The Republican debate held at 5 p.m. last night, which featured the current 11th through 17th most popular GOP candidates in the 2016 field, was perhaps the least consequential national debate in American history. This is, of course, exactly why it was so uniquely satisfying to watch.
For the country at-large, this undercard debate—featuring Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and someone named Jon Gilmore—offered next to nothing. The answers were canned and the sparring was nonexistent. With the exception of Graham, a high-ranking sitting senator, and perhaps Fiorina, a competent female politician in a party thirsting for them, it’s hard to imagine any “candidate” on that stage playing a meaningful role in national politics moving forward.
Together, the group was a buffet of sad career trajectories. Perry and Jindal had meteoric careers that exploded well before orbit. Along with Santorum, they once appeared to sit at the top of their party, only to be abandoned for flubbing on a national stage, or in the case of Santorum, merely for hanging around too long. Pataki, the ex-governor of New York, and Gilmore, the ex-governor of Virginia, were essentially interchangeable—just the latest old, flabby, anonymous white men to fall off a conveyor belt. Fiorina seems to check plenty of boxes—business experience, smooth speaker, not a man—and thus she appeared to be openly flabbergasted that she had been so quickly reduced to this. Graham, whose voice quavered all afternoon, legitimately sounded as if he was on the verge of tears.
The debate opened with the candidates asked to address questions regarding their “electability,” which essentially amounted to moderators Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum stating why each candidate sucks, and then having them try and argue that they don’t suck. “Why should someone vote for you now?” Perry was asked. After it was noted that she lost her only previous election, Fiorina was prompted to explain how comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher was not “a stretch.” To Santorum: “Has your moment passed, Senator?” To Graham: “How can [Republicans] trust you?” To Gilmore: “You ran for the White House once and lost. You ran for the Senate one time and lost. You haven’t held public office in 13 years.”
Throughout the debate, each marginal representative of the Republican party was forced to reckon with his (or her) own irrelevance. In response they delivered thunderous applause lines that were met with complete silence. When the cameras flashed back to the moderators, it appeared as if there were perhaps three dozen people sitting in an arena that holds 20,000. The candidates’ increasingly desperate promises to erase Obama’s legacy or destroy Planned Parenthood or pointedly surveil Muslims did not fall on deaf ears. They fell on no ears.
Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry—each at one point hailed as the savior of the party and of America, each evil and toxic in different and similar ways—frequently had to directly address Donald Trump, a reality television star who had reduced their life’s work to basically nothing without even really trying, and who was, at those exact moments, probably not even listening. Like watching a little kid wildly flail at a piñata he can’t reach, it would have been cruel if it wasn’t so funny.
Why were they there? Why was anyone there? Well, to not show would have been to admit total defeat with the calendar still five months away from the election year itself. After all, plenty of serious presidential candidates across history were given little chance with 16 months to go, including, as they were all extremely eager to point out, Ronald Reagan in his attempt to unseat incumbent president Gerald Ford in 1975. Reagan, of course, eventually slithered his way to the Oval Office.
And who knows, maybe one of these crying clowns will make their way up the polls in the coming months, as they all seemed to warn. It seems unlikely, but it’s not exactly as if the rest of the field is incredibly inspiring. Who knows. But, Fiorina aside, if one of them does, it won’t be because of anything that happened yesterday. Yesterday wasn’t for the candidates, and it wasn’t for Republicans. It was for the exact opposite population: people who savor Republican schadenfreude. (And also for the content mill.)
Granted, the supply of Republican schadenfreude has far outstripped demand in the seven-plus years of the Obama presidency. (That this meaningless debate between GOP carcasses was happening at the exact time that Jon Stewart filmed the final episode of his increasingly meaningless Daily Show was a funny little coincidence.) But, even still, this debate was something rare and special: a very public, formal and ritual flogging of both longtime and aspiring Republican villains.
For some reason, the debate lasted for two hours, I guess because the later debate was also scheduled for two hours, and keeping up an air of legitimacy was the only thing that allowed any of these people to retain even a sliver of dignity. But what it all amounted to was seven deeply frustrated fools eating shit for 120 straight minutes in front of a national television audience. I have always wanted them all to go away, but maybe they should in fact stick around for a bit.
[images via Getty]