9.56 pm. The weirdest debate so far: feisty but surreal. If I had to game this one, I’d say Bachmann stayed alive, Perry began very strong but wobbled, Romney did fine, and Ron Paul shone the way only he can. But clearly the crowd loved Perry the most. God help us. 9.54 pm. Oh God. Wolf Blitzer is getting cutesy. I’m throwing up in my mouth right now. As to the White House, we’re getting more beds, fewer tsars, the collected works of Hayek, a babe-wife, a bust of Churchill, sacred constitutional documents, flava, and a Harley. 9.50 pm. Perry all but coopts the Paul-Huntsman view of Afghanistan, but then wants a remaining “presence”. He wants to adopt non-interventionism, while not scaring the horses. Santorum and Gingrich are the only ones with neoconservative knees jerking. It really is over: Iraq and Afghanistan have seen to that. The most we’ll ever do is Libya for the forseeable future. In the end, neoconservatism abolished itself. 9.46 pm. Santorum wants to banish any notion of blowback. And what does America stand for? American exceptionalism! Then Ron Paul insists that foreign occupations, not American freedom, were the contributing factor to 9/11. And Huntsman reiterates his commitment to getting out of Afghanistan. Another great conservative answer. 9.44 pm. Gingrich grabs a bowler hat and a cigar. Really: an enormous security crisis? He packed more fear and hyperbole into one sentence than even Cheney can. Meanwhile, altogether now: God Bless Ron Paul. 9.40 pm. Perry is revealing some kind of compassion – if it weren’t framed merely as a way to crack down on welfare recipients. Huntsman mentions H1-B visas, a vital topic. But, with this crowd, I suspect the point didn’t get across. 9.34 pm. A tiny piece of reality peeps in: Latinos exist and they can vote. Perry gets booed for providing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. He stands firm. But it’s obviously a problem for him. He has had to live in the real world in a border state so that this issue is not an easy abstraction. But it is for Bachmann and she takes another whack. Perry has a black eye, and Bachmann has had a stronger second half. 9.32 pm. “What would you do to remove illegal immigrants from this country?” Not: how do we secure the border? But: how do we find these eleven million people and throw them out? Santorum seems genuinely offended by the brutalism of his party base. Perry, meanwhile, seems to want to militarize the entire border region. 9.27 pm. Just before she stalked off the stage to get her make-up freshened up, Bachmann rallied around her hatred of the Affordable Care Act. It played well to the crowd. But this debate is revealing how much of the far right oxygen Perry has now removed. 9.23 pm. I was surprised by the ineptness of Perry’s attack on Romneycare. But I am more surprised at the cheering of someone dying because he couldn’t afford intensive care. Yes, the GOP is now not only cheering executions; they are cheering people dying because thay cannot afford any health insurance. Cheering death by poverty. “Yeah!” came the cry at the thought of a twentysomething dying because he didn’t have insurance. I didn’t think I could be more shocked by the instincts of those in the Republican base, but I just was. 9.22 pm. Romney is now accusing Obama of cutting Medicare spending. Do they hear themselves? 9.20 pm. Wow. Romney is actually talking about how to cut healthcare costs. No, really. 9.18 pm. Cain wants to cut healthcare costs by repealing the first systematic attempt to restrain healthcare costs. Then … tort reform. By the way, I count two shots by now. 9.13 pm. Bachmann is accusing Perry of being a giant, walking syringe from big government. And now she’s accusing him of being corrupt, because of his close association with a drug company behind the HPV vaccine. And then Perry actually says that he cannot be bought for $5,000; you need to bribe him with much more money than that! Amazingly inept response. Then the Christianists take aim – a Bachmann-Santorum tag-team in defense of “innocent little girls”. And Perry is reeling. 9.09 pm. Now the recession of 2007 – 2009 is the “Obama depression”. Is there anything these people will not say? Then they’re going to promote tax reform and tax cuts – which is Obama’s position. At no point has anyone intimated that drastic austerity right now might actually hurt the economy in the short term. The sheer crudeness of this panderthon is gob-smacking. That must be why this debate has become so execrable. It’s not CNN’s debate. It’s a CNN/Tea Party debate. And so you almost force these people to be as craven and moronic as possible. 