-1 minutes. There are two Anderson Coopers. The soft and fuzzy Anderson, who gets flu shots before a live studio audience during the day, and the hard charging Anderson, who gets indignant and outraged via satellite at night. Now that the 8th Republican presidential debate is set to begin, America wonders which Anderson will show up. Early indications are conflicting. Cooper is wearing his reporter tie, but he also advises the audience in Las Vegas, “You don’t want me to sing.”
0 minutes. We’re off, with a montage of the mountain west, courtesy of CNN. Soft focus shots of a cactus, water in a river, a desert. It’s like a karaoke video, except instead of a Whitesnake song, the voice over is going on about “mountain majesty” backed by swelling bassoons, or some instruments that sound like bassoons. The idea, it seems, is to set the stage. But the experience is like riding down Willy Wonka’s chocolate river tunnel.
1 minute. Still in the tunnel. There’s no knowing where we’re going. The candidates are now pictured on playing cards—Alice in Wonderland reference?—while the voiceover drops clichés like poker chips on the felt: “a city where dreams are made,” “win or lose,” “reshuffling of the deck,” “America’s future at stake,” “beat the odds,” “wildcards,” etc. Fingers curl on couch cushions across America.
2 minutes. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing, or which way the rivers flowing.
3 minutes. Stop the boat. Cooper is standing on the set of American Idol, or the CNN version of it, lights everywhere, the red and blue lines of spaceship democracy. The stage is otherwise empty. This is how CNN does it. No pomp left unfurled. No scratch itched. It’s all buildup. Why? Because they have the technology. They have the capability. The candidates come out on stage now, one at a time. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann looks giddy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lumbers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry teeters, but then bites his bottom lip and gives a thumbs up. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney strides. Former Pizza magnate Herman Cain raises one hand to heaven and puts the other on his heart.
(PHOTOS: Mitt Romney’s Rich History)
4 minutes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul waves like he is shooing away a fly. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum looks happy to be himself. But still no debate. Time to sing the national anthem. Everyone turns to a giant digital projection of an American flag, hand over heart. The singer is from “Phantom, Las Vegas,” which is like being from the Scranton Yankees. He sings like his entire life has led him to this moment. The digital image of a flag flaps in the fake televised breeze.
7 minutes. Can we start? No. Cooper tells everyone to “take your podiums.” (He doesn’t say where.) Then he does the obligatory mentions of Twitter and Facebook and stuff like that, which no modern debate would be complete without. He asks each candidate for a brief introduction.
8 minutes. Santorum is the first to go. And boy does he go. “My little girl, Isabella, 3 years old, had some surgery today. She’s doing fine. But I just wanted to send to her a little ‘I love you’ and I will take the red eye home to be with you tomorrow and make sure that you’re feeling fine.” Wow. “Some” surgery? It’s both heartbreaking and off-putting. Does Santorum mean to suggest that his three-year-old, who has just had surgery, is watching the debate? Or is he just playing the toddler surgery sympathy card?
9 minutes. The other candidates won’t compete with Santorum. Paul is a “champion of liberty.” “I solve problems,” says Cain. So does Romney. Perry says he is a “proven job creator” and “not a conservative of convenience.” That’s a dig at Romney. Gingrich says he will “replace class warfare with cooperation so all Americans can get off food stamps.” Bachmann says she hopes that “what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.” It feels like someone is missing, but it’s hard to remember who that might be.
10 minutes. Crowd shot of Wayne Newton in the audience. He appears to be sitting in a wind tunnel. But his hair is not blowing. Surgeons can do anything these days. Not clear why they do it, but they can.
11 minutes. Lacking any awareness of what the audience has just endured, Cooper says, “All right, time to begin.”
13 minutes. Question for Bachmann. After she riffs on why a national sales tax is a bad idea, Cooper asks Cain about the fact that his 9-9-9 plan, which would tax individuals, sales and corporations at 9%, would be a huge tax increase for many struggling Americans. “It is a jobs plan, it is revenue-neutral, it does not raise taxes on those that are making the least,” Cain replies. “All of those are simply not true.” By that, he means his denial of those things is true. But what he is saying is not true. The tunnel, you see, never ends. The river keeps on flowing. There’s no knowing.
