Only in DC, we kept saying to each other. At about 8.30pm the sports bars near us stopped showing baseball and the NFL training and switched over to Fox News. The tables were all reserved, and soon it was standing room only in the downstairs bar where we’d managed to get seats at the counter. ‘This is like my version of the Emmys,’ the girl next to me explained excitedly – she was a law student who hadn’t been able to vote at the last election, and she got ID’d as she ordered a beer. No, she definitely wasn’t a Republican, she just loved politics. But she was embarrassed too, that we as foreigners should see this side of America.
As things got going it became even clearer that there were no Republicans in this bar. (They were all apparently down at the Mexican place, Johnny Pistolas.) At the Black Squirrel we all reacted with disgust as Trump insulted women, and anger when Planned Parenthood and Obamacare were attacked. When candidates deputized the Bill of Rights and the founders into their arguments, lawyers and political activists present loudly disputed and ridiculed these interpretations, forming bonds with strangers arounds them by virtue of their ability to ‘get’ the political comments and in-jokes being made. A girl behind me angrily and repeatedly accused the debaters of lying – she knew because she worked the Obama campaign. I think she’d started drinking during the happy hour debate of the seven trailing candidates…
It was the first time I’d seen Dr Ben Carson the neurosurgeon. I give him his full title as he trades off that. His proposition seems to be that they need an intellectual to lead the Republicans, but he struggled to show himself to be that intellectual. His grandstanding on the Ukraine seemed suspiciously as if he was covering for not knowing who President Assad was (the subject of the question). He also insisted that his medical achievements be taken into account which, while impressive – he separated Siamese twins – are hardly, well, relevant for the job he’s currently applying for (CV writers take note!). Very sadly I thought, for a black politician, he did not want to talk about racial issues, pretty much suggesting that there wasn’t a problem. I think friends and family of Sandra Bland and other recent victims of police violence would disagree.
On foreign policy they were all terrifying. Each wanted to sound tougher than the last, especially on immigration (‘let’s build a big fence’ – ‘no, a wall!’). Chris Christie made a lot of his actions as chief prosecutor after 9/11 – as if they were something to be proud of… Only Rand Paul came out for liberty over security, though he made his point most pithily in relation to the gay marriage debate: ‘I don’t want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington,’ was his memorable quote.
But mainly I was struck by how much they’re all out to get Planned Parenthood (Huckabee was especially insane when it came to this issue). Pro-life has become such a Republican litmus test that Marco Rubio was attacked for inconsistency for allowing a rape or incest exception clause in his Senate bills against abortion, and Jeb Bush had to claim that he had no knowledge that an organization he had ties to was supporting Planned Parenthood. As the campaign on Facebook makes clear, abortion is only part of Planned Parenthood’s activity, and if this organization was de-funded – as it has been in a number of southern states – an awful lot of women won’t be able to get STD and cancer tests in addition to not having access to contraception.
While Trump has subsequently attempted to improve his image with women voters – suggesting that he wouldn’t cut the women’s health budget like Jeb Bush wants to – he came over at the debate as a disgusting misogynist who has no place as a role model on TV. There’s nothing else I can think of to say about him – he’s just a vile human being.
Perhaps the thing that made us feel most foreign was the last section of the debate, introduced with ‘Coming up, we have closing statements – and God’. As Alistair Campbell famously said, in UK politics we ‘don’t do God’. Well in Republican Party politics they certainly do ‘do God’. Each of the candidates had their own story of how they or their family members had been saved, and issues like violence on black people or treatment of Veterans had to be folded in to this display of piety or left out of the debate entirely.
Overall – to us as outsiders – Jeb Bush came over as the most realistic candidate: mostly reasonable, experienced and maybe least scary. But to an American audience he apparently just isn’t exciting enough. To be an American politician clearly requires more charisma than the entire field of UK party leaders possessed between them at their recent debate. Scott Walker clearly did well, but was terrifying. Similarly, Christie was strong but scary. Rand Paul perhaps stood out most as being different from the other candidates, but only spoke for about 5 minutes in total – of a 90 minute debate. And I found Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich rather forgettable (though still scary). Basically if the Republicans win in 2016 we should all kill ourselves (especially women).
No pressure Hillary!