The Republican Unreality Show

One of the people in the debate was bombastic to the point of manic, and another was more pointedly aggressive than her usual poised and beautiful self. But enough about Jim Cramer and Maria Bartiromo. It was a revealing debate. It would be wonderful to see President Obama grilled as the Republicans were Wednesday night in Michigan. What exactly will you cut in the entitlement programs? How will you solve the foreclosure crisis? And we’d like you to answer in 30 seconds while we look at you with the sweet-natured gaze of a cop at a crime scene.

Those who say the debates are hurting the Republicans may be right. There is a freak-show element. But seeing Republicans repeatedly walk through fire may in the end make them seem far more impressive than the Democrat who doesn’t have to. People notice the disparity. And this isn’t a bad time in history to see would-be leaders get nailed, and fight back up.

But there was a moment in the debate that suggests something bad. Too many people in that audience were fully locked into Republo-world, a nice place but one that exists apart from the reality-based community. More on that in a moment. First a quick overview.

Rick Perry’s candidacy wasn’t going anywhere before the famous 53-second brain freeze. Now it’s official. To me it was the first thing he’s done that was endearing. You’re out there live in front of six million people, they’re watching closely, you’re under the lights, every word counts—and you blank. You forget the third element of your robotic soundbite. This is human. But we don’t want our presidents to be human, we want them to be perfectly prepped and drilled so we can make fun of their inauthenticity. Anyway, Mr. Perry continues to be dead, just as Newt Gingrich continues to make the debates come alive. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the sexual harassment allegations against him.

Jon Huntsman made a mistake in speaking sympathetically of Occupy Wall Street. Timing is everything. We’re two months into it now, and people have come to see the rampant creepiness. Much of OWS is juvenile, but some of it—the physical bullying, reports of small-time criminality, the intimidation of merchants—has taken on a more sinister cast.

Mitt Romney, of course, did well, and continues to deserve an award for Heroic Self Discipline in the Cutaway Shot. He looks at the other candidates with a benign, encouraging look, as if he’ll take no pleasure in it at all when he squashes them like bugs.

The debates continue to winnow things down. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are second tier and will stay so. Ditto Ron Paul. Mitt Romney is the front-runner because he’s Mitt Romney. This week in a poll more Republicans said they expect him to be the nominee than any other candidate, which must mean something. Mr. Huntsman has a chance to break through in New Hampshire. Mr. Gingrich will never not be compelling, intelligent and fearless in his way, but there was a small moment in the debate in which he was asked about his apparently lucrative past lobbying for Fannie Mae. Keep your eye on that. Right now he’s on the uppalator, as a child once called an elevator going up. But the voting starts in 7½ weeks, the press has never really unleashed on him, and it’s Full Oppo Dump time. He may be on the downalator soon.

Which gets us to Herman Cain, and the bad moment.

Republicans are excited about the race. They’re feeling fierce in their desire to remove the incumbent, and they’re certain America is in a moment of profound crisis. But they’re losing perspective and acting in a way that is insular.

Herman Cain has guts. This is stipulated. He’s a black man of his generation who yet holds and defends conservative views. On the economic crisis, he thought big: Don’t tinker with the system, tear it down—replace the tax structure with something coherent, reliable. He forced the other contenders to think big.

His views on foreign policy are not views but declarations of disinterest. He doesn’t know China is a nuclear power, he’ll let the generals tell him what to do about Afghanistan. All the world’s Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. This is funny until it’s not. At any rate, Mr. Cain has been leading in the polls.

Over the past two weeks he has been accused of sexual misconduct by, at this point, four separate women. Two have come forward. In two cases there were financial settlements. They may all come forward together. The story is likely not going to go away. It is serious. The women may be telling the truth.

Mr. Cain followed the original accusations with a nervous shifting of stories—suddenly remembering details, not recalling others, contradicting himself, blame shifting—it’s the Democratic machine, it’s the Perry campaign, it’s race, the woman is unstable.

At the debates, when he was questioned on this—as he should have been—the Republican audience booed the question and the questioner. Mr. Cain surfed on crowd response. These are “unfounded accusations,” it is “character assassination.” This brought cheers.

Maybe he’s telling the truth. Maybe he’s not. But again, this isn’t a small thing. What the Republicans in the audience were seeing was a sympathetic guy struggling with grave charges that may or may not be true. (Though yes, in any audience there would be some who react, inside and down deep, as if they run Penn State: Why let a few allegations get in the way of the fun?)

But what everyone else is seeing—what those who do not live in Republo-world are seeing—is a guy who, faced with the charges, nervously dodged, deflected and denied. What they are seeing is four women, not one or two. What they are seeing is something that may amount to a pattern.

What the charges deserve is consideration, attention, deep reporting. What they don’t merit is raucous boos, and an insular spirit of “You’re either with us or against us.”

And here is the part that speaks of Republo-world. It’s very easy when you really want something to happen to see signs all around you that it is going to happen. It’s tempting, when you’re surrounded by like-minded people, to cheer your guys no matter what.

But this is a time to be sober. The voting begins in 7½ weeks. We’re picking a president now, right now, every day as we make our decisions.

Did you see the Ohio numbers from Quinnipiac this week? Mr. Obama beating all comers. In an initiative, voters rebuked his health-care, but Gov. John Kasich’s effort to gain some control over unions and public-sector spending was roundly defeated in a referendum. In Ohio, that bellwether state. This thing isn’t over.

Republicans should sober up. They should be thinking not about what the Republican at the local GOP meeting is thinking, but what the independent across the street is thinking. He’s catching the Cain story on TV and thinking: “This guy may have a problem. I want more evidence, but if it’s true, then man, we don’t need to go there again.”

That independent is a pretty important guy. The GOP better start doing a better job of considering how he sees things. He doesn’t live in Republo-world, but he’s right across the street, and he votes. He’s going to pick the next president.