The current Republican presidential race is less a political contest than a "reality TV" series: a stage-managed melodrama with a cast of characters selected to titillate and provoke. By that standard, last week's CNBC debate succeeded far beyond expectations — all but guaranteeing a larger audience for the next exciting installment.
Viewers who tuned in to see Donald Trump boasting and hurling insults at the Sleepwalking Surgeon, the Sweaty Senator and the Amazing Spineless Governor, found themselves invited to boo an entirely different set of villains — CNBC's frustrated and argumentative moderators.
In professional wrestling, of course, the referees are always part of the show.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) got the party started with a cleverly contrived bit of bombast camouflaging evasiveness as high principle. Asked if his opposition to the recently negotiated congressional budget compromise showed he wasn't "the kind of problem solver American voters want," Cruz attacked moderator John Harwood instead.
"The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media," Cruz said. "You look at the questions: 'Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?' 'Ben Carson, can you do math?' 'John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?' 'Marco Rubio, why don't you resign?' 'Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?' How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?"
In fact, none of those characterizations was accurate. Nobody called Trump a villain, although Harwood did ask about his "comic book campaign" promises to deport 11 million immigrants, build a giant wall, make Mexico pay for it, and slash taxes by $10 trillion while balancing the budget.
Nobody had to urge Ohio's Gov. Kasich to insult Trump and Ben Carson. He'd opened the debate by lamenting that his party's two leading candidates were people "who cannot do the job." He'd specifically cited their fantastical budget promises along with Trump's immigration vows. Elsewhere, Kasich suggested that many Republicans had lost touch with reality.
CNBC's Becky Quick never challenged Carson's mathematical ability. But she did get visibly frustrated at his serene unwillingness to acknowledge basic arithmetic, and fell into bickering.
No matter. Cruz, who has carefully avoided antagonizing Trump, had identified the villains. The studio audience of GOP loyalists went ape — hooting, beating their chests and all but flinging dung at the hapless CNBC moderators. Nothing so animates the GOP base as the perception that they're being sneered at by effete intellectuals. Pollster Frank Luntz reported thunderous approval among his all-Republican focus group. Poor babies.
I'd argue that something historic is going on. As Kasich suggests, beleaguered Republicans are currently engaged in a retreat from reality as profound as communist apparatchiks during the last days of the U.S.S.R. Hence the predominance of hucksters, sharpers and mountebanks among the candidates onstage.
In deference to the astonishing avarice of billionaire donors, instead of Five Year Plans they're embracing magic hairball economics and quack cures. It's no accident that Carson, the renowned brain surgeon, lent his prestige to Mannatech, an outfit peddling "nutritional supplements" that supposedly cure autism and cancer.
The company recently paid $7 million to settle a deceptive practices lawsuit brought by the Texas attorney Ggeneral. Texas! Asked by CNBC's Carl Quintanilla about this unseemly connection, Carson dismissed it as "propaganda."
Similarly, Mike Huckabee promised to cut health care costs by curing Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Of course, the former Arkansas governor has no more chance of becoming president than I do. He's in it for the book sales, even hinting during the debate that his predecessor Bill Clinton had political opponents murdered.
Hay for the cattle, except that my cows are more skeptical than the average Huckabee supporter.
Alas, much of the GOP electorate has reached that sublime point of self-deception where they refuse to acknowledge any reality they don't wish to believe. In consequence, the saner sorts of conservatives are bailing out. CNBC's Harwood brought up former Bush-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's statement that "the know-nothingism of the far right" had driven him out of the Republican Party.
That merely showed his "arrogance," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) of the man who arguably saved the nation's financial system post-2008.
Bruce Bartlett, the one-time Reagan Treasury official who thinks the GOP has gone badly astray, mocked Cruz's crybaby rhetoric. "We've just seen Hillary Clinton go through 11 hours of questioning, and these guys can't go a couple minutes of questioning," he said.
Pressed about his own save-the-billionaires tax scheme, Rubio went off on CNBC's Harwood.
"Democrats have the ultimate super PAC," he whined. "It's called the mainstream media."
So would you like to hear Anderson Cooper's first softball question to perennial press favorite Hillary Clinton during the recent CNN Democratic debate?
It was this: "Will you say anything to get elected?"