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Decision 2000: Boring vs. Insane

Every once in a while, you can't help but envy narcolepsy fetishists, because they're the only people who could have possibly enjoyed last Thursday's Republican Presidential debate.

Conducted in an empty studio somewhere in the wilds of New Hampshire, the six candidates for the GOP nomination would probably have better served the political process if they had passed around a revolver with only one empty chamber. Accompanied on this grand American journey by ABC cast-off Brit Hume and a local political reporter so heavily made up that she threw off the hue control on my TV, these half-dozen identically dressed men set about deciding the future of the free world. Which, apparently, revolves around thanking Fox News for the opportunity to keep the rest of its programming off the air for a couple of hours.

Given this valuable opportunity to define themselves to the American public, each candidate firmly placed himself into one of two ideological camps. No, not the whole "compassionate conservative" versus "baby-eating conservative" divide, but something more fundamental and primal: Boring versus Insane. There's a whole batch of both in the GOP.

Orrin Hatch, for instance, is Boring -- his campaign theme appears to be "A Sleepier America." Aside from his name -- which sounds like proctological jargon -- the man is an excitement black hole. During the debate, he was sometimes difficult to see against the plain, flat background. Judging from the time the camera spent on him, he has two facial expressions, one of which he saves for special occasions. To give you an idea of just how Boring Hatch is, the most notable thing that he said on Thursday wasn't during the event, but afterward, about it. He called the proceedings "stilted and boring," which is apparently his way of drumming up electorate excitement. The ratings on Fox News must look like an impact crater.

Not that Insane is much better. Gary Bauer, for instance, is clearly Insane, and because of it he doesn't make a terribly compelling argument for the American voter to put his finger on the nuclear button. You sort of get the impression that he'd toy with it, just to see how far it would depress without triggering. I get the feeling that Gary misses the Cold War. During the debate, for instance, he invoked the name of Ronald Reagan so many times, I half expected Dutch to suddenly appear on the stage, as if summoned by a Lovecraftian incantation: Yog-G'ipper. Bauer has these huge, saggy eyes -- always a plus in television -- that make him look as if he's escaped from one of those collections of adorable ceramic figurines favored by old ladies and constantly hawked on QVC. Behind those eyes, though, is a brain Insane enough that it sees no irony whatsoever in concluding the phrase "the party of Lincoln" with "and Reagan."

Of course, the Insane field is pretty crowded and Bauer doesn't hold a candle to Alan Keyes. Right up front on Thursday, Keyes made clear that he hates you -- yes, you, specifically -- which is not normally the path taken to public office. Unique among the candidates -- not only for being confused about which party black people are assigned to, but also for being the only one capable of assembling two consecutive thematically-linked, grammatically correct sentences -- Keyes' platform appears to be, well, the repeal of the last hundred and fifty years or so. That pesky Sixteenth Amendment? Gone. Separation of Church and State? Out the door. Sex education? God disapproves of sex, you heretic. Keyes speaks wonderfully -- a plus that works better on the radio than television -- but he'd only get my vote if the nation were electing a Crazed Medieval Dictator.

John McCain, against all odds, came out of the debate resoundingly Boring. McCain has the kind of history that politicians usually spend an enormous amount of money faking, and as far as I'm concerned he's earned the right to be "Deer Hunter"-style Insane. But, stung by criticism of his temper, he apparently spent Thursday doped up on enough Prozac to mellow out a swarm of wasps. He even had a Reganesque quip ready -- that questions about his temper make him mad -- but it fell into the space where the audience was supposed to be with a wet, squishy thud. Everything about John McCain should make America enthusiastically elect him President, but the debate made it clear that he's trying too hard, damping himself down -- deep, deep into Boring. We already have Bill Bradley for that.

Of course, if I'm looking for Insane, I couldn't do any better than Steve Forbes. Forbes spent almost all of Thursday night looking as if he was on the verge of pulling a gun out of his coat and taking care of his place in the polls once and for all. Someone needs to remove the cappuccino machine from his dressing room as soon as possible, because every time I've seen the man on television I can hear a faint ticking in the background. Even with the sound off, just from watching his eyes dart, I'm guessing Forbes has the crazed loner demographic all sewn up. "This is America," he seems to be saying to himself. "You're supposed to be able to buy elections, dammit." Old Steve is Insane, bordering on Bug-Fuck Wacko.

Which brings us to George W. Bush. Anointed by the press as the Republican front-runner five or six years ago, Bush was facing his rivals for the first time in public on Thursday, and he managed to make what could have been an epic clash of ideologies for the soul of the party into a tedious game of Don't Say Anything. Bush spent the evening about as inspiring and daring as a bowl of warm mayonnaise. "With all due respect," moderator Hume said after Bush's first response, "you haven't answered the question." There are few things more Boring that a politician killing time and trying desperately not to offend, but Bush seemed so deeply intent on not snorting cocaine off his lectern that Al Gore can now be anointed the Funk King of All Space-Time.

Is this really the best we can do? After the Clinton administration -- which managed to combine mind-numbing political wonkery with borderline sociopathic risk-taking -- I don't know if America is willing to settle for only one or the other anymore. We're not electing a President, remember, so much as a daily television presence we're going to have to live with for at least four years. Someone Boring may save the nation that whole international-embarrassment thing we've gotten so used to, but vastly increase the death rate as people simply forget to breathe while watching him speak. Someone Insane could be fun in a Constitutional crisis sort of way, but invading Canada to put an end to the scourge of socialized medicine might harm the nation's international standing.

That's the problem with democracy: you actually have to make a choice. Boring versus Insane, Insane versus Boring. Can't there be a None of the Above?


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