Editor's note: Click herefor William Saletan's "Frame Game" on Thursday night's GOP debate.
DURHAM, N.H.--It didn't take long for tonight's Republican debate to devolve into chaos. The proximate cause was a decision by the moderator, Tim Russert, to focus most of the attention on the two serious candidates, George W. Bush and John McCain. While as an exercise in news judgment this was eminently reasonable, it was also unfair. As soon as the litigious Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer caught wind of what Russert was doing, they staged a mutiny, refusing to yield the floor to him or follow his orders. The result was a kind of GOP ultimate fighting contest, in which the rules were suspended and each candidate fought according to his wits. The way each behaved in this unexpectedly Hobbesian environment was somewhat revealing.
Steve Forbes reverted to type--namely "Piggy," the thick-goggled victim in Lord of the Flies. You knew it was going to be a bad night for Forbes from the first question put to him by John DiStaso of the Manchester Union-Leader, the conservative paper that has actually endorsed him. DiStasio's question was basically: You've been running for four years, you're a rich dilettante and no one in New Hampshire likes you, so why don't you get the hell off the stage and out of the race? Because the question included the charge that Forbes was "aloof," Forbes responded with his version of a joke: "Maybe you want me to give a hug to John," he said.
At that point, McCain--who was standing next to Forbes and seemed to be having the time of his life--said, "I'd be glad to, Steve," and actually stepped over and gave Forbes a squeeze while Forbes was trying to answer the question. Forbes' expression while McCain was hugging him recalled the scene in the novel (OK, the movie) where the savage boys requisition Piggy's eyeglasses. As the situation grew even more disordered, Forbes simply assumed the fetal position, going totally silent in hopes of being spared further indignities. He was road kill by the end of the hour.
To McCain, it was more like a great dining hall food fight. He threw the most rolls. After a few serious minutes in which he defended himself fairly effectively against accusations of hypocrisy for leaning on the FCC on behalf of a contributor, McCain seemed transported back to his days at the naval academy, when he made it his object to acquire as many demerits as possible without actually being expelled. After hugging Forbes, he got into a "Yes it does" / "No it doesn't" tug of war with Bush over whether Bush's tax plan would use up the entire projected budget surplus. (McCain was right that yes it does, according to independent estimates of the cost of Bush's proposal to end what he calls "the death penalty.") But McCain's best sport came when Keyes asked him a lunatic question premised on Keyes' not understanding that McCain was joking when he said he was a big fan of the thrash band Nine Inch Nails. Keyes accused McCain of "aiding and abetting cultural murder" for saying he liked such music.
McCain rolled his eyes, giggled, and turned into a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. "Can I get a lifeline?" he asked Russert.
"I'm a father and I'm not laughing," Keyes responded.
"I haven't been able to entertain you very often in the past," McCain shot back, rolling his eyes and giggling some more.
Keyes, who was wearing the exploding lilac necktie that is often a harbinger of one of his "episodes," also took the mayhem as a prompt to express his truest self. In other words, he jumped on the nearest soapbox and started ranting to no one in particular about such evils as atheism, homosexuality, and Tim Russert. He lacked only a sandwich board proclaiming, "The End is Near." But Keyes has one great advantage in an up-for-grabs situation, which is that you literally can't interrupt him. He comes up for air less often than a dolphin.
Hatch, like Forbes, seemed unequipped to deal with pandemonium. Another of the New Hampshire journalists on the panel, Alison King of New England Cable News, asked Hatch a go-back-where-you-came-from question similar to the one asked of Forbes. "Your campaign has been flat at best," she commented.
"Don't count out Orrin Hatch," Orrin Hatch answered, Bob Dole-style. But Hatch was pretty much out of the rest of the debate, bewildered by the carnage around him and unsure how to respond to it. "It's gotten a lot more nasty," he remarked at one point, displaying a keen grasp of the obvious.
Bauer, by contrast, was a shrewd and vicious opportunist. As soon as he realized the power was out, he began looting shops. He brutally joined in the assault on the hapless Piggy, accusing him of being anti-family for wanting to take away the mortgage interest deduction. Then Bauer hit Bush for not adhering to conservative values, being clandestinely pro-abortion, and assorted other sins. His most vicious moment came when Russert, following up on Bush's controversial "Christ" answer in the last debate, pressed the Texas governor on whether he was really a closet theocrat. Russert asked Bush whether he would "take an expression like 'What Would Jesus Do?' into the Oval Office."
"I would take an expression in the Oval Office of 'Dear God, Help Me,' " Bush responded.
"So would we, governor," Bauer fired back, apparently unable to resist the apercu.
But though he was a constant target for almost everyone else, Bush absorbed such shots good-naturedly, firing back when he had to, but not getting hot under the collar. After answering one of Bauer's attacks, Bush actually winked at the wily evangelical. Bush seemed to recognize this kind of contained riot as a familiar situation--a frat party gone slightly out of control. He stuck close to the keg, smirked a lot, and got through the evening without getting puked on.
What do we learn from this? In a Darwinian environment, Bush, McCain, and Bauer know how to survive.