0 minutes. It’s debate night in America, again. This is not exciting. What is exciting is that Charlie Rose is standing on a stage and the background is not black. It’s a trick that no one ever thought was possible before, like when Jim Henson put Kermit the Frog on a bicycle in Central Park and made his mouth move. It makes you feel like anything is possible. But let’s not get carried away. This is America in 2011. Next to nothing is possible.
1 minute. The seventh Republican debate is sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg, which is an enormously wealthy company. But in solidarity with the American people, who are hurting, corners have been cut. Instead of fancy podiums, everyone is seated around one table. Instead of lots of cameras, a couple unsteady steady-cam operators try to pan from one candidate to the next as they are introduced. It’s sort of like watching public access cable. Splendidly backlit, Rose tells everyone to think of the table as a “kitchen table.” Poor people have those too.
2 minutes. First question goes to the pizza company CEO Herman Cain, who has been rising in the polls. He is asked how he would deal with the problem of political dysfunction in America. He says he would be bold by blowing up the current tax system and replacing it with his 9-9-9 plan to tax companies, individuals and sales at 9%. Then he says he would make sure revenue equals spending in his first year in office. All of these things would make political dysfunction dramatically worse.
3 minutes. Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose own supporter called him a sleepy puppy at the last debate, tries really hard to show he is awake. He immediately launches into a riff about Texas and his plan to create 1.2 million energy jobs, though he doesn’t bother to explain the plan. He does say, “It’s time for another American Declaration of Independence. It’s time for energy independence.” It’s a nice line that doesn’t mean anything.
(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
4 minutes. Next question about dysfunction goes to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. While Romney is answering, the camera shows Perry, who is leaning back and blinking, as if he is again trying to stay awake. That last answer seemed to take a lot out of him. Romney, of course, looks great and keeps saying variations of the word “leader” five times in about as many sentences. He’s totally relaxed and on point.
5 minutes. Perry is already falling asleep. On a question about why he has no economic plan, he keeps says, “ah” and “um” between every word. “Clearly, opening up a lot of the areas of our, um, domestic energy areas, ah, that’s the real key,” Perry says. Then he says he needs more time to come up with a plan. “Mitt has had six years,” Perry says. “I’ve been in it about eight weeks.” Nap time!
6 minutes. Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann is asked if Wall Street executives should go to jail for causing the housing crisis. She doesn’t answer, but instead says new bank regulations passed in 2010 should be repealed. This suggests the answer is no.
10 minutes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gets asked if the people protesting on Wall Street against bankers have no legitimate grievance. Gingrich, who considers himself to be really smart, says there are two types of protesters. “The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves,” he says. “The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it. So let’s draw that distinction.” With the distinction drawn, Gingrich says he would put Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd in jail. Both men must litter terribly.
12 minutes. Everyone’s favorite uncle, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, is back, and he still wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve.
13 minutes. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is asked how he would create jobs. He says he would eliminate the 35% corporate tax rate for “manufacturers and processors.” Then he says Pennsylvania is the gas capital of America, not Texas. The camera pans to Perry, who is hunched over like a turtle. There’s a good chance he may have already slipped back into slumber, though his eyes are open.
14 minutes. Since Santorum referred to him in his answer, Perry could ask to respond. But who are we kidding?
15 minutes. Former Governor Jon Huntsman opens with a joke. “Pennsylvania is not the gas capital of the country,” he says. “Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the country.” Huntsman has funny jokes, but his delivery stinks. After he tells them, he always looks guilty, as if he just passed gas.
17 minutes. Gingrich, the really smart guy who figured out the litter taxonomy thing, says that he was just e-mailing today with a guy named Andy von Eschenbach, the former head of the National Cancer Institute, about prostate cancer screening tests. Then he says he basically agrees with former Gov. Sarah Palin about the whole “death panels” thing.
19 minutes. Bachmann gets asked what she would do to control costs in Medicare. She doesn’t answer, and attacks President Obama instead.
20 minutes. Huntsman is asked whom he turns to for economic advice. He says “my own father,” and thus locks down the pro-nepotism vote. He follows that with another I-just-farted zinger, directed at Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. “I think it’s a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it,” he says. This is funny.
23 minutes. Cain responds by saying that his 9-9-9 plan has been “well-studied” and will pass Congress. Neither of these things are true. Then Cain says that his main economic adviser, besides “the American people,” is a guy named Rich Lowrie from Cleveland, Ohio. “He is an economist,” Cain says, which is also not true. Lowrie is trained as an accountant. Then Cain says, “I also have a number of other well-recognized economists that helped me to develop this 9-9-9 plan.” When asked to name the others, Cain says, “Rich Lowrie of Cleveland, Texas.” With that, Cain completes the single worst answer of any candidate in any of the debates so far.
