Tuning into the Republican Party's presidential candidates debate Thursday was an exercise in frustration. There were no antics from Donald Trump on the screen – in fact, there was almost no screen.
In Canada, it was the evening to discover that no matter what crippling sum you may be paying Rogers every month, that is Fox not Fox News you are subscribing to. The debate was airing on a channel well above the cable access of us lesser mortals and the Fox News website only produced a video streaming in a window the size of a playing card. Only those who could name a U.S. cable provider could enlarge it, and various online workarounds weren't working around anything.
So, firecrackers, clown shoes, fright wigs, anything that might have illuminated that teeny screen and made it easier to distinguish Marco Rubio from Scott Walker would have been much appreciated, but everybody was wearing blue jackets and red ties, and what transpired was both highly controlled and deeply shallow. All 10 candidates sounded rather reasonable, even if a lot of weird things did get said.
There may be a certain lack of intellectual depth on the outer fringes of this large group (it has been alleged Ben Carson had never heard of Israel's Knesset) but mainly it's the format of the debate that is to blame for making everyone seem so superficial. While Canadian debates, like the one you should have been watching instead, still allow candidates to actually debate questions posed by the moderator, the U.S. television matchups are increasingly conducted with very little space for to and fro. With so many candidates to juggle, Fox hosts Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace posed different questions to each man in turn, rarely allowing much time for others to offer rebuttal. The point when Chris Christie and Rand Paul got into a tussle over the issue of the National Security Agency collection of phone records provided one of few lively moments as Christie accused Rand of blowing hot air.
The questions, meanwhile, included a painful amount of gotcha journalism as candidates were called on to clarify the slightest deviation from Republican dogma – how could Rubio possibly have voted for exceptions to an anti-abortion law in the case of rape?– or justify past statements. Forget those Mexican criminals (whom he brought up yet again), Trump ruined his chances of ever being a serious contender by failing to clearly disavow support for a Canadian-style medicare system that he apparently made the mistake of expressing a decade ago. It's picayune stuff and Fox may hope it produces fireworks but this time, it only managed to make an event that included Rand and Ted Cruz seem surprisingly bland.
Sometimes the candidates managed to dodge, weave and get back on-message after a loaded question, and sometimes they took the bait almost gleefully, to cheers from a huge live audience in a Cleveland arena. So, we now know that Carson would bring back waterboarding in a heartbeat and that Trump feels he purchased the presence of Hilary Clinton at his wedding with his political donations to the Democrats. It was one of his stupider moments in a debate in which he spoke more than any other candidate yet never really disgraced himself. Front-runner Jeb Bush, meanwhile, got the second largest amount of speaking time (as quickly calculated by The New York Times) yet produced such a lacklustre performance you'd hardly have noticed he spoke at all.
Fox producers were clearly assigning Kelly, the one woman on the moderating panel, the dumber questions and she got to try one final zinger before closing: Did any of the candidates receive word from God as to what his priorities should be?
This time, the candidates saw her coming and confessed to faith but no specific instructions. By the time the fourth candidate, Rubio, was answering this, she was clearly growing bored and threw in a question from Fox's Facebook page about what he might do for veterans. Rubio rather skilfully segued from a quip about God blessing the party with so many good candidates while the Democrats couldn't even find one to expressing support for veterans, but Kelly had run out of time and moved onto the closing statements. Sadly, we never did get to hear whether the Donald is in direct contact with the Almighty, or merely is the Almighty Himself.