I had an interesting focus group moment before and during the debate that told me all I needed to know about it (or so I thought). I couldn’t watch it in real-time because I was co-hosting a party of 100 or so welcoming the new New York Times bureau chief in Houston to Texas, and not a single person here in Austin, where George W. Bush lives and governs, seemed even to know or care that he and the five other Republicans were having at it while we made polite conversation and munched mushroom rugalach. Not a single person in the media–and trust me, this was an Ink-Stained-Wretchathon–seemed even remotely interested to see how Bush was sparring with yet another New England TV reporter. Not a single highly paid political spinner or slick lobster (as we privately refer to lobbyists) seemed even a little bit curious to learn about Bush’s positions on abortion, Social Security, or welfare recipientarians. The reason is that the damn thing didn’t matter and wouldn’t unless Bush or maybe McCain began speaking in tongues (or Alan Keyes stopped). They aren’t debates, no matter how many times the candidates stiffly turn to address each other. There’s nothing being debated here. They don’t really answer the questioner’s questions, and they don’t bother to rebuff each other’s lame parries. They regurgitate their pre-packaged sound bites (which are the astronaut food of political discourse; add water and serve), stand up straight, smile wide, and get the hell off stage.
That said, when I flipped on the Fox News Channel rerun at 11 my time, there was plenty to see. You’re right about Bush–he didn’t look right. At one point, I thought I saw him rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous or excited, but he wasn’t comfortable; he wasn’t in his element. Bush is all about one-on-one. He’s an absolutely fabulous retail politician. Put him in a social setting, where he gets to grab shoulders and kiss cheeks and twinkle, and he could be the next pope. But in front of a big audience he’s off his game. I haven’t seen every one of his speeches this campaign, obviously, but the ones I’ve seen have been really mediocre–not in the writing but the delivery. In this way he isn’t Reagan, and he isn’t his dad, and he isn’t Clinton. They could all get up, do the TelePrompTer fandango, and say “God bless” in one fluid motion (in Bush the elder’s case, too fluid). But W.’s not cut out for dramatic pauses, laugh lines, etc. He rushes, slurs, put the right emphasis on the wrong words, and twists his face up into a half-smirk that distracts you from the message. I bet he’s distracted too: He’d rather be anywhere else. There was a lot of this in Bush’s performance last night. Did you notice him weirdly laughing when other candidates, particularly Forbes, were speaking? I realize it was hard not to laugh, but like I said, it didn’t look right. I keep having to remind myself that Bush has a mixed history of debating. He did OK against Ann Richards, a tough character, in ‘94, but a much weaker opponent in ‘98, Garry Mauro, cleaned the floor with him in their one debate in El Paso. Fortunately for Bush it was a Friday night during high-school football season, so about eight people saw it. Judging by my focus group last night, it’s possible that not many folks saw this one either. But Bush shouldn’t worry. Stylistic quibbles aside, he was the night’s big winner. How could he not be, given who he’s running against?
The X-Files analogy is right on; Steve Forbes has to stop smiling or else Fox Mulder is going to put one of those sharp stainless-steel thingies in the back of his neck. The guy is sooooooo strange. As far as I’m concerned, he lost any shred of a chance he had when he refused to allow Bush to consider a change in the Social Security age. By doing so, he gave Bush his best shot of the night. Prepped for an assault, Bush whipped out an editorial Forbes had written in his father’s magazine in 1977 suggesting that the nation consider such a change. (Of course, the joke’s on Bush: I’d bet the ranch that Forbes didn’t write that himself. Somewhere in New Canaan, a former editorial assistant is getting his hand wickedly slapped in retrospect.)
McCain smiled a lot, too. Was this a deliberate attempt to mute the criticism of his temper, or was he going after the Forbes alien vote? Like other journalists, I find myself oddly compelled to want to like McCain, whose honesty and openness is appealing, but he creeped me out last night. Every one of his answers went in one of my ears and out the other because they were delivered from behind an enormous, unnatural smile. John, lose the happy pills–or change pharmacists.
Alan Keyes. Alan Keyes. Do I really want to waste my breath? No. But let me say just one thing: It ain’t racism that’s causing the media to ignore his campaign; it’s no-chance-in-hellism.
Gary Bauer, to my surprise, was the least nutty of the nuts. His head didn’t do a 360 on his neck; no need to call a young priest or an old priest. But his positions on the sanctity of life on down are simply too extreme for the Republicans in 2000 and, therefore, way too extreme for the country, which is momentarily moderate. Otherwise, Tom DeLay would be running.
Instead, we get Borrin’ Hatch. Tucker, it’s going to be long year.