I don't think the Republican Party is enjoying a robust competition for its nomination. In a year when you would expect a feisty, combustive all-out battle for the presidential nomination - the chance to go one-on-one with a weakened Democratic president - you would expect to see several serious candidates testing each other's abilities.
Instead we've seen a bizarre pattern of one conservative candidate after another put up his head then bow it - Trump, Bachman, Perry, Christie. The head up now is businessman Herman Cain - but the pattern is clear. Each rises and fades - each with one main appeal - as an alternative to Mitt Romney.
Last night this odd ritual of despair on the Tea Party led right to what a fair-minded observer might think was a clown show. But for the sober-minded Romney, think of what was on display. A U.S. Congresswoman responding to a proposal by another candidate by saying his "999" tax proposal could be a cover for "666" - the sign of the Beast.
What did Ms. Bachman mean by saying this in a presidential debate - was it a joke? - If so, where's the humor in making off-the-wall reference to the devil? Or was she simply clowning around.
What did she mean when she warned the students in the audience that they would be paying a 75 percent income tax rate?
What did former senator Santorum mean when he said he wanted to eliminate the corporate tax cut altogether? And replace it with what? What kind of conversation was that last night around that table?
Then in a special category of malevolence came Newt Gingrich's charge that Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank should be imprisoned for passing legislation regulating financial institutions.
While this is typical Gingrich bomb-throwing, it seemed to actually fit in last night - around this strange table where one person seemed to be the adult and so many others were simply acting the part of clowns - doing anything to get attention having realized that the contest - such as it was - seems - at least for this fall season - to be over.
Perhaps the caucuses and primaries of January will bring out a higher level of seriousness. Sadly for the country, it is too late to bring out a more serious cast of candidates. That hope is gone - as the viewers of last night came to discover.
Again, the question looms: Why in a year they had a chance to lead, the Tea Party-jived Republicans have shown up with such a pathetic array of hopefuls.