the northeast take traffic way more seriously than i realized.

the big man acquitted himself pretty well last night, sparring with rand paul about security versus privacy in an exchange that somehow seemed to make them both look better. he landed a couple of vintage christie lines, as if to remind us that the guy who ordered people to quit working on their tans and leave the jersey shore in advance of hurricane sandy was still alive. after a flat start, i think he's bought himself a little more time.

ted cruz :: look, ted, if you're going to carry the mantle of right wing crazy through this campaign, you're gonna have to step it up.

cruz was nowhere near as outrageous and entertaining as he can be and when he's not being outrageous, ted cruz is really boring. that sucks for those of us looking for laughs, but don't fool yourself: it sucks for him. because the constituency he's trying to represent thrives on candidates who say ridiculous, over-the-top things, who stand atop the mountain and scream "i am here and i am batshit insane". he's gonna have to bring it from now on.

i do give cruz credit for the most cringe-worthy moment of the night, when he started talking about his father's alcoholism, his own difficult childhood, and how they all eventually found redemption through fundamentalist religion. i'm sure he meant this to show his humanity, but what it really showed is that his presidential campaign and possibly his entire political career is an attempt to work out issues that should have been addressed by a therapist. tmi.

mike huckabee's army
mike huckabee :: one of the candidates fighting the concept that he might have passed his best before date, the former arkansas governor certainly laid claim to the title of "man most likely to out-trump trump". he already compared the effect proposed iran nuclear deal to leading jews to ovens for no reason anyone can figure out other than that it would grab him some headlines [which it did]. last night, his assertion that "the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things" was significantly weirder than anything that fell out of the donald's mouth, although it isn't getting anything like the same amount of coverage.

on the other hand, huckabee seems completely unable to tap into the reserves of personal charm that made him john mccain's toughest competitor in the 2008 primaries. the man played table hockey with stephen colbert, for crying out loud.

at the moment, huckabee is a threat chiefly to ted cruz and rick santorum [and possibly rick perry], since they all occupy the hardline social conservative space. i don't think that any of those men leapt ahead of the others last night, but i think that huckabee did just slightly better.

john kasich :: fox news basically gerrymandered the qualifying conditions of the debate to ensure that kasich got in and rick perry didn't and based on last night's performance, it's not hard to see why. a heartbeat away from being pushed off the dais in his home state, kasich came off as likeable, smart and willing to risk pissing off the party brass. with a base that is very sick of politics as usual, that last point is important. kasich never came off as trying to stick it to the man [i think that's illegal for republicans anyway], but he never pandered to the accepted gop line. his response on how he would still love his daughters if they were lesbians got the biggest cheer of the night and while that might have been a factor of being the hometown favourite, it's in starak contrast to the 2012 campaign when the audience booed a gay soldier serving in afghanistan. he may have inadvertently exposed an important difference this time around: the party rank and file want someone who's different more than they want someone who's conservative.

fox news clearly like him, political pundits have been mentioning him as a potential dark horse candidate who might surprise us all and after last night, a lot more people know who he is.

rand paul :: following in the footsteps of his father, young rand has entered the race and was even an early favourite. he pitches himself as different sort of republican, but finding the points of difference can be tricky. his strays significantly from the party line on issues of privacy/ national security and on foreign engagement, but most of what he says sounds like a watered down version of his father, lacking the conviction to follow the libertarian path as far as it goes.

senator paul was more pugnacious and ready to scrap than anyone on the stage last night and was rewarded for his determination, getting in a shouting match with chris christie [a fight which had been simmering for months] and getting smacked down by donald trump in response to being the only candidate willing to argue with him.

ironically, he lacks both his father's gravitas and levity, and most of his attacks and attempts to interrupt others made him sound shrill rather than dynamic. i expect he'll stick around, simply because there's no one else to represent the libertarian faction of the party, but a lot of people were probably left wondering what all the rand paul fuss was about.

marco rubio :: you make one incredibly awkward grab for a water bottle on national television and all of a sudden, you're a has been. one of the darlings of the tea party movement when he was first elected and considered a prize endorsement in 2012, rubio had lost a lot of his lustre following that "what the hell were you thinking?" moment when responding to the state of the union address in 2013 and because his views on immigration are at odds with the deeply conservative base that initially supported him.

last night, however, marco got his mojo back. he looked and sounded slick, but not so much that he seemed "politician-y". his youthful enthusiasm came off as passionate, not naïve. he seemed articulate and, most important, very, very different than hillary clinton. his one major bungle- making claims about his record on abortion that are contradicted by his record- either got missed by the media or they just don't want to interrupt their renewed romance with  such a trifle.

i'll be honest, i never got what the big deal was with him, but i feel like after last night, i understand it a little.

donald trump :: there's no denying that he was targeted by the fox news moderators who feel, rightly, that trump is making a mockery of their campaign, but surely that was expected. trump bragged about the fact that he wasn't prepping for the debate and it showed, with the man of the moment being unable to answer a single policy question in an articulate way. indeed, much of what he said came out as just barely more cogent than the ramblings of  a schizophrenic, leaping from typically thin-skinned defensiveness to claiming he donated to the clinton foundation in order to force bill and hillary to come to his wedding. [i can only imagine that the lady herself had to strap on some depends last night in order to protect against the side effects of laughing so hard.] questions are being raised today about whether or not his performance seemed presidential, however those miss the point: trump has never seemed in the least presidential, but he's leading the polls anyway.

the fact that he can't speak about what he'd actually do won't damage him with his supporters, especially- it certainly hasn't so far. in fact, his "tone" as jeb bush called it seems to render him able to sell anything to his followers, garnering him a round of applause for extolling the virtues of single-payer health care.

i think a lot of people who had only experienced trump the politician through commentary and sound bites probably had the same reaction that i did while watching the blair witch project: it looks flashy and raw, there's an inordinate amount of buzz around it, but when you actually sit down and pay attention to it for a couple of hours, you realize that there's nothing else to it.

scott walker :: speaking of having a lot of buzz, the wisconsin governor walked on stage riding comfortably in third place with a lot of people picking him to go far in the campaign and carve out a huge future role for himself in the party. to that i say: him?

sure, he seems to have the tenacity of a serious case of crabs in wisconsin, but he was barely present last night, even when he was talking, and every time he opened his mouth, all i could hear were sad trombone sounds. his most memorable comments- talking about his radical stand against access to abortion and going on about the blood of christ- made him look creepy: the kind of guy you wouldn't trust to mind your dog, let alone your country. he's too popular within the party to fall completely by the wayside, but with kasich and rubio acquitting themselves so much better, i don't expect to see him so close to centre stage next time around.

overall, this year's cast of the republicans isn't quite the dream team we had last time, but it still promises an exciting season ahead. thus far, we don't have a good replacement for the faux-intellectual pretensions of newt gingrich [although trump is filling his role in some respects]. and if this is going to fulfill its great entertainment potential, someone is going to have to bring the socially conservative crazy. but the best part of this season is that there's no mitt romney character. jeb bush was supposed to play his part this season, but he seems to be floundering. that means that this is anyone's game. any one of these people could be put on the track to become president of the most powerful nation in the world. and that's about the best news that came out of last night.

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