14 minutes. Santorum begins by saying of Cain, “I love his boldness.” And then he basically tears apart the whole Cain plan. This goes on for quite a while. First it’s Santorum. Then Bachmann lays in again. Then Perry joins, with all kinds of lovely folksiness. “Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something,” he begins. “I’ll bump plans with you, brother, and we’ll see who has the best idea about how you get this country working again.” Right on, brother. Bump plans.
17 minutes. After tiring of simply calling his detractors “knee-jerk” and “wrong,” Cain tries a new tack. “This is an example of mixing apples and oranges,” he says, in response to one thread of attack, which points out that Cain would establish a sales tax in states without a sales tax. “The state tax is an apple. We are replacing the current tax code with oranges. So it’s not correct to mix apples and oranges.” Good luck with that one.
18 minutes. Even Paul chimes in to say Cain’s ideas are “very, very dangerous,” since they would raise taxes on the poor.
20 minutes. Romney attempts the impossible, and tries to understand Cain’s apple and orange metaphor. The exchange that follows is like an Abbott and Costello routine. Just keep your eye on the bouncing plum: “Herman, are you saying that the state sales tax will also go away?” asks Romney. “No, that’s an apple,” says Cain. “OK.” “We’re replacing a bunch of oranges.” “OK,” says Romney. “So then Gov. Perry was right?” “No, he wasn’t. He was mixing apples and oranges,” Cain concludes. For a man who prided himself on the simplicity of 9-9-9, Cain is now in deep trouble. Romney concludes by saying, “I’m going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I’ve got to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don’t want to pay both taxes.” There is cheering and applause.
22 minutes. “Speaker Gingrich, you have said in recent days that Mr. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan would be a harder sell than he lets on. How so?” asks Cooper. “Well, you just watched it,” says Gingrich. Funny. Spot on.
23 minutes. Bachmann gets another tax question. Her answer is all over the map, ending like this: “I plan to change that with real jobs right now at michelebachmann.com.” This raises a different question: Would debates be better or worse if candidates just answered every question with a URL? Don’t answer.
25 minutes. Perry gets a question about Romney. Perry answers it by being emphatic and energetic, and by talking about his own energy plan. His body bounces up and down. He slices the air with his hand. He points the podium. When he says, “America’s got the energy,” he seems to mean, “I have the energy.” Big change from the last debate.
(PHOTOS: Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)
26 minutes. Romney turns a question about energy policy into a call for repealing ObamaCare.
29 minutes. Santorum can’t let that pass. “You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare. You are — you are — your plan was the basis for Obamacare. Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare,” he says.
30 minutes. A back and forth ensues. And then Perry piles on. Cooper is laying back, letting wounds multiply. Which is refreshing. His questions have so far been concise, and he keeps cutting the candidates off and getting them to fight each other. Maybe there is a third Cooper, Vegas Cooper, the boxing referee. At one point Santorum belts out, “You can’t change the facts.” Then when Romney tries to respond, Santorum yells, “You’re out of time. You’re out of time,” like a playground bully. Romney gets the time he needs to respond.
31 minutes. We are only about a third of the way through the debate. Stop reading now. Go outside. Live your life. There is so much to be thankful for and hopeful about. There’s no need for this. This tunnel never ends, you see. But you don’t belong here. You can do anything you want with your day, with your life.
32 minutes. Gingrich gets a chance to lay into Romney on healthcare, citing a recent story about penalties endured by small businesses in Massachusetts for not meeting RomneyCare standards. Romney responds by saying, “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.” More Abbott and Costello. “That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation,” says Gingrich. “Yes, we got it from you, and you got it from the Heritage Foundation.” “Wait a second. What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.” “And you never supported them?” “I agree with them, but I’m just saying, what you said to this audience just now plain wasn’t true.” This last admission by Gingrich is pretty devastating. He confessed to agreeing with the thing he was claiming Romney lied about. All in the tunnel.
33 minutes. In the middle of all this, Bachmann starts yelling, “Anderson. Anderson.” Cooper eventually allows her to speak. She attacks Barack Obama.
35 minutes. Commercial break. Another opportunity to stop reading.
38 minutes. We’re back. More obligatory talk of Twitter. Paul is asked if he would keep any part of ObamaCare. Um, no.
40 minutes. Would Cain keep any part of ObamaCare? Take a wild guess.
41 minutes. Perry is asked about his Texas healthcare record. He attacks Romney on immigration. “Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy,” he says.
42 minutes. Romney thinks this is hilarious, since little Perry is trying to fight back. “Ha. Ha. Ha.” The two men begin to shout over each other, and Romney puts his hand on Perry’s shoulder, which makes Perry look smaller. Perry won’t back down, then does. Romney is mostly right on the substance. There is no evidence that Romney knew the undocumented workers worked at his house, since they were hired by a contractor. But it is also true that Romney did not fire the contractor after he found out the first time. He fired them the second time. But this is mostly about theater. Romney attacks Perry for supporting tuition for undocumented immigrants. Etc. Etc.
43 minutes. “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” Romney tells Perry, in high condescension mode. “I suggest that if you want to become President of the United States, you have got to let both people speak.” The crowd applauds him. In addition to the height difference, one gets the impression that there is a class dynamic at work: Romney is rich, Perry is not. Romney is Harvard, Perry is Texas A&M. Romney knows he has nothing to fear.
44 minutes. Questions about a border fence between Mexico and the United States. Cain wants a fence, but won’t say if he wants it electrified. Perry, who actually knows about the border, says there are better ways than a full border fence. Bachmann says she would build a “double walled” fence across the entire border. She wins the who-has-the-biggest-fence contest.
52 minutes. All this back and forth allows Romney to play general election candidate. “Let’s step back. I think it’s important for us as Republicans on this stage to say something which hasn’t been said. And that is I think every single person here loves legal immigration. We respect people who come here legally,” he says. Cheers from crowd. Then Romney attacks Perry on immigration with an odd metaphor. “Gov. Perry, you say you have got the experience. It’s a bit like saying that, you know, the college coach that has lost 40 games in a row has the experience to go to the NFL.” The Romney friendly crowd boos this one.
54 minutes. Another shot of Wayne Newton in the audience, in all his frozen, wind-blasted glory.
56 minutes. Two questions are asked: One about what the candidates have to offer Latino voters, and the second about repealing the 14th amendment, which grants anyone born in the United States citizenship. The candidates generally don’t want to answer the second question, and generally answer the first one by saying that they will help Latinos by getting the economy going again.
59 minutes. Santorum says, “The basic building block of a society is not an individual. It’s the family.” This offends Paul. “Rights don’t come in bunches,” he says. “Rights come as individuals, they come from a God.”
60 minutes. Gingrich, who has in the past supported moving nuclear waste to Nevada over the objections of Nevadans, is asked if he supports moving nuclear waste to Nevada over the objections of Nevadans. His answer is painful. “I’m not a scientist. I mean, Yucca Mountain certainly was picked by the scientific community as one of the safest places in the United States,” he says at one point. Paul, Romney and Perry all come out against forcing Nevada to take the waste, on federalism grounds. At one point, Perry struggles to call to mind the name of 10th Amendment. But he pulls through.
63 minutes. Question for candidates about what they would do to deal with the foreclosure crises. Santorum answers by saying it was a mistake to bail out the banks, and then he attacks the other candidates for their past support of TARP, which is where the conversation heads. In other words, don’t look for the GOP candidates to offer much government help for the foreclosure crises.
69 minutes. After lots of haggling about the past positions of Cain and Perry on TARP, Bachmann returns to the issue of foreclosures and recasts it as a maternity issue. “When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosures, you’re talking about women who are at the end of their rope because they’re losing their nest for their children and for their family,” she says. “I just want to say one thing to moms all across America tonight. This is a real issue. It’s got to be solved.” Awesome pander acrobatics. Of course, she offers no plan for solving the problem, beyond getting rid of Obama and his policies, which she believes will create jobs.
70 minutes. Questions about Occupy Wall Street. Cain thinks the protesters should go get a job. Paul says the protesters have a point. Romney says Obama is bad and has failed everyone.
