Moderating the GOP debate on Monday night, John King was mint-fresh and emcee-efficient. Ever alert and well-informed, he cut short most of the candidates’ flights of rhetoric and moved them along briskly, almost as if they were holographics he could touch-move on CNN’s “Magic Wall.” He even produced a potential game-changing moment: When he asked Tim Pawlenty about his much-hyped coinage “Obamneycare”—“If it was Obamneycare on Fox News Sunday,” King said, “why isn’t it Obamneycare standing here with the governor [Mitt Romney] right there?”—Pawlenty weaseled, and was instantly transformed into this year’s flip-flopping Romney.
But overall, King’s no-nonsense, staccato style of moderating had the inadvertent effect of toning down the crazy. Most of what these candidates said verged on the delusional—the Ryan plan to kill Medicare will actually save Medicare, or slashing taxes, spending and regulations will bring prosperity to all (or, as Pawlenty insists, will grow the economy at 5 percent a year!). But forced by King to compress their talking points and answer in a check-the-box way, the standard GOP red-white-and-blue rhetorical fireworks were largely neutralized.It was like bringing your batty uncle down from the attic and getting him to talk reasonably in the parlor by limiting him to simple, declarative sentences.
In the 2008 GOP debates, Tom Tancredo was allowed to ramble on for minutes about how brown people are destroying this country; Giuliani had time to repeat “9/11” so often he made himself into a joke before Joe Biden provided the punch line. But this year, with King interrupting the candidates constantly to hurry them up (the annoying grunts and “uh”’s you hear in the background are his), Newt barely had time to pull the pin on his verbal grenades before King made him fall on them. Newt began, for example, to call for loyalty oaths for anyone (read: Muslims) serving in a Gingrich administration, but King moved on from him before he could demand we all greet each other with “Hail, Freedonia!” and turned to Herman Cain to ask, “Thin crust or deep-dish?”
Michelle Bachmann, apparently newly trained to not look “hypnotized” (as Chris Matthews likes to put it), didn’t call anyone a socialist. She did start to sound familiarly wacko when she explained that economic recovery required not only the repeal of Obamacare but the death of the EPA, which, she said, “should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.” Rather than ask what would that do to drinking water, cancer rates, etc., King directed our attention to the tweets lighting up a big screen. (Bachmann still managed to win applause for some statements, be they nuts or neutral, by applying her rah-rah cadence, which always sounds as if she’s climbing a mountaintop. “I want to announce tonight, President Obama… is… a… one-term president!” she said to cheers. To which King responded, “I’m being polite so far. But I want to remind everybody about the time.”)
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Maybe time on the Magic Wall does something to you, makes you think as well as act digitally—King, at least, seems to have picked up the synapses of a high-frequency trader. He still does the Wall, but since taking over Lou Dobbs’s old slot with his own hour-long show (and ably spoofing himself in a John Oliver parody a couple years ago), he’s grown. And at the debate, King did touch on the Republicans’ core illogic, asking Pawlenty, “Where’s the proof that just cutting taxes will create jobs? If that were true, why during the Bush years, after the big tax cut, where were the jobs?” But other than pursuing Pawlenty—five times—on Obamneycare, King generally didn’t push hard enough to get at the nub of self-delusion that has consumed the Republican Party.
The GOP is approaching the point where outright crazy is passé, even counterproductive. They needed to go wild, even birther, in 2010 to fire up voters, but now, to win general elections and sometimes even primaries, going the way of Palin and Trump won’t always do. Oh, they’ll still pander to the Tea Party, but they’re slowly realizing that they need to lay out their barely sane policies in a sane-sounding way just to keep from scaring the horses (not to mention the independents).
For that, John King did them a favor. Still, despite the clipped and anodyne tone of the debate, not even all Republicans are buying it. Terry Pfaff, a former New Hampshire state senate candidate, asked from the audience:
I’m not a libertarian Republican, I’m not a Tea Party Republican. I’m just a mainstream Republican. And we need both—the independents and mainstream Republicans to win in November.
How can you convince me and assure me that you’ll bring a balance, and you won’t be torn to one side or the other for many factions within the party? You have to have a balanced approach to governing to solve our serious problems.
King had the Tea Partiers—Bachmann, Cain, Rick Santorum—respond, and they all made nice Big Tent noises. But Pfaff seemed frightened, even queasy, just listening to them. Take a look at his face: