What does one do on a Saturday night in America? The question is one of demographics – your age cohort and your location. In early 1976 there was that paean to teenage partying, that song Saturday Night – from the Scottish pop-rock group Bay City Rollers – the first Billboard Number One hit of the year. Those guys were big, and then they weren’t. Scottish pop-rock had a limited shelf-life. But the tune was catchy.
The next year it was the hit movie Saturday Night Fever – with John Travolta when he was a skinny young lad. But Disco also had a limited shelf-life, and Saturday nights in Brooklyn back then seemed to be a pretty awful and desperate time. Maybe they still are. But the Bronx was no better – you might remember Marty – the 1955 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky – with Ernest Borgnine all at sea on his Saturday nights – “I don’t know. What do you want to do tonight, Marty?” At the Oscars that movie won Best Picture, and Borgnine won Best Actor. But maybe that had to do with the movie’s masterful evocation of the ineffable sadness of Saturday nights.
Think about it. Kids go out and party, eager for a good time, or desperate for one, and unattached adults, massively uncomfortable with being unattached and thus abnormal, go out and awkwardly seek attachments – see Looking for Mr. Goodbar (which ends in murder) – and parents and other dull folks stay home and pay the bills, or watch strangely sad shows on television. Saturday night is after all where the networks dump the useless and forgettable. For many years Saturday night was the Lawrence Welk Show from out here in Los Angeles – with the Champagne Lady and the Lennon Sisters and all the rest. It made you want to kill yourself. But NBC saved America on October 11, 1975, with the premier of Saturday Night Live – if you stayed up late enough you got your weekly dose of hip and irreverent right there in your living room. You even got the jokes. You too were cool, at least vicariously. Life wasn’t that desperate.
But still, Saturday nights present a problem – a time of existential despair, or denying it. And this last Saturday night seemed an odd time for the Republicans to hold a nationally-televised debate on foreign policy:
Foreign policy may be emerging as a test for voters measuring the Republican presidential candidates’ eligibility and a point of contention between interventionists who have threatened war with Iran and a libertarian strain pressing to end current conflicts and cut foreign aid.
Foreign affairs had been a footnote in a race devoted to the economy until Saturday, when eight Republican presidential candidates sparred in a debate here over how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and whether to cut aid to Pakistan. The debate reflected deep divides over some of the nation’s thorniest foreign policy questions and may have underscored the emerging narrative of the GOP nominating contest.
Well, it wasn’t the Lawrence Welk Show, but you still might have wanted to kill yourself. Newt Gingrich got big cheers for his stunning insight that war is killing “people who are trying to kill you.” Well yes, if you like to keep things simple. The former pizza executive has been boasting that he lacks foreign policy experience, and continued. Who needs it? It only messes you up. He was asked whether Pakistan is “friend or foe” and he was clear – “We don’t know.” Well, he doesn’t know. He’ll figure it out later.
Mitt Romney was himself – careful. And waterboarding terrorist suspects came up – generally considered a fine and useful and moral thing. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul didn’t think so, but they’re not going anywhere in this business. And Rick Perry said Pakistan is clearly sending us messages that they don’t deserve our foreign aid, and if elected his foreign aid budget for every country would start at zero dollars. They’d have to line up and each would have to explain to him why the hell they thought that they deserved even a penny from us – even Israel. But then he backtracked on Israel. They don’t have to grovel and beg for a few bucks from us. That’s Jesus Land. He realized his mistake.
Michele Bachmann said hold on there, Rick, with that zero dollars stuff – she said she would reduce foreign aid to many, many countries, but there’s a problem, because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Money for them might be money well spent. Yes, that was a bit of glimmer that foreign aid was basically a useful diplomatic tool – and a relatively cheap one to use – cheaper than war, and cheaper than global thermonuclear war. She has her moments. But everyone agreed it might be time to bomb the hell out of Iran and be done with it. Here too Huntsman and Paul demurred. Huntsman has been a diplomat – our Ambassador to China – and Ron Paul is a libertarian total isolationist.
