What’s in a nickname at the GOP debate?

The Republican presidential debate had reached the silly hour. The softball question du jour: choose your potential Secret Service nickname.  This before a discussion of poverty, policing, not to mention more than a passing remark on the refugee crisis in Syria in this ostensibly foreign policy-focused debate.  But moving on.

Jeb Bush’s offering (Eveready) got a laugh and applause from the audience, and also a handslap from Donald Trump, who has often said the former Florida governor is “low energy.” But others fell flat.

Not particularly due to the failure of the candidates’ deliveries or choices.  Nothing was particularly wrong with “Secretariat” (Carly Fiorina’s choice), or “Duck Hunter” (Mike Huckabee’s pick).  But watching each candidate, accomplished in their chosen field, deliver one-word answers like nothing so much as an ice breaker at a forced social gathering, and watching the camera swing away from their face after their one word, or at most a few, was disheartening.

The nickname issue begs the question of what we’re looking for in these debates (10 to go, just for the Republicans).  Perhaps we want substance: a clear discussion of policy, evidence of knowledge earned or gained.  But how to get that across in a minute — does saying “sixth fleet” profess an understanding of geopolitics or just a signaling toward it?  And if we’re wary of the signal — at least it signals something — what then can we trust?  A multiple-choice standardized test?

The presidential hopefuls conducted a second round job interview with America on Wednesday night — they’d submitted resumes, gotten called back, due to internships or being in the right place at the right time; bolstered by family connections or hard work or both.  Now they’re here, dressed for the job they seek.  Should we ask them to estimate the number of office windows in Washington, D.C.?  Or reveal their biggest flaws?

The nickname question gave us a chance to see some personality, at least — the college freshman-earnestness of Marco Rubio (Gator), the wordy zaniness of Rand Paul (Justice Never Sleeps). It exposed at least a small element of the candidates’ truest selves, or perhaps what they believed to be their truest selves — the way children fixate on what their favorite color is, or video game, or book.  As a preference, it’s the only thing that’s their own.

One of the saddest moments of the debate was seeing the look on the candidates’ faces after they emitted this little like, this small choice — as they waited to see what the audience would think.

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