25 minutes. Romney is asked if he would support another TARP-style bailout if European banks collapse. He refuses to answer the “hypothetical.” But after some back and forth with the moderators, he admits that he would support future bailouts to protect “our currency and maintain America — and our financial system.”
(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)
30 minutes. After some more talk about Romney’s economic advisers and bailouts, the great mind of Gingrich stirs. “Can I say one thing, before we go to housing?” he asks. The one thing he has to say is that during the financial meltdown Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner “didn’t have a clue, not because they’re not smart, but because they were operating in a world that had suddenly changed so radically they didn’t know.” That’s what he said.
31 minutes. Rose asks Paul if he would like to get the federal government out of housing finance. Does the cookie monster like cookies?
33 minutes. That brings us to the first commercial break, but before the commercial starts, Bloomberg flashes a legal disclaimer on the screen. The opinions of advertisers and sponsors do not reflect the views of Bloomberg or the Washington Post. Really? They skimp on the cameras and the podiums, but let the lawyers bill for this?
37 minutes. As we return, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt flashes above the stage: “A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.” Pretty much sums up the whole night so far.
38 minutes. Video question time. Rose introduces a clip of Ronald Reagan, as President, arguing for an increase in tax revenues to close deficits. Rose asks Perry if he agrees with Reagan, which is not fair. Perry is having a hard enough time just sitting at the table. His answer is hard to parse, but it begins like this: “Well, I think we are certainly talking about different times, because what I heard him say there, that he was willing to trade tax increases for reductions.” That is not what Reagan just said. But soon enough, Perry is done, back in turtle pose.
39 minutes. The moderators try to pin down Romney on what he would really do about the deficit standoff in Congress right now. If the choice is between draconian military cuts that will happen with no action, and a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, which would Romney choose? Romney doesn’t choose. He says he just wants cuts.
41 minutes. The very smart Gingrich calls the debt limit compromise “stupid.” Twice.
42 minutes. Bachmann repeats stuff she has said before about being the “leading voice in the wilderness of Washington and a lone voice,” calling for no increase in the debt limit, which would lead to an immediate cut of about 40% of federal spending, and, most economists say, an economic recession. Feather in her cap, that one.
44 minutes. Cain is asked about a Bloomberg analysis of his 9-9-9 plan that shows he would raise about $200 billion less a year in taxes than the federal government currently collects. “The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect,” Cain responds, saying he has an outside firm that has done its own score of his proposal. He has not released this score to the public.
45 minutes. As a follow-up, Cain is asked about the fact that his plan would essentially amount to an increase in taxes for poor people, by adding a 9% tax on the cost of essentials like milk and beer. “They have the flexibility to decide on how much they want to spend it on new goods, how much they want to spend it on used goods,” Cain responds. “Because there is no tax on used goods.” Really. Used milk. Used beer.
47 minutes. This is a debate about the economy, but Bachmann raises the specter of the dark lord. “When you take the 999 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details,” she says. Fancy word play.
48 minutes. A bunch of questions about China as a currency manipulator. The upshot: Romney is totally not worried about anything Huntsman says.
50 minutes. As Huntsman and Romney battle, the camera shows Perry awake and smiling. Then Perry gets the chance to talk, and he says the following enthusiastically: “We’re missing this so much. What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy. What we need to be focused on is how we get America working again. That’s where we need to be focused.” Either Perry is sleep talking, or his jobs plan really is to focus less on policy to get Americans working again.
53 minutes. Lots of back and forth. Santorum points out that Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is loopy, because there is basically no one in America who will support it. He demonstrates this by asking for a show of hands from the audience. No one raises their hand. Then the candidates debate the best way to repeal ObamaCare. But they all seem to agree. It’s just that they want to embarrass Romney in the process for having supported similar reforms in Massachusetts. But Romney is not embarrassed. He is, as always, dominant.
57 minutes. Finally a commercial break. But this is not just any commercial break. After a few spots, a Bloomberg host announces that the “candidates are taking a break.” So pundits pontificate for a while, and there is another commercial break. Maybe Perry negotiated nap time. Or Gingrich needed to check in with Andy von Eschenbach.
65 minutes. About eight minutes later, we’re back. Now it’s time for the candidates to ask questions of each other. The candidates will go in alphabetical order, so Bachmann begins by laying into Perry, claiming he increased bond debt in Texas like Obama increased national debt. Perry, refreshed from the reprieve, says Bachmann’s numbers are misleading, and that per-capita state debt has actually declined under his tenure.
68 minutes. Cain says his 9-9-9 plan is “simple.” Then he asks Romney to name all 59 points in his 160-page economic plan. “Does it satisfy that criteria of being simple?” Cain asks, apparently serious. This has to be a planted question. Romney knocks it out of the park by pointing out that complex problems sometimes need non-simple solutions.