It was odd stuff. And Kevin Drum points out some other oddities:
Virtually the entire debate was focused on national security: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East. Pakistan was mentioned constantly, and virtually every candidate took the opportunity to demonstrate that they knew the phrase “Haqqani network.” However, not a single one of them mentioned the word “India,” without which any discussion of Pakistan’s motivations is completely worthless. Maybe next time.
Moderators Scott Pelley and Major Garrett did a weak job in general and a terrible job on Europe – which is to say that in a ninety-minute debate taking place while Europe is practically melting down as we speak, they didn’t mention Europe once until the last two minutes. They managed to ask Jon Huntsman one question about Europe and Rick Perry half of a question. Nice work, guys.
And he does note that all of the candidates insisted that they’d take a completely different approach to Iran than Barack Obama, but then proposed doing almost exactly what Obama is doing – diplomacy, then sanctions, then many covert operations, then, if necessary, war of sorts, to take out their nukes. Yep, Obama keeps saying that. Oh well.
And from Drum’s notes here is some of what he heard:
Michele Bachmann predicts “worldwide nuclear war” against Israel:
This is a very dangerous time. If you look at Iran and if you look at Pakistan and if you look at the links with Syria – because Iran is working through proxies like Syria, through Hezbollah, through Hamas – it seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel. And if there’s anything that we know, President Obama has been more than willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street, but he hasn’t been willing to stand with Israel. Israel looks at President Obama and they do not see a friend.
Who knows what she means? And there’s Fred Kaplan:
God help us if any of these jokers makes it into the White House. It started off with Iran. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Santorum all said that, if sanctions and covert ops failed, they would stop the Iranian nuclear program through military action. (Paul said he wouldn’t; Bachman and Huntsman didn’t get the question.)
As for the other hot-button issue, whether we should resume torturing suspected terrorists, Cain pulled out this gem: “I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders [as to] what is torture.” … Perry said he too would defend such “techniques” to his death, adding, “This is war. This is what happens in war.” (John McCain, call Rick Perry.)
Bachmann leapt in to say she’s fine with waterboarding, too, and complained that, under President Obama, “the ACLU is running the CIA.” (Quick, somebody, tell David Petraeus!) She also made the astonishing claim that when our troops capture terrorists on the battlefield, there are no jails to lock them up in. (Somebody, tell the Army to set up detention centers!)
Only Paul and Huntsman spoke up for the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual on interrogation. Huntsman noted with a grave expression: “This country has values. I’ve lived overseas four times.… We diminish our standing in the world when we engage in torture. Waterboarding is torture.”
Gingrich wasn’t asked the torture question, but he did say that the nation needs to throw out all the CIA reforms that the Church Committee passed in the 1970s.
It was mostly pandering, without much coherence:
Romney wasn’t asked the question (too bad), but, on a related matter, he said that he would never negotiate with the Taliban because he doesn’t believe in negotiating with terrorists. Someone should ask him, next time out, how he plans to win, end hostilities, reach a settlement, or do something besides keep fighting forever in Afghanistan.
On Afghanistan, most of the candidates said Obama made a big mistake in setting a date for withdrawal. Romney sort of agreed, but also said that Obama’s 2014 pullout date seemed “the right timetable.” Huntsman said the troops should come home now (except for some special ops, trainers, and tactical intelligence) and give up on nation-building, except at home.
Cain was remarkably honest about how little he knows, about anything.
And the rest was what it was:
Perry’s proof that he has experience in this realm: “For 10 years, I’ve been commander-in-chief of 20,000 National Guard in Texas. … I’m dealing with generals, I know individuals in the Department of Defense at the highest level who will help me.” This is half-nonsense, half-puzzling. The nonsense: As was made very clear when Sarah Palin made a similar argument, governors have no control whatsoever over the National Guard units in their states, except to deploy them for local disaster-relief, that sort of thing. The puzzle: Who are these generals and high-level DoD people who will help Perry if he’s president? The same ones who are currently helping Obama?
