GOP Debate Is Wicked

The Republican race has turned into “The Wizard of Oz.” Rick Perry wants a brain. Mitt Romney wants a heart. And any number of candidates are Dorothy, realizing there is no place like home and they should have stayed there.

Herman Cain is seeking courage. He needs the courage to face the fact he is never going to be the Republican nominee, no matter how well he does in the polls. He needs the courage to settle for something far better than the presidency: his own show on Fox.

They all march down the yellow brick road that leads not from rally to rally or, heaven forbid, voter to voter, but from debate to debate, like the one held Tuesday at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. All the candidates were seated, and co-moderator Charlie Rose described the setting as a “kitchen table.”

But if it had been my kitchen table growing up, I would have left home.

Ostensibly devoted to the topic of economics, the debate was instead devoted to sniping and one-liners and familiar regurgitations from the candidates’ briefing books. If it is possible to hold a debate and have nobody win, this was it.

But, once again, Romney didn’t lose, which makes him the same thing as a winner. If he could only find a heart. He seems like someone who plays a president on TV, not someone who really yearns for the job. If you put your ear to his chest, would you hear the lub-dub, lub-dub of a warm human heart or the whirr and click of a cold, calculating machine?

As usual, he had his lines down: “The answer is to cut federal spending. The second part of the answer is to get our economy to grow. Get Americans back to work and paying taxes. I think it’s a terrible idea to cut defense. I think it’s a terrible idea to raise taxes.”

Whirr. Click.

Rick Perry, who blamed his past poor debate performances on being “tired,” will have to come up with a new excuse for why he cannot find his brain. Tuesday night, he didn’t look like he needed sleep, but caffeine. In reality, he is probably brighter than his predecessor as governor of Texas, George W. Bush (who nonetheless managed to get through eight years in the White House). But Perry simply cannot show it.

Visibly nervous, he stumbled from answer to answer, and even his rehearsed lines seemed defensive and prickly. “Mitt’s had six years to work on a plan,” Perry grumped. “I’ve been at this about eight weeks.” Pray for another eight weeks, governor.

And then there were the lions and tigers and bears.

Michele Bachmann, a former flavor of the week, came armed with one-liners. She hit Herman Cain’s trademark 9-9-9 tax plan, hoping to pick up conservative — and mystical — voters. “Take 9-9-9, and turn it upside down,” Bachmann said. “The devil is in the details.”

The audience, which is to be commended for never cheering once for death, heard that reference to the sign of the devil and went “Oooooo.”

(Go ahead and call Bachmann the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m not going to risk it. Someone might try to throw a bucket of water on her.)

Rick Santorum said at one point: “I want to go to war with China.” He was talking about an economic war. I think.

Jon Huntsman, moderate, reasonable and therefore un-nominatable in the Republican Party, reduced himself to low comedy. “I would respectfully disagree with Rick Santorum; Pennsylvania is not the gas capital of the country,” Huntsman said. “Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the country.”

He then waited for the guffaws that never came.

It went on for 90 grueling minutes, with each candidate elbowing the other around the table. “I’m still speaking! I’m still speaking! I’m still speaking!” Romney said at one point.

Which allows me to bring this extended metaphor to a close with a very famous and very apt exchange.

Dorothy: “How do you talk if you don’t have a brain?”

Scarecrow: “Well, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”

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