9.06 pm. Huntsman again pushes his tax reform, especially corporate welfare. 9.03 pm. Perry is alleging that Ben Bernanke is in collusion with Obama to attack the financial stability of the country in order to facilitate Obama’s re-election. And that is close to treason. Seriously. The mild-mannered, principled Republican appointee is now a tool of Obama. And the man making ths kind of charge – and refusing to take back his implicit threat of mob violence – is the front runner. Good God. 8.56 pm. If this were still a secular conservative party, Jon Huntsman would be an overwhelming front-runner, don’t you think? But they can’t handle him, can they? This debate is depressing me much more deeply than I’d expected. It’s that twinkle in Perry’s beady eyes that reminds me of W – but without even the smidgen of vulnerability Bush Jr had. 8.51 pm. Every time he has been asked, Ron Paul has brought up spending on wars and empire. It’s his trademark now. And he has the usual support in the crowd. 8.49 pm. Does Perry really think that the stimulus created no jobs? Truly, a wretched little twerp, dispatched on Tea Party theology by Ron Paul. 8.46 pm. So far, we have repealed universal health insurance, Dodd-Frank, much of the Pentagon, the Department of Education, and are so-so on Medicare and social security. What should government actually do to help the economy? Cut and reform taxes. Unless Obama proposes to cut taxes. Then that’s more spending. 8.43 pm. Perry seems to believe that tax cuts will be paid for by tax raises. Seriously, this guy is frightening. He gets asked how to pay for tax cuts, and he gives us a lecture about spending. Now, tax cuts are government spending – just because Obama is proposing it. That really is staggering. They will offer no response on Obama’s jobs bill and can only really offer platitudes and doctrines. God this is depressing. 8.41 pm. Huntsman offers a serious case for tax reform. Goes down like a lead balloon. 8.39 pm. Round One: Romney wins easily on points, but Perry reveals a kind of smug teflon smirk that this crowd is lapping up. There you see the choice – and Perry seems to me to be winning. As he strutted onto the stage he looked like a rooster in an Italian suit. He really is like W, but as a parody of the brash, slick and callous side of him. 8.38 pm. I think I’m going to have a shot every time I see a non-white person in the crowd. 8.37 pm. Bachmann is also on a roll of buzzwords. Is Palinism contagious? 8.35 pm. So they all want to repeal Obamacare, but no one wants to touch the Medicare Prescription Drug Entitlement. Blow me over with a feather. 8.33 pm. Santorum just gave us the doctrine – with all the boogey words “big government”, “one-size fits all”, Washington blah blah blah. Zzzzz. 8.30 pm. And the biggest applause of the night goes to Newt Gingrich for saying that Barack Obama is “scaring” the American people. Then he uses what I think is a reference to the effects of a national default as if it were a free-floating threat to senior citizens. Pretty much disgusting, when you think about it.
8.21 pm. “Frightful”: a very Romney word. But then he goes for the kill. Is social security unconstitutional and should be taken from the federal government? A really fascinating exchange, this one, with real blood on the floor. And it’s clear who won the argument: Romney did. He pwned Perry on his core position (exposing his latest USAToday flip-flop for what it is), and on his attempt to quote Romney, Romney’s response was devastating. It was a bad misquote.
And yet, Perry seemed to win the exchange. He is like a distant offspring of Reagan and George W. Bush – but with much more radical ideas. I’m sorry but I do not find him charming. He has the charm of a televangelist, and the smugness.
8.17 pm. Bachmann blathered on about social security and Medicare. If this was supposed to be her come-back, she barely sputtered out of the gate.
8.10 pm. Well, it turns out you don’t need that Kazakh sweat pot to get through these debates. This is the trippiest, cheesiest, weirdest debate I’ve ever seen. A little WWF, a little American Idol, a little Olympics, a little reality show.
(Photo: governor Rick Perry, by Win McNamee/Getty.)