Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."
(CNN) -- So here's what I learned watching Thursday night's Republican debate:
States' rights should rule the day, unless you're gay.
Small government is the rule unless a rapist impregnates his victim.
Loyalty oaths should be the new normal.
Ten-to-one spending cuts to tax increases is an ideologically unacceptable compromise.
And refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a stand for fiscal responsibility even if it were to trigger an immediate default.
The action onstage in Ames, Iowa, on Thursday night provided a portrait of a grand old party that seems increasingly at war with reality itself. Responsible governance and philosophic consistency were endangered species in this political arena.
Not that there weren't notable highlights among the low moments.
Mitt Romney appeared positively presidential next to the seven dwarfs who stood beside him. The consummate salesman bobbed and weaved to avoid answering any awkward questions directly, but in the end no one laid a glove on the de facto front-runner.
Jon Huntsman had a respectable, if subdued debut. He did not pander to the lowest common denominator. He did not flip or flop. And he rightfully criticized the pathetic attempts to recast the threat of debt-ceiling default into a badge of political courage and deficit reduction.
Michele Bachmann again proved that she is a talented debater, but her preferred tactic is simply to keep repeating baseless statements as if the rhythms of her words would provide the underlying logic. They don't.
Tim Pawlenty needed a breakout performance and a knockout punch. Instead, he got mired in a Minnesota-nice-defying back-and-forth with Bachmann that only made him seem small. And given that he had two months to practice his "Obamney-care" comeback against Romney for his Massachusetts health care program, Pawlenty's pushback fell flat. This was not the game changer "T-Paw" needed before Saturday's straw poll.
Newt Gingrich succeeded in at least briefly reminding people he was running for president, though he spent much of his time complaining about legitimate questions like why his entire senior staff fired their candidate. That isn't a process story -- it is a question of competence, judgment and substance. The most memorable policy pronouncement he made was to assert the need for a national loyalty oath. But seriously, he's not in favor of a suffocating big government nanny state.
Ron Paul again asserted himself as the most intellectually influential member of the modern GOP. Somewhere Robert A. Taft was smiling at the applause that neo-isolationism received from the heartland crowd. Auditing the Fed is also a new normal. Foreign policies defended by conservatives under George W. Bush now seem broadly controversial because they are carried out under Obama.
Rick Santorum's frustration at not being in the first tier of candidates remains clear, even as he rushes to defend the rights of gays against Islamists in Iran but would treat them as second-class citizens here in America. Likewise, a new anti-abortion standard was asserted, putting doctors in jail for performing abortions in addition to his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape and incest.
Near as I can tell, the federal marriage amendment is still the standard in the supposedly strict constructionist GOP, with the honorable exception of Huntsman, despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support freedom for gays to marry. Squaring this position with the oft-cited 10th Amendment states' rights fallback remains an impressive stretch -- and when Romney tried to bridge the logical gap, I couldn't help but thinking how state anti-miscegenation laws would have fared under this same analytic lens.
The lowest moment for responsible governance occurred when all the candidates on stage raised their hands to say that they would reject a 10-to-1 spending cut to tax hike split as a deal to reduce the deficit. That is a sign of a party that is being held intellectually captive by its most extreme activist elements, essentially forbidding the concept of constructive compromise that is at the heart of democracy, let alone divided government. Fiscal conservatism has been delinked from fiscal responsibility.
At a time when America needs a strong and vibrant center-right, that once-core Republican constituency was almost entirely unrepresented on the stage Thursday night. And not coincidentally, the two candidates closest to that zip-code -- Romney and Huntsman -- were the only ones who appeared even vaguely presidential.
If Bachmann wins the straw poll, which now seems likely, and wins the caucus, it will be a serious time for choosing within the Republican Party. The new entry of Rick Perry into the field only adjusts the timeline of that conflict slightly.
Watching the debate, it was tempting to say that President Barack Obama was the real winner because the Republican field is so weak. But with the manic recession continuing and confidence in all of Washington weakening, there is the chance that one of the people onstage Thursday night in Ames could be the next president of the United States.
It was a good debate to the extent that it was a spectacle with plenty of partisan conflict, canned applause lines and special-interest pandering. The problem is that such political circuses rarely produce statesmen.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.