0 minutes. The first Republican debate of 2016 begins with a promise. “Every day, the end of the road gets closer,” says the disembodied voice of the Fox Business Network, as the screen flashes a montage of clichés like cornfields and people headed to work. There is no time to fact-check this. The Iowa caucus may be just 18 days away, but time can stand still in moments of intense pain.
2 minutes. Fox host Neil Cavuto gives the candidates a chance to wave hello. They come armored for battle, with flag pins, red or blue ties. But the waves give them away. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump waves big and sloppy, like a dog who is happy to see you. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is practiced, controlled, with elements of a beauty queen. Florida Senator Marco Rubio hardly waves, just raises and lowers his hand, like he is being macho and doesn’t care. Ohio Governor John Kasich seems to do a pistol shot with his fingers after his wave. Pow, pow.
5 minutes. No opening statements, which is a relief. Maybe the road does end. Cruz gets the first question, about how the economy is doing. Instead of answering, he talks about the American sailors captured in Iran, on their knees at gunpoint. There is no better metaphor for how Republican voters feel at this moment in history. Cruz knows this, and promises that no soldier will be on his knees when he becomes President. “Any nation that captures our fighting men will feel the full force and fury of the United States of America,” he says. War, he means. Or at minimum, pride.
6 minutes. The strategy is to give all the candidates opening softballs. Kasich gets a question about the stock market. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is asked about the world being on fire. It goes on like this. The smart candidates turn whatever question they get into an attack on Obama. The smarter ones attack both Obama and Clinton. Christie says Clinton won’t get “within 10 miles of the White House” if he becomes the nominee. This is a difficult promise to keep, since she travels with Secret Service protection. But maybe he knows people.
14 minutes. Former brain surgeon Ben Carson’s softball is about how to fight the Islamic State. His answer is a marvelous mess. He says Obama doesn’t know we live in the 21st century, with dirty bombs, cyberattacks on electric grids and nuclear weapons that “can explode in our exoatmosphere.” Then he starts talking about electromagnetic pulse attacks, “an existential threat to us.” The Islamic State does not have nuclear weapons, or pose an exoatmospheric electromagnetic pulse threat. But Carson has just proved he knows some stuff.
18 minutes. Trump introduces himself by admitting that he learns what he knows about Syrian migration from cable news. “When I look at the migration, I looked at the line, I said it actually on your show recently,” he says to Cavuto. “Where are the women? It looked like very few women. Very few children.” According to the U.N., more than half of Syrian refugees are women, and about 1 in 4 is younger than 18. The stats didn’t make the shows.
20 minutes. Cruz gets a chance to rebut a New York Times story that says he did not properly report a loan from Goldman Sachs. Cruz loves this question, and he lists off all the times the Times called him demonic. The crowd goes wild. Then he admits, “I made a paperwork error.”
22 minutes. First commercial break and no candidate has been asked to attack another candidate. It’s like the early twilight before a carpet bombing. As he cuts to the ads, Cavuto promises to delve into the “sometimes nasty war of words” when all return.
26 minutes. We’re back, and it’s ugly. Cruz gets the question about whether his birth in Canada to an American mother makes him “native-born” enough to be President. The crowd starts yelling a lot. Cruz makes a convoluted argument about another hypothetical definition of “native-born,” which holds that both parents of a candidate must be born in the U.S. “Donald’s mother was born in Scotland,” Cruz says. “On the issue of citizenship, Donald, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you.”
29 minutes. “O.K., good,” responds Trump. “Because it wouldn’t work.” This sounds true, but no one really knows. Cruz just out-birthered the original birther, by questioning the birthrights of his mom. It’s like a triple-birther “oh snap” game. And when you enter this territory, there’s no telling if anything will ever make sense again. Trump says there is a “4 or 5% chance” that Democrats sue Canadian-born Cruz and win, so that even if he gets elected, he will be unable to take office. Trump has calculated this in the void.
34 minutes. Rubio and Christie fight over who gets to interrupt. Rubio wins. “I think we have to get back to what this election has to be about,” he says. By this he means, President Obama is terrible and so is Hillary Clinton.
37 minutes. Rubio is prompted to dump on Christie, and obliges, making the case that Christie is liberal like Obama for supporting the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, supporting Common Core and certain types of gun control. These are all things Christie once did do. But Christie denies and pulls rank. “See, when you’re a Senator, what you get to do is just talk, talk, talk.” Governors do stuff, like deny their past support for things that might hurt them in the next election.
40 minutes. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose supporters are currently running a blistering campaign of negative ads against Rubio, interrupts to say that no one should believe negative ads. “Everybody needs to discount some of the things you’re going to hear in these ads,” he says, basically raising the middle finger to the donors who gave him $100 million to run attacks on his behalf.
45 minutes. Carson is asked if Hillary Clinton enabled sexual misconduct by her husband. He answers by saying online comment sections are often very rude. “You cannot go five comments down before people are calling each other all manner of names,” he says. “Where did that spirit come from in America?” That is not his only question. “Do we still have standards?” he asks. This is surely the heart of the matter, the most important question of the night. It may be the most important question of the 2016 election.
48 minutes. Time for another commercial break. The end of the road feels no closer.
51 minutes. Back to talk about guns. Bush has some nice words about the Charleston shooting victims and their community. But no one on stage is for more gun control. Instead, it’s really a competition to see who has gotten more awards from the National Rifle Association, and who is more upset at Obama. Trump is asked, “Are there any circumstances that you think we should be limiting gun sales of any kind in America?” His answer: “No.” Then: “The guns don’t pull the trigger.”
55 minutes. Rubio does one of his prose poems. It’s pretty. Giving him two minutes to talk uninterrupted to Republicans in 2016 about guns and Obama is like giving David Bowie a wig, makeup and a bump of blow in a crowd of teenagers in 1974. Rubio claims that Obama wants to take away everyone’s guns, which Obama has explicitly said he does not want to do.
62 minutes. Cruz is asked to define his claim that Trump has “New York values.” “I think most people know exactly what New York values are,” Cruz says. He does not just mean an extreme impatience at cars that don’t move as soon as the light turns green. “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying,” Cruz concludes.
64 minutes. Trump hits back, saying conservative hero William F. Buckley came from Manhattan, which is true, though he lived much of his life in Connecticut. Then Trump name-drops 9/11. “We rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers,” Trump says. “And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.” Even Cruz joins in the applause.
68 minutes. “We must make sure we continue to frack,” says Kasich. This is true. Fracking is natural, an act of love. Without fracking, the humans will die out. The world needs horizontal drilling. For oil, of course. For oil.
75 minutes. After another commercial, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who recently suspended his campaign, is introduced to the audience. In a small way, he finally makes the main stage of the debate, as his ideas about sending 20,000 troops to fight the Islamic State is put to Carson. He clearly has no idea. He says the thing to do is “talk to our military officials and ask them.” Do we still have standards?
79 minutes. Trump is asked if he wants to rethink his plan to temporarily ban all Muslims from coming into the country. “No,” says Trump, and people laugh. This is the moment Bush has been waiting for. He pounces. “We’re running for the presidency of the United States here,” he declares strongly. “This isn’t — this isn’t, you know, a different kind of job,” he ends weakly. Trump appears to win the exchange, though not by focusing on the merits.
86 minutes. Christie says he would not allow Syrian refugees into the country. Cruz agrees, saying, “We will utterly and completely destroy ISIS,” which is a lot more destruction than just destroying ISIS.
90 minutes. “Dr. Carson, where do you stand?” asks Fox host Maria Bartiromo about the refugee dilemma. Carson appears totally baffled. “Like all of our problems, there isn’t a single one that can’t be solved with common sense if you remove the ego and the politics,” he says. “And clearly, what we need to do is get a group of experts together.” There is no problem for which Carson cannot outsource an opinion.
91 minutes. The Fox hosts try to alarm the audience about the painful consequences of starting a trade war with China, as Trump has promised to do with punitive tariffs. Trump holds his ground. “I’m totally open to a tariff,” he says.
99 minutes. “If you put a tariff on a good, it’s Americans who pay,” Cavuto points out. “Absolutely,” chimes in Bush, who still wants to fight with Trump. This bothers Trump. “You looking at me?” Trump asks. “Yeah,” says Bush, who goes on to explain that tariffs could cripple American manufacturers like Boeing. Trump amps it up: “We don’t need a weak person being President of the United States, O.K.? Because that’s what we’d get if it were Jeb.” Bush keeps talking about tariffs but doesn’t have a response to the name calling. Again a loss, but not on the merits.
105 minutes. After another break it’s time to talk about taxes. Carson says, “My mother would drive a car until it didn’t make a sound, then gather all her coins and buy a new car.” He means that she was thrifty and would make a better Treasury Secretary than the recent ones.
111 minutes. Rubio and Cruz battle it out over their plans for taxing business. Rubio claims Ronald Reagan would disapprove of Cruz’s European approach, which is not a tax on income but a value-added tax. Cruz says his plan is not value-added. (Tax experts disagree.) They basically fight to a draw.
115 minutes. Christie butts in and shuts down Rubio. “You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it,” he says. Rubio had not blown it, but now that he has been called out by Christie without responding, it seems like he did.
120 minutes. Trump says he would have nothing to do with his business if he gets elected. “I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it,” he says of his children. “If that’s a blind trust, I don’t know.” Like Yoda.
124 minutes. Usually these debates last two hours. Usually the road ends. But not tonight. Some people in the audience start shouting, “We want Rand! We want Rand!” since Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did not make the cut for tonight’s debate. As soon as they start, they stop. Not clear why. Maybe they were really shouting, “We want the end! We want the end!” Maybe the end came for them.
129 minutes. Rubio and Cruz get into it, bad. Suffice it to say, the back and forth includes all sorts of topics: Rubio’s embrace of comprehensive immigration reform, Cruz’s defense of Edward Snowden, Rubio’s recent decision to seek less legal visas in light of ISIS, Cruz’s recent flip-flop to support federal subsidies for crop insurance. “That is not consistent conservatism. That is political calculation,” says Rubio. “At least half the things Marco said are flat-out false,” says Cruz. “You think they like each other?” asks Trump. The answer is no.
133 minutes. Here’s the thing about roads: It usually doesn’t matter where they end. You don’t have time to get to the end. That’s not where you are going. So getting closer to the end is really not a comfort at all. Maybe the road is so long that you could spend your life on it, always getting closer to the end, but never arriving. In that case, the person who told you at the beginning of this debate that the end of the road was getting closer was actually deceiving you. The end was a mirage. The journey was a trap. There is no escape. Only more road.
135 minutes. It’s still going. Really. The road. The endless agonizing road. The topic, appropriately enough, is encryption.
136 minutes. Closing statements. Which aren’t really about closure. There will be more debates. And after that, more elections. This never ends. Only you end. And you can’t get off. No one can. That’s the secret. The road ends, but you cannot know the end. It is beyond. The road before you keeps going.
145 minutes. Not the end.