How Mickey Mouse dominated Republican debate

In-fighting wins out as the presidential race accelerates.

I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing 'Mickey Mouse games'.

So said Newt Gingrich last night after FOX News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked the man whose presidential campaign is more than one million dollars in debt whether, quite honestly, he might agree that his attempt to win political election had been a "mess so far".

Mickey Mouse games were indeed the name of the game in Ames, Iowa on Thursday evening, when eight candidates came head to head in round two of the Republican presidential race, all desperate to prove themselves worthy of taking on Obama in next year's presidential elections.

The two-hour debate cranked up the pace several notches after the much more bland affair two months ago, which saw only five of the candidates bother even to turn up. Last time, notable absences included Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michelle Bachman, generally considered to be the more "heavyweight" candidates.

While May's debate saw candidates on their best behaviour, uniting against Obama in a false show of solidarity, Thursday night saw the candidates turn on their fellow Republicans to pull one another's policies apart in a bout of in-fighting that left no clear winner by the end of it all.

The repeated bickering between former governor Tim Pawlenty and congresswoman Michele Bachmann stood out. The two Minnesota candidates exchanged curt criticisms, with Pawlenty gesturing at Bachmann as he accused her record of accomplishment and results of being "non-existent".

Not one to mince his words, he moved on to address her directly with "please stop, because you're killing us". Bachmann held her own, accusing her challenger of taking a stance more in line with Obama than a conservative Republican, a big put down from the Tea Party champion.

Foreign policy took its place in the spotlight for a time. Congressman Ron Paul received strong support after putting forward his pragmatic anti-war position, pointing out that the US can no longer afford to fund wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "the threat from war in Iran is overstated", he said with gusto. Bachmann was having none of it.

The next stage in this ongoing battle will be Saturday's Ames straw poll, the most prominent of the Iowa straw polls running up to the presidential candidacy elections and a good early indicator of voter enthusiasm. Although non-binding, the poll gives a good indication of which candidates are faring particularly badly, in turn affecting their likelihood of winning Iowa in January and so potentially discounting them from the rest of the race.

The fact that some candidates are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to win over tomorrow's voters indicates just how important they think this poll is. With Texan Governor Rick Perry -- the "invisible presence" at the GOP debate last night -- expected to join the campaign this weekend, Mitt Romney's front-running status looks precarious.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt