There have now been two Republican presidential debates, both useful. The first, on May 3 at the Reagan Library, clarified the big problems the Republicans will have in 2008: they have no idea how to deal with the incredibly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, and their constant summoning of a mythic Reaganite past just makes them seem ... old. The second, on May 15 in South Carolina, clarified the field--not just which candidates should be taken seriously but also how the serious candidates are likely to relate to one another. I thought Mitt Romney won the first debate because he was smooth and lost the second because he was slick. Rudy Giuliani won the second because he seemed forceful, after appearing uncertain in the first. John McCain was a presence in both--a mostly honorable presence, I might add.
As for the others, let's clear the stage. There are three pairs of also-rans. Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore were fine Governors, but they have nothing to add here. Both of the right-wing populists, Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, seem obscure and insubstantial, a classic problem for House members running for President; neither is as compelling as Pat Buchanan, who has played this role in the past. I've been surprised by how ineffective Tancredo has been in making his anti-immigrant pitch, which should have some resonance in the Republican Party. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee seems to be winning the battle of the religious conservatives against Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. Huckabee is colorful and funny. In the second debate, he drew whoops from the audience when he said the (Republican) Congress has "spent money like John Edwards in a beauty shop." Brownback appears bland, by comparison, young and not very authoritative, a Senator who seems like a member of the House. Of these six, Huckabee seems most likely to survive.
And then there's the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul who seems like your uncle the bartender who has a Big Theory about everything: some of his ideas are brilliant, others weird. He rates a mention because his singular moment of weirdness--proposing that al-Qaeda attacked on Sept. 11 because the U.S. had been messing around in the Middle East, bombing Iraq--offered Giuliani a historic slam dunk. "That's an extraordinary statement," he jumped in when Paul finished, "... that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for Sept. 11." There was explosive applause from the audience.
But Giuliani was having a good debate even before he reduced Paul to history. He had taken Gilmore's clever attack on the front-running flip-floppers--"Rudy McRomney"--and turned it into an attack on Hillary Clinton. "We can ... discuss all that," he said, referring to abortion, gun control and gay rights, "but there's something ... really big at stake here." And he launched into what a threat to the republic Clinton would be because she believes "an unfettered free market is the most disastrous thing in modern America." When Tancredo accused him of being soft on immigration, Giuliani successfully deflected again: "I'd like to thank Congressman Tancredo for saying I'm soft on anything. That's the first time in about 20 years." My sense was that his strength and dexterity were almost enough to make Republicans forget his multiple marriages and newfound pro-choice clarity.
Mitt Romney won the first debate because he does the most convincing Reagan impression of the bunch. But it's a matter of style more than substance. The Gipper was always thick with conviction; Romney has positions, not convictions. He never says anything striking or memorable. And in the second debate, he did something Reagan never would have done: he attacked McCain's bipartisan campaign-finance reform and immigration bills, McCain-Feingold and McCain-Kennedy. McCain stood firm. He said the money in politics "has corrupted our own party." And he stood firm on the war in Iraq, as expected, and against torture, even when presented with a Fox News scenario in which terrorists with information about an imminent attack had been captured. The other candidates said they opposed torture but favored "enhanced interrogation techniques." Moderator Brit Hume asked McCain if he thought "enhanced ... techniques" were torture. He said yes, which didn't seem to go over with the audience but endeared him to sane people everywhere else.
So, Rudy McRomney: Rudy, tough; Romney, smooth; McCain, courageous. All of them plausible, at least in a Republican context. But in the end, all face an enormous hurdle because of their unconvincing answers to this nonscenario: We invade a country, suspecting weapons of mass destruction. But the WMD aren't there, and we get bogged down in a hopeless sectarian struggle. What do you do?