By Gail Collins
The New York Times
Our national attention span is ... short. The Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday was ... long. Really, if you throw in the earlier loser debate, it was the longest ever.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates would go on for three hours. But that was back when in many towns, the most exciting public activity of the year was pole-raising.
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Are people going to remember the shallow, sassy Donald Trump from the first half-hour? ("I wrote 'The Art of the Deal.' I say not in a braggadocio's way I've made billions and billions of dollars.") Or the middle-section Trump who clearly didn't have a clue about how to critique President Barack Obama's Syrian policy? ("Somehow he just doesn't have courage. There's something missing from our president.") And then there was the completely, unbelievably irresponsible Trump of the finale who claimed he knew people whose daughter got autism from a vaccine shot. (This happened, he said, to "people that work for me just the other day.") Remember when the vaccination issue destroyed Michele Bachmann's political career? One can only hope.
Of course everyone wanted to hear Jeb Bush take on the front-runner. Smackdown! Bush got his opportunity very early. Where would he go? Immigration? Taxes? Foreign affairs? Bush accused Trump of giving him campaign donations in order to get casino gambling in Florida.
"Totally false," said Trump. "I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it." Do you think that's what Bush was practicing over the last couple of weeks? There were six or seven people on the stage who sounded more forceful than he did. A recent poll in Florida suggested that only 52 percent of Florida Republicans want their former governor to continue running for president. At times on Wednesday, that seemed like overenthusiasm.
Bush perked up a little in the middle, when he volunteered that he'd smoked marijuana in his youth. Then at the end, when he was asked what woman he'd like to see on the $10 bill, he said ... Margaret Thatcher.
Nobody wanted to deal with the global warming issue. Virtually everybody made up a Planned Parenthood scenario that never existed. Ah, Republicans.
And in other activities, Carly Fiorina managed to yet again drop the name "my good friend ... Bibi Netanyahu." Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin repeated his previous debate trick of vanishing entirely into the scenery. Walker's poll numbers are vanishing, too, and it appears his only playing card is to remind people that he fought against public-employee unions. Lately he's been desperately upping the anti-union ante so much that his next step would have to be demanding that federal employees be prohibited from talking with one another outside of work.
Marco Rubio — remember Marco Rubio? The senator who vanished all summer except the time he hit the kid in the head with a football? He definitely looked rested.
Ben Carson, at one point, appeared to be accusing Trump of socialism.
Chris Christie did pretty well. Too bad he's such a terrible governor. New Jersey would rather have another traffic crisis at the George Washington Bridge than vote again for Chris Christie.
What do you think it is about governors in this race? Florida is deeply unenthusiastic about Jeb Bush, Wisconsin seems to hate Scott Walker, and if Louisiana had a chance to get its hands on Bobby Jindal, God knows what would happen.
The debate went on for so long it was a wonder no one fainted. And think about the viewers who made it all the way from the first segment — the one where the CNN preview featured a zipper at the bottom of the screen announcing, "PATAKI ARRIVES AT DEBATE HALL." "The first four questions are about Donald Trump!" former Gov. George Pataki complained. Sen. Lindsey Graham repeatedly slid in the fact that his parents ran a bar and a poolroom. Graham insists he's really enjoying himself, although when someone keeps saying "I'm running because I think the world is falling apart," it's sort of a downer.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum and Jindal tried so hard to break through the barrier of national indifference they sounded like rabid otters.
Yes, some political junkies watched Republicans debating for almost five hours Wednesday. This should be a message to the Democrats. Right now the party is engaged in a fight about whether its schedule of three debates in 2015 is too puny. There are a number of democratic nations in the world where you could easily overcome this argument by pointing out that the election is not until 2016.
But the American people are fine with more debates. Honest, there can be one every night as long as the American people are not actually forced to watch them. It could be a kind of endurance contest. Last person standing gets the nomination.