I thank CNN and its excellent master of ceremonies, Anderson Cooper, for the two Republican presidential town halls in South Carolina. Wednesday night we had Dr. Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. Thursday night it was John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump. Each of them had more than a half hour to expound their views, individually, to the audience, and to take questions from the audience.

For the first time, we got to see the GOP candidates, as a whole, not delivering sound bites and talking points in a screaming match, but spending the time to explain their positions in some detail to the audience. They actually came across as more serious and human, less as marionettes being yanked by unseen forces behind the curtain. If you need proof that the Republican Party is a Stupid Party, look at how its presidential debates have harmed the GOP brand.

Bear in mind that I am not talking here about candidates I could actually vote for. To me, war is the paramount issue in a presidential campaign and with presidential candidates. The Republican Party today is a War Party, and its candidates differ only in the degree and consistency with which they support perpetual war in defense of the American Empire. So my observations are those of, say, a visitor from Timbuktu who is intrigued by this American custom of elections every four years, or a sociologist/anthropologist examining his specimens.

The big surprise for me was how this town hall format gave me new respect for two candidates I had completely dismissed beforehand.

Dr. Ben Carson actually came across as a discerning and sensible candidate. It turns out he was not really asleep in the preceding debates, he was just cowed by the debate format. He is obviously disciplined given his abilities as a surgeon, he just is not socially aggressive in the least. If America ever decides that a candidate’s inner character is more important than his political experience, it will consider Dr. Carson. I’m not holding my breath for that day.

John Kasich previously came across to me as too namby-pamby in his demeanor, sort of a Mr. Rogers (who I never could stand even though my young daughter and her friends loved him) in a political neighborhood. Not my taste. But in this expanded format he came across as a thoughtful and compassionate person who somehow happens to be a politician. I liked him. We could do a lot worse. But he, too, has no chance of being nominated.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both came across as convincing possible suspects in a police lineup. Shoot their commercials in black and white—this is film noir for the 21st century. Both are slick debaters and political operatives, too slick for their own good. Marco is the nice guy with the infectious smile, Ted is the heavy, but you don’t trust either one. They both could have committed the crime, and both probably did, but they’re so damn good at throwing suspicion to someone else.

(Even though I was painfully shy in high school, I was a pretty good debater. I learned that almost any position can be defended whether you believe in it or not. That’s why I don’t trust skilled debaters. I know they could just as easily take the opposite position persuasively.)

Jeb Bush. I’ve never voted for a Bush, and never will, but he’s an enigma to me. Back in the heady days of toppling statues of Saddam, I heard a number of conservatives say, “Jeb is the conservative one. Jeb is the smart one. Too bad Karl Rove was W’s brain rather than Jeb’s brain.” After this election cycle, I just don’t know. He’s probably likeable enough in a person-to-person setting, he’s thoughtful, he appeals to the policy wonk in me, but I end up feeling embarrassed for him in a contentious political setting. He remained awkward in the more relaxed town hall format. And I keep wondering: How did he ever become governor of Florida?

Donald Trump. He tried his best to be couth, likeable, somebody you might actually buy a used car from, but it just didn’t work. The problem is that there’s no there there. He deals in bluster and hyperbole, and even in a more leisurely town hall setting he comes across saying nothing of substance. I know, intellectuals don’t make good politicians, but couldn’t he at least have some semblance of coherent thought? Instead all we get is a litany of emotional outbursts and meaningless generalities. He was the only candidate who couldn’t give substantial answers to questions from the audience. And it doesn’t help when the Pope—the Pope!—has dissed you hours beforehand. For the record, I would have been harder on His Holiness than The Donald was.

Two Ways to Decide Who to Vote For

“Who would you most like to have a beer with?”

Maybe Kasich, if he’s not a complete phony about being a regular guy. But none of them, really. Heck, I voted for Obama but his beer guzzling session was as phony as his birth certificate. (That’s a joke, Donald!)

I prefer vodka martinis, Moscow mules, or wine to beer at this stage of my life. I can see comparing wine vintages with Jeb—he’s a Bush, after all—but I wouldn’t trust any of them offering me the harder stuff before they handed me a blank check with their name as beneficiary. Especially Donald. One of the nice things about the two town halls was how Anderson Cooper would end the interviews with some personal questions of the candidates, all in the effort to make them seem like human beings. It turns out Trump insists he does not drink liquor, smoke, or do drugs. I can understand the last two, but I was surprised at the first (though it turns out he has known too many people who have become alcoholics). Somehow I suspect he doesn’t mind closing a deal, however, with someone who has been imbibing during the negotiations.

Which voice do you want coming into your living room, on the tele, for the next four or eight years?

This actually is the deal-breaker for me. One reason I haven’t been able to succumb to virulent anti-Obamaism is that I’ve found his voice to be relatively pleasant—for a President. And especially considering what I had to put up with in the previous eight years.

I fear that these days of relative peace are about to end. Of the current Republican contenders, the two pleasant voices belong to Dr. Carson and John Kasich, and unfortunately America does not select Presidents by their voices or speech patterns. And it gets worse when I look across the aisle—a strident, haranguing windmill versus an old Marxist with diarrhea of the mouth, the kind of guy I used to debate on Union Square. (If you want some real fun, see the Coen brothers movie “Hail, Caesar!” All the Marxist Hollywood screenwriters are clones of Bernie Sanders.)

Final Irony

This is the weirdest election cycle I’ve witnessed in my 60-plus years of observing and commenting on American politics. And one of the most delicious aspects is that the Democratic Party is now represented by two old white people, two boring old white people, while the Republicans are offering a black man, two Latinos, and an Anglo who thinks he’s Latino. Only in America.

David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along the way he has voted for good guys like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and (above all) Ron Paul. But he has also voted for Richard Nixon, Ralph Nader, John Kerry, and Hussein Obama. Only in America.