This week, America got to experience the fifth debate between the GOP candidates, to which America responded, "We've had four of these things already?" Yes, America, and they are tending to blur together. But the sheer malevolent ubiquity of these debates is teaching us something about the modern political media -- when it comes to paying a high price to build some cheap pageantry just so you can plant and confirm your own media narrative, there's nothing quite like a debate to do the job. It's an exercise in controlled combustion. And with the intra-party insurgent Tea Party serving as audience and co-sponsor, this was the week of purity tests, anti-establishment leanings and fealty to whatever the Tea Party conceives as "liberty." (A hint: it's actually not what libertarian Ron Paul conceives as "liberty"!)
Mostly, this was the debate in which Republicans were finally supposed to turn on each other. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry needed to have a fight now! Michele Bachmann needed to claw her way back into the mix somehow! Jon Huntsman needed (apparently) to unload a bunch of awkward quips! Let's have Rick Santorum and Ron Paul yell at each other some more about isolationism, for auld lang syne! No one seemed capable of taking measure of the fact that the first primary was still many months away, and no one was inclined to simply remain calm. Even Newt Gingrich glumly went along, despite previously complaining about the way the debate moderators were transparently seeking party infighting.
So we led into the CNN debate believing that the next twist in the rivalry between Romney and Perry was all but assured to play out. When the two last clashed, Team Romney was crowing about how they were going to crush Team Perry by attacking him on his Social Security position. And while Wolf Blitzer began with a brief toss to Bachmann -- it was important to get her involved immediately so they could quickly shed themselves of the "fickle media ignores Bachmann" criticism -- they soon had Romney and Perry going at it. Funny thing, though: Romney's attacks didn't gain much traction with the audience. Perry found, in the Tea Party faithful, a crowd that was perfectly happy to hear Social Security referred to as a "Ponzi scheme." The big kick everyone was promised didn't happen.
But that's when things got gloriously unmoored, as Bachmann took over the proceedings, went after Perry for a public health decision he'd made in an effort to halt the spread of the human papilloma virus and steered the entire debate into a patch of pure Gardasilliness. Soon, Bachmann had her competitors piling on Perry. Things heated up again during a debate over immigration reform. Soon, Perry looked like a cornered animal, Bachmann looked emboldened and Romney -- we imagine -- maybe looked at his fellow candidates doing his dirty work all around him and thought, "I bet I make up some ground on Perry by the end of the week." (And that's precisely what happened.)
The infighting continued during the week, with Perry being accused of crony capitalism, Romney being hit for killing jobs with his health care reform and Bachmann taking it on the chin for spreading some crackpot tales about modern medicine. For awhile, the campaign became an unpredictable beast again. And for the first time, Republicans were going at each other instead of making sustained attacks on the sitting president.
But for President Barack Obama, it was a small kindness during what may have been one of the worst weeks of his presidency. Democratic failures in two special elections on two sides of the country got framed immediately as a referendum on his presidency. His American Jobs Act caught opposition from members of his own party. Fundraisers struggled behind the scenes to manufacture enthusiasm, a prominent Democratic pundit was calling for panic and a new campaign-oriented website became "the laughingstock of the Internet." And yet, all of that may be the least of his problems when compared to what was going on in the afterlife of a tiny energy company named Solyndra in Fremont, Calif.
For all of this and more about this week on the campaign trail, please enter the Speculatron for the week of September 16, 2011: