GOP Debates: Why They Baffle Democrats and Charm Republicans

Lee Siegel on why the Republican debates are working like a charm.

Go ahead, shake your head at the continuing onslaught of Republican presidential debates. They are working like a charm. Oh, yes, they are. As Obama becomes ever more enigmatic and aloof, these people are becoming more like the sitcom characters who, week after week, acquire the beloved aura of extended family.

They may not be beloved to you; they may scare you into making sure your passport hasn’t expired. But to the many people alienated by Obama’s Facebook-like quality of being there and not being there simultaneously, “The GOP Debates” are an ongoing humanization of our otherwise toxic and remote politics.

You protest: how can such flawed figures ever hope to lead the country? Well, the strange thing is that the more apparent the candidates’ flaws are during the debates, the less their flaws amount to much. Perry’s gaffe blurs into Cain’s clownishness, and both bleed like running mascara into Santorum’s flubs and Romney’s flip-flops. The audience grows more exasperated with how the media harp on a candidate’s mistake than with the candidate himself. Even as errors of judgment, factual stumbles, and memory lapses make the Republican rivals seem less and less like presidential material, they become more and more like the sort of fallible, lovable figure so many Americans seem to miss in the Oval Office.

Cutthroat, ruthless, sharply antagonistic to each other they all may be, but as they assemble and do their shtick in our living rooms week after week, they come to seem less like rivals than the sitcom version of the ideal American town. It may be the dysfunctional town from hell—Mayberry RIP—but it’s all the more adorable for that.

Why, there’s good old Mitt, head of the local Rotary Club, ex-mayor of our very own Hooterville, father of 12 and always ready with a warm smile and a firm handshake. In fact, nothing can shake that big smile from old Mitt’s face. Not even a daily reshuffling of his belief system that would give a less optimistic man cardiac arrest.

And here’s Mr. Gingrich, Hooterville High history teacher for, oh, God knows how many years. Mr. Gingrich knows how everything works, how everything came to be the way it is, and where everything is going—all based on precise study of historical forces. Gosh darn, that man is smart. Why, one time he followed little Danny Thistle into the boys’ room and explained to him the origins of the toilet!

Let’s go over to Rick’s Hardware Store and see if Mr. Santorum is behind the counter. Don’t you just love the way he follows you around, telling you about all the cool stuff he did when he was a kid? He just talks, and talks, and talks. Nobody listens, but if you want to know just what screwdriver to use, Mr. Santorum will find you the exact one. And he’ll tell you how he used one just like it to build a special garage for Mayor Romney’s father 22 years ago. Until Officer Huntsman came along and said the garage was an eyesore that kept Hooterville from being an inspiration to other towns! Oh, boy, did they quarrel!

After school, we like to go over to Cain’s Deli and have the special “9-9-9” hero: nine different types of cheese and nine different kinds of sausage stuffed into a sandwich with nine different types of taco chips, all for only 99 cents. Mr. Herman Cain himself often sits with us and tells us how he uses fancy bookkeeping techniques to make sure that everything for sale in his deli is divisible by nine! That way, he says, he knows how much is coming in and how much is going out. It’s all so complicated! Mr. Cain is so funny. One day, I walked off by mistake with a lollipop without paying, and my mother took me by the hand and made me bring it back. “Oh, it’s OK,” he said. And he squeezed my mom nine times, as if she was a baloney or something!

Businessman Perry used to go all the way down to Mexico to get the taco chips for Mr. Cain. Until that one rainy night. Businessman Perry delivered the taco chips to Mr. Cain and got into his car and said to himself, as he usually did: “Ignition? On. Windshield wipers? On.” And then he drove off. But he forgot the third thing he always said—"Headlights!"—and he drove right over poor Mary Macpherson. Oh, boy, Ms. Macpherson’s husband dragged Businessman Perry from the car and almost beat the living daylights out of him! Luckily, Dr. Paul happened to be walking by, and he incapacitated Mr. Macpherson with a cattle prod. “Unnecessary expenditure of energy, fighting is,” said Dr. Paul. He’s a strange one, all right. When the ambulance came and they put poor Ms. Macpherson onto a stretcher, Dr. Paul went berserk: “This is God’s work!” he shouted, and he dumped Ms. Macpherson back onto the sidewalk.

Why, Dr. Paul was so mad that his evening stroll had been interrupted by Businessman Perry’s distracted driving that he tried to burn Hooterville down! And he would have, too, if good old Mitt Romney hadn’t come running up, that big smile on his face, to tell us that Head Coach Christie from neighboring Scooterville had broken the hero-eating record at Cain’s Deli!

Let me tell you, all hell broke loose then, what with Ms. Bachmann bursting into tears, and Dr. Paul saying he was going to cattle-prod Head Coach Christie to death, and Mr. Cain giving poor unconscious Ms. Macpherson a “9-9-9 squeeze” when no one was looking, and Mr. Santorum running off to get his old varsity jacket, and Mr. Huntsman blowing his whistle, and Mr. Gingrich trying to tell everybody where cattle prods come from, and Businessman Perry wandering around forgetting where he lived, and good old Mitt, with that big smile on his face, saying that maybe it was better to burn Hooterville down in order to save it, but that before we burned it down, we ought to put the fire out first!

Just another day in Hooterville, I guess. See you next week! We’ll all be here, you can count on that.