0 minutes. The beat calls to mind Queen and the boom-boom-chick of “We Will Rock You.” It’s CNBC’s way of setting the mood: a deep-voiced narrator. A video montage of struggling Detroit. The grim facts of American decline. “Massive unemployment,” the script reads. “Foreclosures in every neighborhood. Empty factories littering the landscape.” That’s right. In this land of lost opportunity, it’s debate night, for the ninth time. Send the little ones off to bed. Pop another Xanax. Open the box wine spigot. This thing is going to last almost two hours, and it’s probably going to hurt.
1 minute. “Nothing is off-limits when it comes to your money, your vote,” the CNBC video preview concludes. What can that possibly mean? Sword fighting? Trigonometry? Has CNBC really come this this far, selling financial journalism as a mixed martial art? More wine. Another pill. Insurance still picks up the meds. But co-pays are going up next year. They do every year. All that is good goes away.
2 minutes. The camera cuts to reveal a smiling crowd in a room in Rochester, Mich. CNBC hosts Maria Bartiromo and John Harwood sit behind a table, with Jim Cramer, the host of Mad Money, looking like a chained dog. The hosts get the formalities out of the way quickly and introduce the candidates, who stand on a simple stage behind microphones. There is mention of Twitter, of course, and we are under way.
4 minutes. Bartiromo begins by asking former pizza magnate Herman Cain about the Dow dropping 400 points today on the spreading financial contagion in Europe. “What will you do to make sure their problems do not take down the U.S. financial system?” she asks. It’s a good, substantive question that she has no business asking Cain. He starts going on about “fuel in the engine” and “stuff in the caboose” and how there are “60 minutes in an hour.” This guy is leading in the polls. The pills help, but not quite enough.
5 minutes. Inexplicably, Bartiromo still wants Cain to answer her question. “Allow Italy to fail?” she asks Cain. “There’s not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now,” Cain answers. This is not true. But at least Cain is on topic, out of the caboose. Or the engine clock. Or whatever.
6 minutes. Same question to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. His answer soars by being cogent, if not exactly grammatical. “Europe is able to take care of their own problems,” he says. “We don’t want to step in and try and bail out their banks and bail out their governments.”
8 minutes. Mad dog Cramer is unmuzzled. He stays in his chair yet seems to move everywhere at once. “I’m on the front lines of the stock market,” he says to Texas Representative Ron Paul. “We’re not going to be done going down if this keeps going on, if Italy keeps — the rates keep going up. Surely you must recognize that this is a moment-to-moment situation for people who have 401(k)s and IRAs on the line, and you wouldn’t just let it fail, just go away and take our banking system with it.” So energetic, so naive.
9 minutes. Paul says he would totally let the banks fail and the 401(k)s turn to dust. “Yes, you want to liquidate the debt,” he says. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman chimes in to moderate the Paul doomsday vision. “Italy is too big to fail,” he says.
11 minutes. Tough question for Romney about how everyone thinks he always changes his positions on everything, including his view of bailing out auto workers in Detroit. Romney says, “I am a man of steadiness and constancy.” He has been married to the same woman for 42 years, belongs to the same church, and he worked at one company for a long time. He won’t apologize.
15 minutes. Texas Governor Rick Perry is invited to attack Romney, discuss the tax legacy of Ronald Reagan or discuss George W. Bush’s support of bailouts for banks and the auto industry. Perry, who has a lot riding on this debate, chooses none of the above. Instead, he says stuff he clearly memorized beforehand: “The next President of the United States needs to send a powerful message not just to the people of this country but around the world that America is going to be America again, that we are not going to pick winners and losers from Washington, D.C., that we are going to trust the capital markets and the private sector to make the decisions and let the consumers pick winners and losers.” It is passionate, understandable and entirely unrelated to the question.
16 minutes. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he wants to fire Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and stop the Saul Alinsky radicalism.
17 minutes. Remember when Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann was a real force in this race? Now she has to wait nearly 20 minutes to talk, like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. But she looks tan and healthy. Autumn Iowa sun, perhaps. Or autumn Iowa tanning bed. She says we need to lower the corporate tax and deal with our immigration problem.
19 minutes. Santorum finally gets to speak. He’s asked if his plan to give manufacturers a big tax break is not a form of “picking winners and losers,” which Republicans don’t like. It is, of course. Santorum says it’s O.K. to pick winners and losers if the winners and losers are “a sector of the economy.”
21 minutes. Cain is asked about the four women who have accused him of sexual harassment. The crowd boos the question. Cain denies the charges, speaking of himself in the third person. It sounds more authoritative in the third person. As if Herman Cain has a character witness, and his name is Herman Cain.
22 minutes. Romney declines to comment on Cain’s comments about Cain.
