Hunter Thompson was onto something when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – he called it “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream.” And the preface quotes Samuel Johnson – “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” That’s what being burnt out in Las Vegas was all about. And maybe that is what the American Dream is all about, somehow making beasts of ourselves. It eases the pain.
And the book also contains passages like this:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
And what are we to make of our own history and the American Dream? By extension, here America itself had come to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understood at the time – and that long fine flash was Las Vegas, America’s playground of neon kitsch in the middle of the giant dead desert that stretches out a thousand miles in every direction. As metaphors go, that will do nicely. In the late fifties they used to test atomic bombs nearby – big blasts in the distance that lit the sky and shook the casinos – then they decided to set off those atomic bombs underground, and then they stopped entirely. But the damage was done. The place is oddly apocalyptic, and the aging man-child Wayne Newton is still singing Danke Schoen in some lounge or other there. It’s a desperate place, and a spooky place, like America itself. Las Vegas and America – history can never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. But something happened. And this is where, on Tuesday, October 18, 2011, the Republicans decided to hold their presidential debate.
What were they thinking? But out there, in the odd neon city in the middle of the empty desert, each of those who would like their party to choose them to run against Obama in the next election, had at each other. It seemed an odd place for the evangelicals and social conservatives, and the hard-headed corporate capitalists, to find themselves. The ghost of Hunter Thompson hung heavy in the air. And who can explain, in retrospect, what actually happened? But something happened.
What actually happened? The New York Times gives it a go:
Mitt Romney came under intensive attack from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination at a debate here Tuesday night, with a newly assertive Gov. Rick Perry of Texas leading a sometimes personal barrage against him on conservative consistency, health care policy and even the immigration status of yard workers at his home.
It was the most acrimonious debate so far this year. Marked by raised voices, accusations of lying and acerbic and personal asides, it signaled the start of a tough new phase of the primary campaign little more than two months before the first votes are cast.
Mr. Romney responded aggressively and sometimes testily. Once, after Mr. Perry spoke over him, he turned to the debate moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, to plead, “Anderson?”
This wasn’t pleasant, and yes, they all said Obama was an awful president, but they spent most of their time challenging one another, in a bit of a cat fight – without the screeching and bitch-slaps. And it opened with Herman Cain defending his 9-9-9 tax plan – “against nearly unanimous criticism from his fellow candidates.” They told him it was nonsense. And it is, but Cain likes it, and says it’s a start – toward making everyone pay taxes at the same rate, hammering the poor and middle class with a massive tax increase, reducing what they have left to spend on anything in this economy to next to nothing, and saving the rich several hundred thousand dollars, or much more, in taxes each year. Cain said that’s only fair. The others balked.
But then they moved on:
More than any other debate, this one was about Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, who had previously managed to parlay attacks relatively easily. He had yet to face a barrage like the one he walked into on Tuesday. It came at a time when the Romney campaign was seeking to present an air of inevitability that he will be the nominee, while his rivals were seeking to exploit the sense that his support is soft and that Republican primary voters continue to seek an alternative.
The most striking difference from the last several debates was the performance of Mr. Perry, whose candidacy has floundered from unsteady performances. He displayed a much more combative style, if at times appearing too hot and occasionally drawing jeers from some in the Republican audience.
Striding onto the stage with an air of confidence, Mr. Perry seemed to relish challenging Mr. Romney from his opening statement. Calling himself “an authentic conservative – not a conservative of convenience,” he took a veiled swipe at Mr. Romney, who has been criticized by some conservatives for changing positions on issues like abortion.
Yeah, yeah – been there, done that. And Ron Paul of Texas attacked Cain, with Michele Bachmann piling on, and Rick Santorum too. As the debate ended, Newt Gingrich said “maximizing bickering” was probably not the best way to win the White House. But that’s what they did:
In one heated moment, Mr. Romney turned to Mr. Perry, who was standing beside him, and put his hand on Mr. Perry’s arm as they spoke across one another. Mr. Perry did not hesitate to make it personal, accusing Mr. Romney of having hired illegal immigrants to work on the lawn of his Massachusetts home.
“Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home,” Mr. Perry said. “And you knew for – about it for a year.”
He went on, “And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy.”
Romney laughed at him:
“Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I’m – I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that.” Mr. Perry snapped back, “It’s time for you to tell the truth.”
As the two continued to speak over each other and Mr. Perry kept pressing his attack, Mr. Romney turned to his opponent and said sharply, “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you’re going to get – you’re going to get testy.”
Mr. Perry’s eyes narrowed and he licked his lips…
And so it went. Yes, a Boston Globe report in 2006 found that illegal immigrants were among the members of a crew hired by a company working on Romney’s lawn, and a year later the Globe found that the yard workers still included illegal immigrants. Romney fired the firm. So what?
And there was this:
It was Mr. Santorum who started the assault on Mr. Romney, turning the subject to Mr. Romney’s health care plan, saying, “Governor Romney, you don’t have credibility when it comes to Obamacare.”
“Your plan was the basis for Obamacare,” he continued. “To say you’re going to repeal it, you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”
When Mr. Romney began to answer by repeating his contention that he never said he had recommended the Massachusetts plan – which shares several similarities with the new national health care overhaul, including mandates that people buy insurance – for the entire country, Mr. Santorum began shaking his head.
“You’re, you’re shaking, you’re shaking your head,” Mr. Romney said.
And that’s how things played out, which prompted Kevin Drum to offer this:
Everyone took shots at Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan tonight, but they mostly didn’t draw much blood. Cain just out-blustered them, and he was helped by the fact that the rest of the field had a hard time really going after him hard. After all, how can a bunch of conservatives attack a plan that’s basically conservative flat-taxism on steroids? It’s especially hard when Cain is apparently willing to flatly lie about the fact that it would raise taxes on the poor and middle class by a lot.
(Cain kept claiming that a new report on his website showed that the poor and middle class wouldn’t see their taxes go up. That apparently prompted enough excitement to crash his site. When it came back up, I found the report, which doesn’t appear to include any kind of distributional analysis at all.)
But Drum does note that Rick Perry was awake this week, or maybe a little too awake:
His constant interruptions of Romney early in the debate didn’t make him look good, and his obviously calculated resurrection of the 2007 foofaraw over Romney’s gardening service employing illegal immigrants carried the stink of desperation to me. Perry didn’t seem to have the audience on his side during these episodes, either.
Romney did fine, as usual, but looked a little more aloof than usual. But maybe I’m just imagining that.
But there just wasn’t much new:
Perry wants to defund the UN. Everyone wants to slash foreign aid. Nobody even pretended to have anything to say about housing. The whole tone of the debate was testier than usual, something that will probably get even worse as we get closer to the primaries.
And then there’s Andrew Sprung channeling Hunter Thompson:
There were so many lies, slanders, panderings, nostrums and nonsensical statements that it makes me weary to even think of itemizing them. I was happy, however, to note that this seven-headed monster spent a fair amount of energy biting itself – that is, several candidates accused each other of lying, flip-flopping, being unworthy of trust. Santorum accused Perry of being for TARP before he was against it – when in fact, it seems, Perry simply made good use in 2009 of his gutless equivocation in October 2008. Perry histrionically rehashed the 2007 debate charge that Romney hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn and then lied about it, for which Romney’s defense boiled down to “it’s so hard to get good help these days” – and Perry, in a shoutfest, flat-out accused him of lying. Herman Cain did the job on himself without much help, claiming that he didn’t say (or mean) three things that he’s said quite recently – that the U.S. should put up an electrified border fence, that it should negotiate with al Qaeda if they took a U.S. hostage, and that the unemployed are to blame for their predicament. Michele Bachmann used every question as an occasion to demonize Obama and was duly ignored by everyone else.
Another edifying evening. I’d like to think that after a few more such victories Romney will be finished (for the general). Pretty to think so.
And there’s David Corn:
The most interesting assaults of the night came from Mitt Romney – and they were aimed at Rick Perry. Again and again, he manhandled the Texas governor, who is in single-digits in recent voter surveys. Every time, Perry took a poke at Romney -on jobs in Massachusetts, on using a gardening firm that hired undocumented immigrants, on whatever – Romney was ready for him and slammed him in response much more effectively. …
Romney is worried about a Perry comeback. I didn’t clock it, but it sure felt as if Romney spent more time with Perry in his sights than Cain. This would suggest that Team Romney considers Cain still the flavor of the nanosecond who will eventually flame out… Perry, though down and out (and downer and outer after this debate), could still revive – if only because he has the bucks to rebuild. He does have the money to wage a monumental ad campaign against Romney.
Drum agrees and says this is still a Romney-Perry race, and Romney knows it – for what that’s worth.
And there’s more from Andrew Sprung:
What nobody managed to do was to spell out the extent to which the Affordable Care Act was modeled on Romneycare – that the national plan borrows the subsidized exchanges composed of private health plans conforming to minimum coverage rules, with the whole structure made economically viable by the individual mandate and the employer mandate. Romney was again allowed to emphasize that he created a free market solution for the uninsured, though he didn’t get around this time to the lie that the ACA is by contrast “government controlled” – as if it weren’t structured the same way.
And there’s James Fallows:
Mitt Romney is not a likeable figure (IMO), but he knows what he is doing in a debate and has gotten steadily better at it. He can use logic (more of a distinguishing trait in this field than you would think); he can control his emotions; he can make others lose control of their emotions – especially Perry, who looked like he wanted land a big haymaker upside Mitt’s head…
And there’s Howard Kurtz:
For all the Cain hype as he has surged in the polls, the former pizza executive seemed to fade as the debate wore on, especially when the subject turned to foreign policy, where he is visibly less confident. Despite the pundits’ predictions, the spotlight moved inexorably back toward Mitt Romney, who actually showed flashes of the passion that has been so conspicuously missing from his campaign. Las Vegas should adjust its betting odds: Romney just moved one step closer to the nomination.
And there’s Will Wilkinson:
My biggest problem with Cain is that he doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp on the necessarily political nature of policy implementation. You see it in his fantastical three-stage tax plan. You see it in his apparent surprise that the bailouts weren’t executed the way he would have preferred.
And there’s Stanley Kurtz:
The real problem is, and will remain, that Cain has no political experience and apparently a complete lack of familiarity with foreign policy and national security issues. No matter how appealing Cain is, no matter how bold his plan, no matter how badly conservatives want and need to support a challenger to the right of Mitt Romney, it’s difficult to take Cain seriously as a potential nominee. That leaves Perry, with all he still needs to prove.
This was a dismal business out there in the desert. But those of us who have lived here in Los Angeles for thirty years have found ourselves in Vegas now and then – conferences and conventions and that sort of thing – and the place is like that. Hunter Thompson got the place right. You find yourself sipping scotch in the dark, a bit dazed, and listening to the din of the thousands of slot machines. And this time you might have heard this:
Michele Bachmann takes on Obama’s foreign policy, in getting the US involved in Libya and Uganda. Unfortunately, it comes out as the geographically illiterate: “He put us in Libya. He is now putting us in Africa.”
Yeah, well – whatever. Somewhere Hunter Thompson is laughing his ass off.
But here are some takeaways:
Hit the panic button! – Everyone not named Mitt Romney needs to get their name back into the conversation fast or they risk falling out of the race. As a result, there was a palpable sense of panic among the second-tier candidates as they ignored moderator Anderson Cooper and shouted attacks over each other at a dizzying pace. Rick Santorum, maybe the only candidate on stage to never have a real “surge” in the polls, exemplified this dynamic: at one point he drew boos from the audience for repeatedly drowning out Mitt Romney’s answer on health care.
Mitt Romney finally makes a (potentially big) gaffe! – Romney’s been unflappable up until now and he turned in a mostly solid performance on Tuesday. But he also showed for the first time that he can be forced off his game with enough pressure. Under attack from Perry over reports that he used a landscaping service that employed undocumented workers, Romney let slip a phrase that will likely come back to haunt him. “We went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property,” Romney said. “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, we can’t have illegals.” Democrats are in love with “for Pete’s sake, we can’t have illegals.” Within minutes of the line, they were blasting it out to reporters with a highlighted transcript. You’ll probably be seeing this again.
Rick Perry ate his Wheaties! – Gone was the confused and fatigued Perry of debates past, replaced Tuesday with a fired-up version of the Texas governor ready to take on all comers. He joined the dogpile on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and then turned his sights on Romney, calling him out over an old scandal involving Romney’s employment of illegal immigrants back in 2008. It’s not clear how well the feistier Perry goes over with Republicans. Polls have shown his unfavorables have skyrocketed since he stumbled in the last few debates, and the Romney-friendly crowd in Las Vegas booed him more than once.
And there are a few more takeaways at the link. And there is this:
Moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates to weigh in on the growing Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread across the country – and the globe – as frustration with the status quo has taken hold. There were not many of those frustrated people in the Las Vegas crowd Tuesday night.
Cooper asked Herman Cain if he stood by his controversial statement that the crowds packing the streets should blame themselves rather than Wall Street for their financial problems. “Yes I do still say that,” Cain said as the crowd let out a mighty cheer.
He said they should – in addition to blaming themselves – blame Obama, and Digby adds the appropriate emphases:
I have no problem with them protesting at the White House, but it pays to keep in mind that they think our economic problems are due to the White House imposing too much financial regulation, too many demands for accountability and too high taxes on the wealthy, not the opposite.
You are listening to the din of the thousands of slot machines there. And it’s the long fine flash at the end of the American Dream. And somewhere Hunter Thompson really is laughing his ass off.