If there’s a difference between last night’s GOP presidential candidate debate and novovirus, it’s hard to determine. Both have the same general effect and both seem to last about as long. The three-hour marathon held at the shrine of St. Ronald was noteworthy for what it underscored: with eleven candidates at the main debate, and four more at the junior varsity version, the Republican party is hard put to come up with a candidate who looks like a potential winner.
The focus of the debate was on Donald Trump, who has emerged as the perfect GOP candidate for a large segment of the party base. Trump is unadulterated ID–naturally bellicose, reliably unapologetic, and without a shred of self-reflection. Trump never fails to deliver, in large part because out of all the candidates, he has the best understanding of how to work the media. Caught saying something offensive, he simply contradicts himself, knowing full well that the original insult will be replayed. Case in point: his slam about Carly Fiorina’s looks.
In this case, Fiorina dished it right back at Trump, using the debate to try to score points with women. On the basis of her well-rehearsed spontaneous comeback, Fiorina was quickly declared the winner of the debate by mainstream media outlets. Her ascent neatly fits the media need to shake things up after gorging on Trump’s junk food diet for three months.
By an objective standard, Fiorina did pretty well during the debate. But let’s face it. She’s no more electable than Trump. As CEO of Hewlett Packard, she presided over one of the biggest self-inflicted corporate disasters of modern times. During her tenure, the value of the iconic company dropped by more than half and 30,000 employees lost their jobs. In the words of Yale University management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, “You couldn’t pick a worse, non-imprisoned CEO to be your standard-bearer.”
What Fiorina and Trump and Ben Carson, who coats his radical veneer with the sheen of civility (at least when he’s not talking about us), have in common is that they are outsiders. The base clearly has had it with politicians who believe in incremental change or in reality. There’s a segment of voting Republicans who are convinced that they will get their way by sheer force of will, compromise be damned.
That’s why Marco Rubio, the erstwhile boy wonder of the GOP, essentially told the taxpayers of Florida that he no longer works for them because Washington so dysfunctional that “I’m leaving the Senate.” (Rubio also reassured us during a question about climate change that “America is not a planet.”)
The prevailing winds don’t offer much help to the establishment Republicans, most notably Jeb Bush. Trump has said a lot of crazy things on the campaign trail, but truer words were never spoken than when he called Bush “low energy” and even produced a video showing someone falling asleep during a Bush speech. The man who was supposed to stroll to the nomination has proven to be one of the least exciting candidates in recent memory, which is saying a lot when you recall Mitt Romney. The other one-time GOP savior, Scott Walker, has seen his support collapse in recent weeks and was virtually indistinguishable from the carpet at the debate.
The debate did offer the candidates a chance to express some reliable homophobia. Mike Huckabee defended Kim Davis on the grounds that Muslims in prison can grow beards. (Insert obvious joke here.) Ted Cruz complained bitterly about his past support for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts without specifying why, although marriage equality was clearly one irritant. As a reminder, not saying anything antigay doesn’t mean you disagree with the general sentiments: Carly Fiorina has a track record of opposition to marriage equality second to none.
In the end, the GOP has to pick someone to run for president. The base wants an outsider who plays to visceral issues (immigration, terrorism) in blunt language. There are really only two candidates who fit that bill: Trump and Cruz. In the meantime, many of the others are trying to refashion themselves into acceptable alternatives. But being acceptable to the base means will be a curse in the general election, because most voters are much more moderate. So the GOP is left with a long slog through the primaries as it tries to find some kind of balance.
It won’t be a pretty sight–unless, of course, you’re a Democrat.