-1 minutes. “Coxcomb” is the O’Reilly Factor word of the day. It means “foolish dandy who is overly impressed by his own accomplishments,” and it flashes on the Fox News screen, just a moment before the start of the 13th Republican presidential primary debate, also known as the last debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Bill O’Reilly is either devilishly clever, or he’s such a coxcomb he knows not what he does. But still, he has done it. Another feather in his cap.
0 minutes. No-hassle Fox News has predictably whipped the audience in Sioux City into a raging fury for the opening shot, which shows America’s right-angle anchor, Bret Baier, getting down to business amid a riot. With brutal efficiency, he silences the mob, compresses the requisite Facebook and Twitter mentions, summarizes the broad sense of national despair, and dispatches with the candidate introductions. They are all there on stage, your lovable Republican field. But the reality show is ending. By the next debate, several will be out of the race. What you’re feeling is nostalgia. Or dinner.
2 minutes. The debate begins with a segment that should be called: Why Do You Suck So Bad? (WDYSSB?) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gets the first question, about how lots of Republicans don’t think he is electable against Obama. “Well, first of all, let me just say to you and to all of our viewers, Merry Christmas,” Gingrich responds, mentioning a holiday that won’t happen for 10 days. Then Gingrich starts in with the history lesson. He mentions Herbert Hoover’s 1932 defeat, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 success and mistakes Bill Clinton for Jimmy Carter. But let’s not kid ourselves. All anyone will remember is, “I hope that everybody across the country has a very joyous Christmas season.”
(PHOTOS: Newt Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)
4 minutes. Baier has WDYSSB follow-ups. What about the charge that Gingrich lacks discipline or is not reliably conservative? The former speaker dispatches with these by listing his resume, interspersed with the effective refrain, “Pretty conservative.” Which is true. As for his lack of discipline, Gingrich claims to be “the longest serving teacher in the senior military, 23 years teaching one and two-star generals and admirals the art of war.” Which is sort of true. He guest lectures, and has an honorary professor title. Half-coxcomb.
6 minutes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul gets the next WDYSSB. No one thinks you can be elected President, so how can you convince them otherwise? Paul hits the current President, saying “anybody up here could probably beat Obama,” which is way too optimistic, but far more credible now that the Pizza guy who fretted about Iran’s mountainous terrain is no longer on the stage.
7 minutes.Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s WDYSSB: “So far your campaign and you have failed to catch fire with the voters. Why?” There is no right answer. So Santorum riffs from his stump speech.
9 minutes. Why does former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suck so bad? He’s not as tough as Gingrich, suggests the next question. Romney knows not to worry about the question. He talks about his I-spent-my-career-in-the-private-sector case against President Obama, and name checks three companies, including JetBlue, which he had nothing to do with. “I know what it takes to get this economy going. The President doesn’t.” Message. Delivery. Machine.
11 minutes. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann sucks so bad because she can’t attract independents. “Well, it’s very clear in the last five years I have won four elections,” Bachmann says. She was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. Congress only holds elections every two years. Then she says, “I’m 55 years old. I spent 50 years as a real person.” As they say on the Twitters: #impossibletofactcheck
12 minutes. Why does Rick Perry suck so bad? He can’t debate, says the question. Perry is amped up. “As a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot. And I’ll get there early. And we will get it on,” he says. Bonus points for promising punctuality, and for using a phrase that is a euphemism for both intercourse and fighting. Then Perry tells the story of Tim Tebow, the deeply religious quarterback for the Denver Broncos, who was counted out by some for what Perry calls his questionable “throwing mechanisms,” but who is now the darling of the National Football League. “Let me tell you, I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucuses,” Perry concludes, to wild applause. He does not take a knee. But his debate mechanism seems to be improving.
13 minutes. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sucks because people say he can’t excite conservatives, and he did not sign the Grover Norquist tax pledge. Huntsman responds with a bunch of his memorized soundbites, which are always solid, but delivered like he is addressing a fourth grade classroom. “And I’m not going to sign those silly pledges,” he says. “And you know what else? I’m not going to show up at a Donald Trump debate.” At this point, the crowd laughs, and Huntsman gets lost, has to check his notes, and then continues with more didactic sloganeering about the national trust deficit he plans to solve.
15 minutes. Thus concludes the WDYSSB portion of the debate. Phase 2 calls for each of the candidates to say in 30 seconds how they would handle a similar situation to the current showdown between Republicans in Congress and President Obama over the payroll tax cut. Softball. Santorum says he would be a leader, and “tell a narrative,” which is not how leaders normally speak. Perry says he would have executive experience that Obama lacks. Romney wastes five of his 30 seconds saying he would like more than 30 seconds, then says what the other two said. Gingrich says, “I want to start by reinforcing what Governor Romney just said. Leadership is the key.” Whatever that means. Gingrich also calls Obama a “Saul Alinsky radical who is campaigner-in-chief.” Paul says government is too big, and spending needs to be cut. Bachmann agrees. Huntsman says, “Leadership is action, not words,” and then offers more of the latter.
