There were several hypothetical questions put forward during the 24th in the seemingly interminable run of Republican candidates debates – a series that threatens to become the longest-running comedy on American television.
First, moderator Brian Williams posed this question: “Let’s say President Romney gets that phone call, and it is to say that Fidel Castro has died. And there are credible people in the Pentagon who predict upwards of half a million Cubans may take that as a cue to come to the United States. What do you do?”
Shortly afterward, Mr. Williams asked: “If there was a strong lobby of Chinese dissidents living in a state as politically important as Florida,” would America “have a trade policy with China that looks more like the trade policy with Cuba?”
With Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman now vanished from the race like so many wacky sitcom neighbours (or, in Mr. Huntsman's case, like one of Mary Tyler Moore's instantly forgotten dates), these touches of whimsy were, I think, appreciated by the viewers.
I wanted Mr. Williams to take it further. I’d like to see these debates move beyond the realm of speculative fiction – and through the next, obvious questions, such as, “If these half million Cubans were to marry that strong lobby of Chinese dissidents, what would they serve at the wedding, Mr. Gingrich?” – and into outright fantasy: “The forces of Isengard have laid siege to the fortress at Helm's Deep and the Free People of Middle-earth are beset on all sides by the armies of the Dark Lord Sauron, Governor Romney. How do you plan to reach out to our traditional allies, the Ents?”
After all, Newt Gingrich was happy to devote national airtime to the question of whether Imaginary Dead Castro was going to heaven or, as he cautiously put it (this was, after all, prime time), “the other place.”
The crowd loved that – although, partly because he was unable to shake off questions about his highly lucrative sideline as a “historian” specializing in not-lobbying for Freddie Mac, it was an off night for Mr. Gingrich. This despite his recent win in the South Carolina primary, where he was overwhelmingly the first choice among low-income voters, most of whom probably realized that, statistically, there's a greater chance that Newt Gingrich will marry them than that Mitt Romney will give them a job.
Basically, it can be said of these low-bar debates that Mr. Gingrich has been playing checkers while almost everyone else has been visibly trying to resist the temptation to stuff the checker pieces up their own noses.
Just in case you missed the point there, no one in the Republican primaries is playing chess. No one. This is the kind of race in which a candidate such as Ron (Gold Standard) Paul starts to look like a genius just for saying that America shouldn't go to war with Cuba (or, as Rick Santorum recently declared it, Iran's island outpost). When Ron Paul starts to sound sane, it's like the streetlights have gone on and it's time to go home.
I've been wondering all along whether the ratings for these debates have been solid despite the paucity of talent in the race or because of the comedy inherent in that paucity. A year ago, when the debates began, the candidates chose a strategy that made sense: They sparred little with each other and campaigned aggressively, in unison, against Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama's popularity was low, this worked. But now optimism about the economy is up. An NBC poll released this week showed that 37 per cent of Americans believe the economy will improve in the next year, versus 17 per cent who believe it will get worse – a reversal of the numbers in the fall. The U.S. unemployment rate is below 9 per cent for the first time in two years.
The President is reaping the benefits – more people approve than disapprove of his performance, and an impressive 91 per cent of viewers approved of the proposals in his State of the Union Address. Those proposals were frequently the opposite of those put forward by the Republican favourite, Mr. Romney.
Thursday night's debate was The Moon Colony Debate, but I'm hoping for increasingly fanciful themed debates. A Vicars and Tarts Debate! A Black and White Debate, an elegantly All-American tribute to Truman Capote. Perhaps a Murder Mystery Debate, where one of the candidates gets “murdered” during the commercial break and the remaining candidates have to guess who did it. At least, then, everyone would get a nice steak dinner.