MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — This Republican primary season is going to be awesome for masochists.
If you like boredom, and especially if you like boredom punctuated with anguish and pain, then you should move to New Hampshire and start going to every single Republican primary cattle call event possible.
N.B.: I’m confident the Democratic primary cattle calls are just as soul-numbing. But: not my beat, not my problem.
Most of the Republican presidential contenders, with the notable exclusion of future President Trump, hoofed it to New Hampshire to speed-date their way into primary voters’ hearts Monday night. The contenders, 14 in all, rotated across the stage of Saint Anselm College’s Dana Center, discussing their feelings about Obamacare (bad), illegal immigration and the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS (very bad), and America (good).
Over the course of two hours, insightful viewers might have learned everything they need to know about how the Republican primary is going to play out: There’s going to be a lot of struggling.
As a preface, though, it’s worth noting that New Hampshire Republican primary voters are not cheap dates. This crowd wasn’t the kind of cheerleading, tricorn hat-sporting, sign-toting, applause-happy group of right-wing blog enthusiasts you’d find at CPAC or a social conservative confab. Instead, everyone in the room had a straight face and a stiff upper lip. The event’s emcee sternly warned the audience against applauding except at a few specific moments. The attendees dressed like they were going to a job interview (in fact, like they were conducting a job interview). There wasn’t a campaign T-shirt, sticker, or shred of swag to be seen. If you’d looked from the stage into the audience, the crowd would have been indistinguishable from a convention of IT specialists.
And the Republican candidates, who have largely cut their teeth in front of CPAC and at Tea Party rallies, and in Fox News interviews, goofed. A lot.
Rand Paul, for starters, had to participate in the event via remote satellite, along with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The three senators stayed in D.C. to vote on legislation that would have defunded Planned Parenthood. (A majority of U.S. senators voted in favor of defunding the group, but their efforts failed as they didn’t get enough support to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle.) Thus the three had to speak to the audience through an awkward delay and against a black background that recalled Christine O’Donnell’s famed ad about not being a witch.
Paul immediately messed up by saying he had stayed behind to lead efforts to defund Obamacare and that the senators had voted on said effort Monday evening. He had not, and they had not. Planned Parenthood and Obamacare are not the same thing. Alas. Life comes at you fast.
Rick Perry called the moderator Joe. (His name was Jack).
Ben Carson came out with a sentence that, even in context, didn’t really make much sense: “There’s a war on women, racial wars, income wars, age wars, you name it, there’s a war on it.”
When the moderator asked former New York governor George Pataki which federal agencies he would eliminate if elected, he said twice that he would eliminate Obamacare.
And Governor Scott Walker said Wisconsin’s recent passage of a right-to-work law meant Wisconsinites were no longer forced to join unions. In fact, Wisconsinites were never forced to join unions; right-to-work laws just keep workers from being forced to pay union dues. Conservatives still see that policy change as a huge victory. But still. But still.
Asked about his tax plan, Carson said we should have a flat tax because the Bible calls for tithing (“I base mine on who I believe is the fairest individual in the universe. That would be God.”)
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal promised that if he becomes president, there will be “no more hyphenated Americans and no more division.”
This isn’t to say the event was an unmitigated disaster. Walker probably won the night by pointing out matter-of-factly that he oversaw the defunding of Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin long before the Center for Medical Progress’s sting videos came out. It’s an issue of mammoth importance to the Republican base, and one where most of his fellow contenders haven’t put points on the board.
All told, the talking-point slinging went on for two hours in a room that—at least from my perch in the very far back—grew stuffier by the minute. And after, the sadness didn’t stop. When the event wrapped up, reporters bustled over to a spin room where Carson, Jindal, Rick Santorum, and John Kasich talked up their campaigns’ various degrees of very impressive momentum. Chris Christie, whose “tell it like it is” slogan does not seem to involve press gaggles on the trail, was notably absent. So was joy.