70 minutes. Gingrich asks Romney another question that also sounds like a plant. Why does Romney just want to cut capital gains taxes for middle income Americans, and not very wealthy Americans? Romney crushes another answer. “If I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes,” he says. “I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class.”
71 minutes. Huntsman makes another joke, followed by another flatus face. “Since this discussion is all about economics, Governor Romney, I promise this won’t be about religion,” Huntsman says. “Sorry about that Rick.” This is funny because both Huntsman and Romney are Mormons, and Perry made the mistake of embracing a guy who was saying Mormonism is a cult. Huntsman then poses a tough question to Romney about their comparable jobs records. But this just gives Romney the opportunity to talk at length about all the jobs he created in the private sector.
73 minutes. Paul asks Cain about his time on the Federal Reserve. Cain says, “My top priority is 9-9-9, jobs, jobs, jobs.” And more expensive non-used milk.
76 minutes. Perry, who is once again coherent, asks Romney why his own economic adviser says RomneyCare is like ObamaCare. Romney responds with an eloquent defense of RomneyCare. When Perry tries to interrupt, Romney shuts him down. “I’m talking,” says Romney. “I’m speaking.” Total Romney domination. Perry relents.
78 minutes. Rose asks Santorum to go next, but Santorum points out that it’s Romney’s turn, since R comes before S. “You’d think someone from PBS would know that,” jokes Romney at Rose’s expense. Then Romney asks Michele Bachmann to basically tell the world how wonderful she is, because if Bachmann improves her standing in Iowa it will hurt Perry.
79 minutes. Bachmann finally gets to mention her brood. “I’m a mother of 28 kids, 22 foster kids, 5 biological kids,” she says. Those numbers don’t add up. At this point, it would be surprising if the numbers started to add up.
81 minutes. Santorum asks Cain a question about his 9-9-9 plan. But really, do we have to hear anything else about the 9-9-9 plan? Bachmann may have been onto something earlier. Satanic influence is a possibility.
83 minutes. Final commercial break. Everyone is starting to feel a bit like Perry. “Stay with us,” begs Rose.
86 minutes. We’re back. Perry is asked to distinguish his ideas from Romney’s ideas on health care. It’s a big fat softball, and Perry basically hits himself in the head with the bat. “Well, certainly the issue of health care is probably one of the biggest ones that’s facing us,” he says. “I mean, there are a lot of Americans sitting out there today, and getting those people back to work is the most important thing that we do as a country so that they can have the opportunity to purchase health care. And I think that is probably the biggest issue that are facing Americans. There are people sitting out there around the kitchen table watching TV tonight who are looking for someone to lay out an idea that truly will get this country back working again. And that’s why I lay out, without having any congressional impact of all, how to get our energy industry back to work, and back to work very quickly.” He goes on.
90 minutes. Cain is asked to name his favorite Federal Reserve chairman. He says Alan Greenspan. This elicits smiles from around the table, since everyone knows this was a big mistake. Greenspan, of course, allowed for the housing bubble and failed to predict the 2008 financial collapse.
93 minutes. Question about getting banks lending to small businesses, which allows Romney to launch another perfectly metered attack on Obama’s regulatory policies. “What’s happened in this country under the Obama administration is that you have a President who I think is well meaning, but just over his head when it comes to the economy,” Romney says. It’s a devastating sort of condescension. Like Gingrich, but with less narcissism and more heart.
97 minutes. Perry is asked to defend his state’s distribution of public money to private companies, in light of the failure of Solyndra, a solar firm that President Obama backed. Perry says states are different than the federal government, and that his program had “an extraordinary amount of oversight.” It’s a totally cogent answer.
102 minutes. Romney is asked if he would support the temporary payroll tax cut extension in the Obama jobs bill. Romney says the country needs permanent fixes, not “temporary band-aids.”
105 minutes. Santorum finds a way to raise the issue of a breakdown in the American family.
106 minutes. The final question approaches, but everyone seems to be falling asleep. As Rose struggles to make sense of what he is asking, a heckler in the audience starts making noise. Everything is dreamlike. The question is essentially why do each of you connect with the American people’s hopes and hardships? The candidates seem to interpret the question differently: Tell us why you understand poverty.
107 minutes. Bachmann says, “We went to below poverty when my parents divorced. And my mother worked very hard. We all did.” Cain says, “I can connect with people’s pain because I was po’ before I was poor.” Gingrich, who recently had a six-figure credit line at Tiffany’s, says, “In recent years, I’ve had relatives out of work.” Paul doesn’t play. He just says, “My goal has always been to promote liberty.” Santorum says, “I grew up in a steel town.” Huntsman gives an eloquent description of the hardship he has seen in New Hampshire. Perry describes himself as “the son of tenant farmers.” Romney, who is really rich and has pretty much always had money, just lapses into the empathetic part of his stump speech.
110 minutes. That’s it. They all feel your pain. Or did once. We are done. Bedtime.