The Slatest

In Honor of the Dem Debates: The Best Two Minutes of Debate Programming Ever

Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard that a plane had crashed into the twin towers, or that the Berlin Wall fell, or that the Challenger had exploded. Fewer people remember where they were when, on Feb. 6, 2016, then-presidential candidate Ben Carson missed his cue to walk onto the debate stage, setting off the most devastatingly perfect two minutes of a presidential primary ever.

Ben Carson would later claim not to have heard the announcer call his name, which is understandable. Why he ignored the multiple other indications that he should walk toward the stage, however, remains unclear. Whatever his reason, the multi-candidate pileup left in his wake was remarkable, and the resulting video became a rich, nuanced portrait that hasn’t been given nearly the attention it deserves.

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In honor of this week’s Democratic primary debates, which will see 82 candidates going head-to-head for the first time this cycle, let us revisit this historic moment, the perfect distillation of just how stupid our elections can get.

In the beginning, it was fine. Chris Christie, a seasoned campaigner, strode onto the debate stage in perfect form.

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Look at that strut. That smooth, casual wave. It’s a wave that says, “The announcers called my name, and I absolutely heard it.” Ben Carson was not so lucky.

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I can still remember exactly when I realized that, not only did Carson miss his cue, but he appeared to have no intention of ever moving from his spot again. It was a sight both beautiful and pure.

Unfortunately, everything good must die, and a stage manager finally urged Carson into motion. But then, just as the good doctor seemed about ready to finally take his place behind the dais, disaster struck again.

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The announcers, unaware of the monumental progress they were about to lay to waste, called Ted Cruz to the stage.

Up until this point, there had been no indication that Carson knew anything was awry. Leisurely by nature, the lack of forward motion might have seemed perfectly natural to the candidate himself. But as soon as he heard Cruz’s name, Carson began to understand that something had gone horribly wrong. The look on his face is crushing.

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Cruz, baffled to see Carson still there, zoomed by, and it was at this point that a stage manager peeked out from behind the curtain to push Carson forward.

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Carson—sedate, slow moving, profoundly unimpressed—declined.

It was Donald Trump’s turn next. Trump, not about to be outdone, peeked from behind the curtain, only to see Carson still waiting in the wings. After a beat, he sauntered out, officially starting the blockage.

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Next came Marco Rubio.

Rubio, more of a lazy gesture at a candidate than a candidate himself, was routinely mocked for coming off soulless and robotic. The debate was his chance to prove that he was more than just a fleece vest over a button-down. That sort of realness, though, takes months of preparation. Nothing could have prepared him for this.

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I’ve watched this video countless times, more than anyone should ever admit in public. And yet, I still can’t say with any certainty whether Rubio actually understood that something had gone wrong.

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As Rubio stepped off camera, Trump and Carson continued to sway in the foreground, securing their place as the preeminent physical comedy duo of the modern era, delighting and distracting with their antics. Meanwhile, in the background, a tragedy took shape: It was Jeb.

Perpetually unsure of himself and hesitant to the extreme, Jeb Bush had spent the earlier parts of his campaign begging middle schoolers to email him. He was in no way equipped for this sort of emotional turmoil.

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Betrayal, confusion, and, finally, resignation, all flashed across Bush’s face as he tried to understand the horror before him. Walking into the source of the chaos, his face contorted for the camera. Jeb Bush was changed, forever.

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Finally, after some more light urging from the moderators, Carson gave in and unceremoniously stepped into place, with Trump following suit shortly after. But one more indignity was yet to come.

The announcers forgot John Kasich entirely. All of it, down to the very end, was perfect.

The likelihood of this ever happening again is probably close to zero, but there’s nothing more American than ignoring good sense and also your name. So here’s to hoping.

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