And there was this:
Romney, asked about the prospect of a trade war with China, said, “A trade war is already going on” and promised to take China to the World Trade Organization on charges of currency manipulation. Huntsman, who was Obama’s ambassador to China, retorted, “The reality is different, as it usually is when you’re on the ground.” First, he noted, China can’t be taken to the WTO on currency charges. Second, a trade war would hurt the United States quite badly. Third, we should reach out to China’s rising young computer generation. Again, he seemed reasonable. (No wonder he doesn’t have a chance, and, after his diss of Romney, his prospects for becoming secretary of state, on the chance of a GOP victory in 2012, don’t look too good, either.)
And here is what Kaplan says was the dumbest remark of the night, Gingrich saying that every candidate up on the stage would be “superior to the current administration.”
If he’s serious, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Or maybe he was assuming that if one of the other Republicans wins, he (or, really God help us, she) would surely hire Newt Gingrich to run the nation’s foreign policy.
But it wasn’t a serious night:
CBS News, which co-sponsored this debate with the National Journal, aired the first hour of the 90-minute session on its national broadcast, but let local affiliates decide whether they wanted to air the remaining half hour or resume normal programming. (In New York, WCBS went for NCIS, as I suspect most others did. The climax could be watched on the network’s website, which had buffering problems.) The network’s producers, I suspect, made the right move. They know how important national-security issues are likely to be in this election – not very – and they seem to have guessed well how seriously the candidates in this debate should be taken in any case – even less.
Saturday night is after all where the networks dump the useless and forgettable.
And to prove that, there was Michele Bachmann:
So what would I cut? I think, really, what I would wanna do is be able to go back and take a look at Lyndon Baines Johnson’s The Great Society.
The Great Society has not worked, and it’s put us into the modern welfare state. If you look at China, they don’t have food stamps. If you look at China, they’re in a very different situ – they save for their own retirement security. They don’t have pay FDIC. They don’t have the modern welfare state. And China’s growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with The Great Society, and they’d be gone.
And Steve Benen comments:
Even for Bachmann, this is just amazing.
Sure, it stands to reason right-wing candidate would call for the destruction of “the modern welfare state”; that’s become a rather standard part of any far-right ideology. But once a President Bachmann takes a sledgehammer to the Great Society, what does she want to replace it with? A Chinese model.
Bachmann considers programs like Medicare to be “socialist,” which she thinks is bad, and looks longingly at Chinese communism, which she thinks is good.
Remember over the summer when Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll and looked like a top-tier candidate? A few months later, it still seems hard to believe.
And there’s Rick Perry:
Listen, there are some people who have made the statement that – the 21st century is gonna be the – the century of China and that, you know, we’ve had our time in the sunshine. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that at all. As a matter of fact, you think back to the 1980s and we faced a similar type of – of a situation with – with Russia.
And Ronald Reagan said that Russia would end up on the ash heap of history. And he was right. Mitt, I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honest.
What? Again Benen comments:
First, to say the relationship between the United States and China now is “similar” to the “type” of relationship the United States had with the USSR in the 1980s is bizarre.
Second, to draw a parallel between the Soviets of the Cold War and the Chinese of the 21st century is ridiculous.
And third, I haven’t the foggiest idea what “virtues of honest” is even supposed to mean.
But that’s easy. Perry was just riffing, slamming likely words together, kind of like Gertrude Stein used to do. But Stein did that to see what would happen – “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” – “Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle” – that sort of thing. It was Dada surreal playfulness. And she was a strange woman living in the Paris of Picasso and Hemingway and Tristan Tzara – not someone now running for president. Rick Perry, sadly, was actually hoping to make sense. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honest. Actually, Gertrude Stein could have written that sentence. Maybe she did. And maybe Rick Perry wrote her famous line – America is my country, but Paris is my hometown. You never know.
But no, it was just another Saturday night in America – a time of existential despair, or denying it. Despair seems more appropriate.