23 minutes. Questions about Occupy Wall Street. “Let me just say that I want to be the President of the 99%,” Huntsman says. “I also want to be the President of the 1%.” He is already the candidate of the 1%, at least in national polls. So that’s a start. Huntsman is invited to attack Romney, which is really Hunstman’s only path to 2%, but he declines.
(PHOTOS: Herman Cain Through the Years)
25 minutes. Mad dog Cramer asks another interesting question to Romney. Do corporations have a social responsibility to create jobs, or do they exist solely to maximize profits for shareholders? Romney avoids an interesting response and rejects the question’s premise. “The right thing for America is to have profitable enterprises that can hire people,” he says.
26 minutes. Perry gets a chance at the same question. Another canned response. “We need to go out there and stick a big ol’ flag in the middle of America that says ‘Open for business again,’ ” he says. He even mimes putting the flag in the ground.
28 minutes. As a rule, Gingrich does not go 10 minutes in public without insulting someone else’s intelligence. So he should be proud of making it this far. Then he says, “What is amazing to me is the inability of much of our academic world and much of our news media and most of the people on Occupy Wall Street to have a clue about history.” It’s a triple play: the protesters, the press, the academy. Bartiromo tries to follow up, so he insults her. “I love humor disguised as a question. That’s terrific.” Poor Gingrich. So much brain. So much less respect than he thinks he deserves.
31 minutes. Cain is asked why it would be good to give up progressive taxation for a flat tax. “It satisfies five simple criteria,” he says of his “9-9-9″ plan. “It is simple. The complexity costs us $430 billion a year. It is transparent. People know what it is. There are thousands of hidden sneak-a-taxes in the current tax code.” Really, when you think about it, No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 are different ways of saying the same thing. So are No. 2 and No. 5. He’s still leading in the polls.
34 minutes. Bachmann claims that President Obama “continues to go to a General Axelrod in Chicago to look for his orders to figure out how to deal with the economy.” Obama’s campaign adviser. Perfect timing. The pills and the Merlot are really starting to kick in. Why not General Plouffe? Plouffe is a lousy name for a general. Axelrod, on the other hand, is an awesome name for a general, especially if you have never met Axelrod.
36 minutes. The hosts attempt again to find a smidgen of empathy in Paul. “You think the economy would be stronger if interest rates were higher right now?” Bartiromo asks in disbelief. Yes, Paul responds: “You would have more incentive.”
38 minutes. On that note, Bartiromo cuts to a commercial. “When we return, how will the candidates breathe new life into the lifeless housing market?” That really is humor disguised as a question, given Paul’s answer. As the camera cuts away, we can see Bachmann scurry offstage.
41 minutes. We’re back. Bachmann is back too. Unclear if she discovered more about General Axelrod’s movements. The candidates are asked about housing as promised. Gingrich says, “You want to get through to the real value of the houses as fast as you can,” which means the prices should fall further. Romney says, “The best thing you can do for housing is to get the economy going.”
46 minutes. Perry is asked a question about housing, and answers a question about regulations. He is a much better debater this time. The only problem is, he keeps answering the wrong questions.
49 minutes. Bachmann bashes the two quasi-federal mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Harwood points out that Gingrich worked for Freddie Mac in 2006. “I offered them advice on precisely what they didn’t do,” Gingrich says, saying he was not a lobbyist. He was a “historian.” Of course he was. In 2006, Freddie Mac hired Gingrich as a historian.
52 minutes. Huntsman tries to break through all the doom and gloom with empathy. “Lost in all of this debate is the fact that there are people tuning in tonight who are upside down in terms of the financing of their homes,” he says. “They are feeling real pain. People who probably heard today that they lost a job.” He looks directly into the camera. Then he says that banks should be charged “some sort of fee” that would mitigate the too-big-to-fail risk. Sounds sort of like a tax. An appeal to the other 99%, perhaps.
54 minutes. Each of the candidates is invited to describe the policies they would enact after repealing ObamaCare. Huntsman says he would call a meeting with all 50 governors and suggest doing what he did in Utah. Paul says he would expand medical savings accounts, which would further complicate the tax code. Perry is not able to remember the thing he memorized to answer the question. “Obviously, on the Medicare side, you have to have an insurance type of a program where people have options of which — give them a menu of options of which they can choose from,” he says.
56 minutes. Cain says he would support a bill to give small businesses new incentives that has been blocked by “Princess Nancy.” He means former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This is a guy who has been accused by four women of sexual harassment. This is a guy who speaks of himself in the third person and speaks of cabooses. This is the guy who is leading in the polls. He just called the House minority leader “Princess Nancy.”
57 minutes. Romney repeats his talking points. Gingrich does the same, which means he says the question is too stupid for someone with a great mind like his: “To say in 30 seconds what you would do with 18% of the economy, life and death for the American people, a topic I’ve worked on since 1974, about which I wrote about called ‘Saving Lives and Saving Money’ in 2002, and for which I founded the Center for Health Transformation, is the perfect case of why I’m going to challenge the President to seven Lincoln-Douglas style three-hour debates with a timekeeper and no moderator, at least two of which ought to be on health care so you can have a serious discussion over a several-hour period that affects the lives of every person in this country.” That’s right. The only path to the Gingrich light is hours and hours of listening to more Gingrich.