21 minutes. First commercial break. Baier promises to raise “a topic that has not been raised in any of the debates so far,” which is pretty much an admission that almost all of these debates are exercises in repetition. Will the candidates will be asked to define “coxcomb”? Stay tuned.
25 minutes. We’re back. Almost. Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn gets a chance to build his party’s text message list, courtesy of Fox News. “So text ‘Iowa’ to 91919 to know the results and other updates.” And if you want Matt Strawn on your phone.
26 minutes. The debate continues with a sort of modified round of WDYSSB. Romney is asked about the charge that he made millions “bankrupting companies and laying off employees,” which was leveled by Gingrich. Romney acts like he has already won the nomination. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us. Because I think the President is going to level the same attack.” Then he is off. “This President doesn’t know how the economy works,” he says.
(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)
28 minutes. What about Gingrich’s record earning $1.6 million doing consulting for Freddie Mac? “I was a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business,” Gingrich says, of the work for Freddie Mac that Gingrich previously described as the labor of a historian.
30 minutes. Paul is goaded into attacking Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac, and says that government sponsored enterprises are bad. Gingrich responds by saying they are sometimes good. Bachmann joins the fray, claiming to be “shocked” that Gingrich is defending his work, and accuses him of influence peddling even though Gingrich never registered as a lobbyist. “He cashed paychecks from Freddie Mac,” she says. Gingrich responds by trying to belittle Bachmann. “I think some of those people ought to have facts before they make wild allegations,” he says. They are arguing over a technicality. Gingrich clearly profited from the influence peddling industry.
35 minutes. A question about a recent bipartisan agreement to push a sort of Medicare reform that would give seniors a voluntary voucher option. But it is framed as a way of getting Gingrich to talk about the Romney attacks on his comments about Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan in the spring. Gingrich doesn’t bite. “I think Governor Romney deserves some of the credit for having helped figure out a way to make this thing workable,” he says. “Governor Romney do you want to respond to that compliment?” asks a Fox News anchor. “Yeah. Thank you,” says Romney. Not exactly at each other’s throats.
38 minutes. Ron Paul is asked to explain his decision to earmark funds for his home district in bills he votes against. “I think the Congress has an obligation to earmark every penny, not to deliver that power to the executive branch,” Paul says. “I would be a different kind of President. I wouldn’t be looking for more power.” That would be a change.
41 minutes. For the first time since his Tim Tebow moment, Perry gets a chance to speak. And he tries to attack Gingrich over the Freddie Mac stuff. Then he says that’s why Washington needs to be changed, and Congress needs to turn into a part time job. “Let them get a job like everybody else back home has and live within the laws of which they passed,” he says. “By the way, Governor, they worked 151 days last year. How much more would constitute part-time?” asks the moderator. “I would suggest to you maybe 140 days every other year like we do in Texas,” Perry says, apparently not joking.
43 minutes. Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, is asked how to get tough on China for flouting trade rules. The Huntsman sloganeering breaks down in the face of reality. “It’s a large and complicated relationship,” he says before listing seven variables. Then he says he would keep doing what he used to do: Invite Chinese dissidents to the U.S. embassy. Doesn’t exactly sound like a solution.
44 minutes. More candidate specific questions. Santorum is asked if he supports a tax holiday for overseas corporate profits. (Yes.) Romney is asked what sector of the U.S. economy has the most upside job potential. (“The free market will decide that.”) Gingrich is asked about his plan to subpoena judges to testify before Congress about their controversial decisions. “It alters the balance, because the courts have become grotesquely dictatorial.”
49 minutes. This last answer lasts a while. Gingrich mentions a paper he wrote on his website, his teachings at the University of Georgia Law School, his testimony on the issue at Georgetown Law School, the federalist papers, and the actions of Presidents Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to reign in the judiciary, including the 18 of 35 federal judgeships that were abolished by Jefferson in 1802. Classic coxcomb.
50 minutes. Bachmann says she mostly agrees with Gingrich on reining in judges. Paul says it’s a can of worms he would not open. Romney says that Congress can deal with judiciary by writing more specific laws, without subpoenas. “The only group that has less credibility than justices perhaps is Congress,” Romney says, graciously leaving out the news media.
55 minutes. All the candidates are asked to name their favorite supreme court justice. They mostly babble on about other things, and then give the expected answers: Thomas, Scalia, Roberts and Alito. Gingrich likes Anton Scalia, because he is “probably the most intellectual.” Paul won’t play this game.
58 minutes. Halfway. Another commercial break. That feeling of nostalgia has long ago dissipated.
62 minutes. We’re back. Foreign policy time, with a special focus on Iran and Paul’s refusal to do the tough-guy shtick. Even in the face of a hypothetical Iran-has-the-nuke question, Paul won’t budge. “It’s no different than it was in 2003,” he says. “You know what I really fear about what’s happening here? It’s another Iraq coming. There’s war propaganda going on.”
67 minutes. Of course, the other candidates cannot abide this sort of talk. Santorum says Iran is a “radical theocracy” that is based on martyrdom. He says the message to Iran should be, “If you do not open up those facilities and not close them down, we will close them down for you.” Romney attacks Obama again, saying he is weak and timid and inviting war. Bachmann says that, without a shadow of a doubt, Iran will use a nuclear weapon to “wipe out” Israel, which is something much less than certain, given Israel’s nuclear stockpile. Paul isn’t buying it. “I think this wild goal to have another war in the name of defense is the dangerous thing,” he says. “The danger is really us overreacting.” Everyone on stage is applauded for their views, including Paul, just three years after the end of the presidency of George W. Bush.
75 minutes. Gingrich says he wants reform at the United Nations, with his usual rhetorical flash. “We have no obligation to lie and every obligation to tell the truth about how bad the U.N. bureaucracy is and why it ought to be fixed or we ought to radically cut what we’re paying,” he says.
78 minutes. Perry chimes in with his chest puffing, and no one can compete. He wants to enforce what he calls an “overfly zone” over Syria, and invade Iran to retrieve the lost spy drone. “What we should have done is one of two things — we either destroy it or we retrieve it,” Perry says. Obama “took a third route, which was the worst and the weakest, and that is to do nothing.”
80 minutes. Gingrich is asked about the Keystone oil pipeline. He cracks a joke. “I sometimes get accused of using language that’s too strong, so I’ve been standing here editing,” Gingrich says. “I’m very concerned about not appearing to be zany.” This is funny, because Romney has attacked Gingrich for being zany. But then Gingrich lays into Obama, which is always safe in these settings. He says Obama’s policies make no sense to “any normal, rational American.”
83 minutes. Another Huntsman answer that is not memorable for any reason. Bachmann accuses Obama of putting “his re-election over adding jobs and making the United States energy independent,” even though both those things would help get Obama re-elected.
86 minutes. Perry is asked if he favored oil companies in Texas in the same way that Obama favored green energy companies. Perry basically says yes, but it’s totally different on the state and federal levels, given the 10th Amendment.
88 minutes. Break. Immigration when we return. This is always how it goes. Immigration at the end. Nothing new to say. But hold on to that initial sense of nostalgia. You might miss these things. Like remembering a root canal after all your teeth fall out.
92 minutes. Perry gets another question about the Justice Department’s wayward Fast and Furious gun running program. Perry says Attorney General Eric Holder should be fired. Then he starts to talk about the dangerous southern border with Mexico, saying that radical Islamists are in South America, including an Iranian embassy in Venezuela. “It is time for this country to have a real conversation about a Monroe Doctrine again like we did against the Cubans in the 60s,” he says. The Monroe Doctrine dates to 1823.
96 minutes. Romney describes his plan for getting millions of undocumented Americans out of the country. Create an ID card for legal immigrants, and then force employers to check the cards, pushing undocumented immigrants off the rolls. They would then have to return to their home countries.
97 minutes. Remarkably, Gingrich, who battled with Romney over this issue a couple of debates ago, does not make an issue of it. “We disagree some on what you do with very, very long-term people here. I think somebody who has been here 25 years and has family here and has local family supporting them ought to have some kind of civilian certification,” he says.
100 minutes. Since Romney has basically taken no heat up to now, Romney gets a tough question. “You have changed your position in the last 10 years on abortion, on gay rights, on guns. You say keeping an open mind is a strength, but some of your critics say that every one of these moves has been to your political advantage,” says Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace. Romney says he takes exception to the charge on gay rights because his 1994 promise of “full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens” did not include same sex marriage. On abortion, Romney admits to the change, saying he had a realization. On guns, he argues weakly that the gun lobby supported the limitations on gun ownership that he supported in Massachusetts. By the end of his answer, Romney is clearly tense. But he holds it together. “Thank you,” he says to Wallace.
104 minutes. Santorum tries to attack Romney again on the gay marriage stuff, making a complicated argument about actions Romney might have taken to prevent gay marriage in Massachusetts. But Romney is not bothered by this either.
106 minutes. Gingrich and Bachmann get into a back and forth about whether Gingrich is sufficiently pro-life, since Gingrich once said that he would not oppose Republicans who opposed a partial birth abortion ban. But the facts of Gingrich’s position pale between the interpersonal dynamics. Once again, Gingrich belittles Bachmann, saying, “Sometimes Congressman Bachmann doesn’t get her facts very accurate.” Bachmann is piqued. “Because this isn’t just once, I think it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don’t have my facts right,” she says. “When as a matter of fact, I do.” Though not always. “I’m a serious candidate for President of the United States,” she concludes. This last part implies that Gingrich is picking on her for her gender. But it’s subtle.
110 minutes. Final question. But the final question is interrupted by a heckler ranting about the Federal Reserve. The year of the protester. The last question is for all of the candidates: “How do you balance on the one hand trying to win the nomination with on the other hand not weakening the eventual nominee to the point where he or she is less electable than President Obama?”
111 minutes. It’s kind of a dud of a question. Santorum talks about himself. Perry uses another NFL analogy. Romney says, “We can handle it.” Gingrich says he is trying to stay positive. Paul says it’s all in the game. Bachmann says its okay to bring “clarity” to the race. Huntsman says, “Debate is good.”
115 minutes. That last statement is questionable, now that the 13th debate of the Republican nominating process is at a close. The rumbling in your stomach was dinner all along.