Ballot Box

Republicans Test Their Metal

During tonight’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, Gary Bauer criticized his fellow conservative Republican Alan Keyes for flinging himself into a mosh pit to the music of Rage Against the Machine.

In case you didn’t actually watch tonight’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, this really did happen. The exchange raised a number of urgent questions. 1) What was Ambassador Keyes doing in a mosh pit? (Answer: trying to secure the support of Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker.) 2) Does Bauer listen to a lot of heavy metal? (Answer: Apparently not, since he first called the band “The Machine Rages On.”) 3) Why is either of these no-hope religious zealots still in the race? (Answer: For the same reason they’re flinging themselves into mosh pits at the behest of radical documentary filmmakers; because they’re running to get attention.) 4) What does Orrin Hatch’s wife, Elaine, think about Korn? (Answer: We may never know.)

If you really want to get into it, Bauer had a bit of a point. Keyes, who in a previous debate accused John McCain of lending aid and comfort to fans of Nine Inch Nails, was participating, however facetiously, in the Caucasian version of the gangster culture that he thinks is destroying America. At the very least, moshing with Michael Moore was the height of hypocrisy. But if you start to take Keyes seriously enough to criticize him in this way, he has already won his battle, which is to not be ignored.

With the exception of this and a few other sideshows, the debate was once again mostly about George W. Bush. As the other candidates took potshots at the leader of the pack for (according to them) coddling China, wanting to federalize education policy, equivocating on abortion, and endangering Social Security with a huge tax cut, Bush ducked, smiled and declined to take the charges entirely seriously. His dodging was as artful as ever. What makes Bush’s brush-offs so effective is not what he says at a substantive level, which is usually pretty evasive, but rather his jovial, confident demeanor. Bush survives debates in which he is the constant target by refusing to get riled. You can insult him, you can mock him, and you can patronize him, but you can’t ruin his fine, front-running mood.

This attitude was on display when Bauer made his usual assault on Bush’s China policy. Bush grinned broadly, cocked his head back, and pointed at Bauer, as if to say, “Bang, bang, I’m dead. NOT!” Bush was even more disarming when Forbes went after him with a long and squirrelly question that accused him of increasing the size of government in Texas, lowering educational standards, and supporting a fraudulent tax cut–before compounding the indictment by asking Bush if he intended to do to the nation what he did to his own state. Bush was slow on some of the particulars of his defense. He didn’t remember until the second pass, for instance, that Texas’s SAT scores might be down because more underprivileged kids were taking the SAT. But Bush’s facial expressions and body language made the point that Forbes was full of hot air with perfect eloquence.

Thanks to CNN’s split screen, you could watch Bush as Forbes went after him. Right away, you saw the notorious smirk cross Bush’s face. But it was a suppressed smirk that said, “I’m trying to hide my contempt, but I can’t hide it completely.” Then Bush turned away from the question, as if resisting the effort to laugh in the questioner’s face. Then he looked back at Forbes, his semi-smirk giving way to the subtlest of eye rolls before the eye roll gave way to a set of blinks suggesting disdain. As Forbes finished his question, Bush squinted, smiled broadly and gestured by opening his arms as he said, “So many half-stories, so little time.” Forbes looked altogether different while Bush was answering him. His pained, awkward expression suggested someone sucking a lemon while receiving a proctologic exam. Perhaps Forbes is one of those candidates who is better on radio than television. Bush is sort of the opposite extreme. He’s most effective on TV, with the TV set on mute.

John McCain’s performance was mixed. He had some effective rejoinders, such as when he told Keyes to buzz off when Keyes asked him a question about how he would handle his daughter wanting an abortion. But McCain also had some weak moments, especially in the first part of the debate, when he seemed to be playing back his greatest hits. “Feckless photo-op foreign policy” is a good line, but less good the 150th time you hear it. The most striking thing to me about McCain of late is his continuing dalliance with American Prospect-type liberalism. When all the candidates were asked about the “digital divide”–the notion that poor people and minorities are suffering from their lack of access to computers–McCain gave an answer that could have been Al Gore’s, lauding efforts to connect schools and libraries to the Internet and decrying “the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in America.” When Bush suggested that fast-changing technology would quickly make any government program obsolete, McCain interjected that it was a government program that invented the Internet. This sort of response might be dismissed as McCain’s effort to connect with New Hampshire’s independents, who can vote in either party’s primary. But I am increasingly getting the sense that McCain’s various liberal positions represent a change of heart, or at least an ongoing evolution in his views. (Click here to read William Saletan’s “Frame Game” on McCain’s evolution.)

After a 36-hour trip back from Iowa that ended only a few hours ago, I’m too zonked to say anything coherent about the Democrats. Check this space for comments about Gore and Bradley tomorrow.