74 minutes. Another commercial break. Another opportunity to stop reading and do something else.
80 minutes. We’re back. Question about the pastor who introduced Perry recently and who said that Mormonism is a cult. “Should voters pay attention to a candidate’s religion?” Cooper asks. Santorum rather eloquently parses the question, saying values matter, but “with respect to what is the road to salvation, that’s a whole different story.” Romney tries to use the question to attack Perry for not distancing himself from the Pastor, which Perry did. And does again. “That’s fine,” says Romney, leaving the distinct impression that it is not fine at all.
86 minutes. Questions about the deficit reduction Super Committee, and the looming possibility of a $500 billion defense spending cut. Bachmann says that Obama has dropped the ball on Iran.
88 minutes. Gingrich finally gets a chance to say everyone else is dumber than him. “The idea that you have a bunch of historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country in both parties,” he says.
89 minutes. The magic moment has arrived, the point in every debate where everything starts to make even less sense. Paul, behind the podium, starts flaring his fingers in excitement. He says there is a government debt bubble that is exploding around the world right now. “We are no more removed from this than the man on the moon,” he says. Though the man on the moon seems pretty removed, right?
91 minutes. Cain is asked about something he said before the debate on CNN, suggesting that he would release all the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an American soldier in captivity. “The rest of the statement was quite simply, you would have to consider the entire situation,” Cain explains. “But let me say this first, I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists.” No, it doesn’t make sense.
92 minutes. Santorum says he would not cut one dollar from defense spending. Paul thinks this is crazy. “I want to hear somebody up here willing to cut something. Something real,” he says. There is cheering and applause, but nobody volunteers.
94 minutes. Perry says he wants to look at cutting U.S. aid to the United Nations. Romney says China should give humanitarian aide instead of the United States, which is even less likely. Paul says he would cut foreign aide to Israel, which upsets Bachmann. Paul then points out that Ronald Reagan negotiated with Iran to free the U.S. hostages. Gingrich uses this moment to plug a film he made with his wife about Reagan.
102 minutes. Commercial break. You should have stopped reading at 31 minutes. You could have done some good. Given someone a hug. Called your mother.
104 minutes. We’re back. Final segment. No reason for you to still be reading. Cooper says polls say Romney is most likely to beat Romney. So Cooper asks all the other candidates why anyone should vote for them. It must be pointed out that this question is ridiculous, since the whole point of campaigns and debates is to change poll numbers. But at this point in the night, it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. Santorum does a long riff on why he is great, leaving out all the reasons why he is not.
106 minutes. Romney also says he is great for lots of reasons.
107 minutes. Perry attacks Romney. “If you want to know how someone’s going to act in the future, look how they act in the past. I mean, so, Mitt, while you were the governor of Massachusetts in that period of time, you were 47th in the nation in job creation,” Perry says. This sets off a predictable back and forth.
108 minutes. Romney says, “With regards to track record in the past, Governor, you were the chairman of Al Gore’s campaign.” There is no evidence that this is true. Though Perry did support Gore in the late 1980s. Then Romney cites a discredited study about illegal immigrants getting lots of jobs in Perry’s Texas.
109 minutes. “That is an absolute falsehood on its face,” says Perry. But really, who’s keeping score at this point?
110 minutes. Cooper asks Cain if Perry or Romney should be president. “I should be president,” says Cain, but he is smiling as he says it, as if he is in on the joke.
111 minutes. Cooper tries to close up shop. “Your campaigns are telling us we have to end,” he says, to roars of disapproval. “Oh, no, no, no,” says Bachmann. “Wait a second,” says Gingrich.
112 minutes. So both Bachmann and Gingrich get to say their final pieces. Bachmann gives her catch phrase, “Barack Obama will be a one-term president.” Gingrich attacks Cooper. “Maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” he says. Then he says “Newt.org” and proposes seven three-hour debates between himself and President Obama, without time keepers or moderators. Thank god that will never happen.
113 minutes. It’s over. The debate. Not the tunnel. The tunnel never ends. Not until you look away. Now call your mother.