60 minutes. Bachmann says she would take on health costs. Santorum tries to attack Romney and outdo Gingrich with self-praise. Even less charming. “That’s fine,” Romney says of Santorum’s attacks, which means, I don’t care about you, Rick. Paul says again that no one will get help from the government under his presidency, which will be better.
66 minutes. Another commercial break. Everyone leaves the stage. This is going to be a long break.
71 minutes. It is a long break. We’re back, entering the coasting stage of the debate. The pills have built up in the bloodstream. The wine flows from the box with less force. More talk about tax policy that has already been covered in past debates. Romney gets prompted to talk about all the work he did with Democrats as governor. “Thanks for reminding everybody,” he jokes.
75 minutes. Perry is asked to comment on Romney’s record in Massachusetts. Of course, he doesn’t answer the question. But what happens next is important. His answer will go down in history as the worst answer in televised presidential debates, which is a big deal, considering Cain’s presence onstage. It is beyond description. It must be seen.
“Oops.” Suddenly, a feeling of sadness. Perry just fell apart. Oops will show up in his obituary. Oops is everything that Perry could not do if he still wanted to be President.
78 minutes. Cain is asked about Santorum’s plan to eliminate taxes on manufacturing. “Well, this is why my 9-9-9 plan makes every sector grow. How about helping everybody, not just one sector? And that’s the power of my 9-9-9 plan, No. 1. It’s bold.” It’s also easier to remember than the triad Perry struggled over.
79 minutes. Gingrich is getting a question about Social Security, but no one is really focused anymore. The Perry implosion is so complete, so devastating. It’s like something has been let out of the crowd. Maybe Perry is all of us. Beaten down. In over his head. Trying hard, but failing. Perry is America. Proud and lost. Fading.
81 minutes. Romney is cruel. He rubs it in Perry’s face, quickly listing the parts of his plan to cut spending. “I have three major steps,” he says. He remembers all of them.
82 minutes. Now Bachmann is talking. But it must be said that nothing can happen now that will matter as much as what just happened. These debates have been going too long. These candidates do not have that many interesting things to say.
87 minutes. Paul says the government should stop helping people pay for college. Education should be purchased like cell phones, he says, without government subsidy. “Can you imagine what it would have been like if the Department of Homeland Security was in charge of finding one person or one company to make the cell phones? I mean, it would have been a total disaster.” True that.
90 minutes. Perry finally gets a chance to speak again. “By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago,” he says. The crowd applauds. But the applause is not for him. At this moment, Perry is all of us. We see in him the precipice in our own future. The applause arises from fear. Perry is holding it together, however, despite the fact that Bartiromo has just asked him to list his priorities for something. She is cruel. Perry casts about wildly, trying to make sense of his Social Security talking points.
93 minutes. Last commercial break.
96 minutes. Final questions. Cain is asked a specific question about whether it is O.K. for California to buy a bridge from the Chinese. “There’s something wrong with that, which is why I have proposed a bold plan, 9-9-9,” he answers. This is farce. Everyone onstage is laughing at Cain, who seems to be in on the joke. You could ask him the time, and he would say 9-9-9. Remember the warnings about pain? This is the pain. Leading in the polls.
98 minutes. After some back and forth among Gingrich, Huntsman and Romney about China trade policy, Bachmann says the Chinese sent the U.S. “counterfeit computer chips,” which “has national security implications” since they are in U.S. weapons systems. At this point, this is believable. There is nothing that cannot go wrong. These debates are the proof.
104 minutes. Cramer makes one last attempt to salvage the dignity of the debate, of the country. He asks Cain about the need to restore faith in the stock markets, given the wild swings caused by hedge-fund and computerized trades. It’s another interesting question, prefaced by a plea for Cain to not repeat his 9-9-9 talking points in the answer. “Many of the things we talked about up here today starts with growing the economy. And that’s why we have got to use a bold plan — I won’t mention it — in order to grow the economy,” Cain says. All hope is lost.
107 minutes. Perry gets the same question. He doesn’t seem to know how to answer it, so he takes off on a rift about lobbyists in Washington and crony capitalism. Everyone is rooting for him.
108 minutes. Paul is asked to opine on the charges of crony capitalism that Perry is responsible for in Texas. Paul won’t do that. After 108 minutes, his compassion finally comes through. “I haven’t analyzed it enough to call him a crony or not,” he says. No point making decline and fall, for Perry, for all of us, any harder than it has to be.
109 minutes. The debate is over. The country is heading in the same direction. There is nothing more to say.