There’s a cliché that politics is show business for ugly people.
As I watched the first Republican presidential debate, I began to think that there’s room for a new cliché – politics is a demolition derby for bad drivers.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. It wasn’t particularly uplifting.
But it was an accurate reflection of American politics in an era of often unfocused and unexplained anger.
The whole thing was unwieldy. In the first place, it was the first time in nearly 40 years of covering politics that I saw a debate that was really two debates – a 5 p.m. lightning round for the seven members of the “thanks for playing” crowd and then a 9 p.m. main event for the top 10 candidates.
Yes, that’s right. If you’re doing the math, there are 17 candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination.
If one more joins the race, they can pick up gloves and bats and have a baseball game.
Sticking with the baseball theme, none of the candidates hit a home run. A few made errors, but none that were likely to be fatal.
The big news from the night came early in the “big kids” debate when the moderators from Fox News asked all the candidates to raise a hand if they would consider running as a third-party candidate should he not get the Republican nomination.
Donald Trump – the billionaire self-promoter who has vaulted to a commanding lead among the GOP candidates – was the only one who raised his hand.
Trump said he could only do that if he trusted the eventual nominee, which was not exactly a glowing endorsement of the other men on the stage. Even when the moderator pressed Trump by saying that a third-party campaign likely would guarantee victory for a Democrat in 2016, The Donald refused to promise to support another Republican candidate.
That started a round of low-key skirmishing regarding the Trump effect. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, took some shots at Trump over his ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton and his supposed flip-flopping on a single-payer health care system.
Trump’s worst moment came when Fox’s Megan Kelly asked him about some disparaging comments he’d made over the years about women. Trump tried to deflect the question by making a joke about Rosie O’Donnell, with whom he has feuded. Kelly, to her credit, would have none of it and made it clear that Trump’s comments were part of a longstanding pattern.
Trump then ducked the question.
He launched into a largely irrelevant soliloquy about the evils of “political correctness” – and then whined that Kelly was being mean to him.
It wasn’t a moment that screamed straight-talking, stand-up guy.
If there was a big loser during the debate, it probably was Trump – in part because he had the most to lose going in and in part because he often appeared that he was more bombast than substance.
If there were winners, they came from various points on the ideological compass. Ohio Gov. John Kasich had the strongest overall performance, but he entered the debate so far back in the pack that he could have delivered the 21st-century equivalent of the Gettysburg Address and it still wouldn’t have made a difference.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, also had some good moments.
Several candidates other than Trump stumbled, including Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Paul. Carson seemed to fade into the background. Cruz made it clear he’d have just as much trouble working with Republicans as he would Democrats, not exactly a recipe for executive success. And Paul looked like a little kid desperate for someone, anyone, to please, please, please pay attention to him.
When the debate was over, a few things were clear.
Donald Trump won’t rule out running a third-party campaign and thinks anyone who asks him about his insulting comments about half the electorate isn’t being sensitive to his needs.
The Republican field is likely to remain for some time just slightly smaller than the number of drivers who will qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
And every GOP candidate except Trump will continue to fight for time in the spotlight.
That means more demolition derbies for bad drivers.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.