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Recap: “We Need Brain” – Watching the First Republican Debate in America

Former Metro digital editor Catherine McGregor recently moved to New York. Naturally, her first priority was obtaining a television, so she could watch the first Republican debate on Fox News.

On my local public radio station, morning call-in listeners described how they were planning to watch the show. Comparisons were made to stand-up comedy, WWE, and the audition rounds of American Idol; cold beer and cheesy snacks featured heavily. Here in New York, admittedly a liberal bastion, few seemed concerned with what the first Republican debate – broadcast yesterday on Fox News – would reveal about the minutiae of policy. They were ready to be entertained.

August 6, 2015 would have been a huge day in American television, with or without the Republican debates. Later the same night, after 15 years, Jon Stewart was signing off from The Daily Show, precipitating a seemingly limitless number of think pieces [ed’s note: here’s ours, by longtime admirer Finlay MacDonald], a deluge of heartbroken tweets, and one surprisingly touching ad from fast food restaurant, and perennial Jon Stewart punching bag, Arby’s.

The Daily Show tapes in the early evening; even if it wasn’t the finale, there was no chance the debates would be covered tonight. But sometime during the afternoon came the realisation that Stewart wouldn’t be back to ridicule Ted Cruz’s Herman Munster weirdness, or Donald Trump’s awe-inspiring belligerence, next week, or ever again. He was really going, and it hurt.

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The grossly swollen Republican candidate field meant that only the 10 top-polling candidates were handed a golden ticket for the main debate at 9pm Eastern Time. The other seven, including Ricky Perry, Bobby Jindal and the field’s only female candidate, Carly Fiorina, were relegated to a 5pm warm-up debate, otherwise known as “the kids’ table”. It was a sorry affair. The Republicans’ symbol is an elephant, and for 75 minutes the candidates tried to ignore the giant one in the room, gamely speechifying to the empty seats of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena and to a television audience commencing their evening commute.

Four hours later it was time for the A-team to take to their podiums. The panel had the feeling of a nightmarish family reunion: kindly but ineffective uncle Jeb Bush, creepy cousin that everyone avoids Scott Walker, dickish brother-in-law Ted Cruz, and eight-year-old nephew allowed to stay up late just this once, Marco Rubio. The women? In the kitchen doing dishes, of course.

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And there, centre-stage, stood the undisputed star of the show, Donald John Trump. As expected, he came out swinging, kicking off with arguably his most offensive comment of the night. Moderator Megyn Kelly’s questioned him about insults he’d hurled at women in the past.”You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals,’” she began, before Trump interrupted her with the Wildean come-back “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”

He refused to walk back those comments, blaming “total political correctness” for the outraged reaction, just as he refused to soften his stance on Mexican “rapists” and drug-runners: “Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them, they don’t want to take care of them.”

Desperate not to be outshone, the other candidates let loose with their pre-prepared zingers. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson told the audience they should vote for him because “I’m the only one to take out half a brain, but if you went to Washington you would think someone had beat me to it.” Uh, good one? Rand Paul, meanwhile, laid into New Jersey governor Chris Christie for his infamous “big hug” with President Obama during the Hurricane Sandy rebuild, a gesture akin to a mortal sin in this context.

In the end it was widely agreed that the night’s victor was Carly Fiorina, whose confident answers put her head and shoulders above the rest of the sad sacks at the curtain-raiser debate. Maybe so. But with their most savage critic leaving the stage for good, perhaps all 17 candidates should chalk tonight up as a win.


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