While it is likely that the GOP presidential race is merely a contest to see who gets rolled under the Democratic bus, I endured the affair in the hopes that the GOP would show some glimmer of hope. To be sure, my hopes were not high. The Republican Party has become an unusual beast in the last few years -- they govern like authoritarians while their rhetoric is still peppered with libertarian flourishes. An honest GOP would embrace its new identity as the successors of Lyndon Johnson -- a down home stew of pork barrel politics at home and thuggery abroad. But, alas, honesty is rare in politics.
Let's see how each of the sacrifices -- er, candidates did:
Romney: I'm sure he could sell America a car, but can he sell it a President? While Romney did give an excellent response to Chris Matthew's gotcha question about Catholic priests denying pro-choice candidates communion ("not my business"), Romney suffers from being too polished. Policy wise, he's the only one who said anything substantive about health care reform. However, on the war, he's all too comfortable with the ongoing disaster in Iraq.
Brownback: Doesn't believe in evolution and thinks it was appropriate for congress to intervene in the Terry Schiavo matter. Perhaps he should be passing around a collection plate rather than stumping. He might be more successful.
Gilmore: His delivery was sound, but his policies are pretty much identical to that of the current administration. If Gilmore was our president today, he might have 40% approval instead of Bush's 30% approval -- but that would be solely due to his greater capacity for nuanced speech.
Huckabee: Like Gilmore, sans charisma. Couldn't even muster a decent response when asked about corruption -- which should be a softball question in politics, even if you're a slime ball.
Hunter: Talked aggressively about every perceived enemy on earth. Notably called for war with Iran and talked about China as an emerging threat (and is a protectionist who thinks its China's fault that we can't compete with them anymore). He also cited "precision bombing" as one of the things government does really well, perhaps in an attempt to establish himself as the craziest man on the stage. (Alas, it's hard to beat McCain. See below.)
Thompson: Thompson provided a moment of hope when he called for the Iraqi people to vote on whether our troops should stay and if they wanted us out, we would leave. This is actually a more firm (and sensible) position than most of the Democratic candidates. However, Thompson managed to ruin this effect by failing to give a coherent response on any other issue.
McCain: I'm not sure McCain banged the podium enough to get across his message. That message apparently being: "George Bush is a total pussy. For a real war, vote McCain." He will no doubt be famous for the "following bin Laden to the gates of Hell" line. Honestly, though, with McCain's labored wheezing throughout the debate and bin Laden's kidney failure, I think mother nature might be all we need to send both of them to the pits.
Paul: It is instructive to note that support for non-intervention and limited government now makes one a maverick in the Republican Party. It was nice to see the top-tier candidates backpedal on national ID cards after Paul called them incompatible with a free society. (More on Paul below.)
Giuliani: Am I the only one who noticed that when asked about lessons learned from the Black community while mayor of New York, he began talking up how many people he put in jail? Moreover, Giuliani talked up his anti-crime positions many times (even unprompted) despite the fact that crime has been declining in America for years now. This isn't a big issue for most Americans, but for Giuliani, the strong use of police power is vital. Giuliani's strength in this race shows just how authoritarian the GOP has become.
Tancredo: I'd like to heap scorn on Tancredo for his nativism and anti-evolution stance, but all I can muster is pity. Chris Matthews cut him off numerous times as if to announce to the entire audience: "Look America, look at the fringe candidate. Point and laugh, children!" I don't need Matthews to protect me from dingbat candidates. Just let the man talk. He refutes himself.
Speaking of the way the debate was handled, Politico.com did a terrible job of picking tough questions. I know for a fact that a question about military commissions was high up in the rankings on their website -- yet instead, we get a whole lot of "if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" They asked Romney what he hates about America. What is this tripe?
All told, this debate revealed a lot about the culture of the Republican Party. These men are competing to be the Big Man -- the forceful Glorious Leader of a society of hero worshipers gathered at the tomb of their fallen God, Ronald Reagan. Only one man among them, Dr. Paul, even alluded to the main reason for that dead God's success -- a rhetoric of liberty that was a breath of fresh air in age when central planning was still in vogue. It's particularly sad that civil liberties issues were only mentioned (again by Paul) in the waning minutes of the debate.
Republicans talk about Reagan's "optimism" as the key to his success. But it wasn't that he told Americans "everything will be OK, I'll make sure of that." Rather, he made the argument that it was acceptable for us to be a free people -- that the problems we faced did not require the gloomy nightmare of an all-powerful government. The GOP has turned that on its ear and now argues that without omnipotent power, we can't be free.
The ball is in the Democrats' court. All they have to say is that we can afford restraint in foreign policy, we can afford to respect civil liberties -- in short, that liberty is not a burden in hard times. Anyone can be the sunshine patriot, but the real test is to fight for a free society in a crisis.