Politics

Duel in Des Moines

Yesterday’s Republican debate in Iowa is likely to prove more significant than the Iowa caucuses that follow in January.  For starters, it demonstrated both the wisdom and the folly in having so many candidates on stage. 

Iowa frontrunners Romney (26%) and Giuliani (14%) got the chance to showcase their ideas, poise and style. Some second-tier candidates such as Huckabee (8%) and Hunter (1%) showed why they are still in the race while others, such as Constitution gadfly Ron Paul (2%), proved redundantly why they should not be.  And in moments that should be remembered later in the campaign, at least four of the candidates — Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee and Hunter — stood taller than their rivals and all of the Democrats.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that former Clinton staffer George Stephanopoulos conducted it as a debate and not — as in the case of the MSNBC Chris Matthews debate — a “let’s embarrass the Republicans” session.  The 90-minute session included videotaped and e-mailed questions from real people (not snowmen, as on CNN/YouTube) and covered a lot of important topics quickly.

Stephanopoulos boiled the Iraq war down to two questions:  first (from a videotape) how to exit from Iraq; second, would any candidate continue President Bush’s policy of spreading democracy.  Unfortunately, he went first to Ron Paul who repeated his “just leave” rant, declaring the war unconstitutional and saying we’re losing.  Worse yet, Paul implied that our troops’ morale was failing.

Which was too much for Duncan Hunter. The California congressman — whose Marine son has served repeatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan — spoke contemptuously about how none of the Democrats (and, implicitly, Ron Paul) while stampeding to exit from Iraq, has ever stopped to even thank the Marines who have turned Anbar province around.  Former Arkansas governor Huckabee said that while we can’t stay in Iraq indefinitely, we need to win with honor.

John McCain reacted strongly to Paul’s statement, saying our troops’ morale is good.  He stood solidly for the surge, despite prodding by Stephanopoulos to qualify his stand even if the Maliki government continues to fail to make progress.  Rudy Giuliani had several good moments, but in this one he attacked the Dems for their failure to use the term “Islamic terrorism” in their four debates, condemning them for political correctness and saying that weakness and appeasement can’t be US policy.

Giuliani’s a great campaigner, and seems very comfortable in the debates. Referring to the O’Hanlon/Pollack piece in the New York Times that reported good news about the surge, Giuliani joked that he did a double-take to prove to himself that the Times would actually publish any such thing. 

Mitt Romney – speaking late in that round – made a great call for a surge in Americans’ support for the troops. Rep. Tom Tancredo sideslipped, criticizing the rules of engagement which he alleged was costing American lives in Iraq.  (Gen. Petraeus told me months ago that the ROE problem had been solved by eliminating local commanders’ modifications to them.  The ROE are Petraeus’, and that should be good enough for Tancredo).  

The neocon question produced much apparent confusion.  Mike Huckabee gave the clearest (and best) answer, disavowing the spread of democracy as the core of his foreign policy.  McCain, Giuliani and Romney wouldn’t disavow the Bush policy but didn’t make clear what their alternative would be, getting tangled up in a definitional contest about elections versus democracy.  Romney flailed a bit, saying that we should help Muslim nations move toward modernity.  That is a thought Romney should reconsider.  If Islam is to be reformed, it will have to be by Muslims, not by us.

Tancredo defended his idea of deterrence against nuclear terrorism by threat of destroying the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, declaring that anyone who took that off the table wasn’t fit to be president.  Those who are fit, turned away from Tancredo’s idea – and spoke critically of Barak Obama’s threat against Pakistan – in a lesson on presidential judgment. 

McCain, Giuliani and Romney all – in one way or another – said that America isn’t wise to always state publicly what America will or will not do.  Most of the nine, when asked about restoring the presidency après Bush spoke of restoring hope and shining cities on the hill, and such.  But not Dr. Paul.

The idea of a president maintaining the constitutional underpinnings of the office escaped Ron Paul.  In a startling disavowal of the separation of powers clause, Paul said that as president he would never withhold information from Congress, preemptively surrendering the president’s right to assert executive privilege and maintain the president’s ability to obtain, in confidence, the best counsel of his advisors.  Rep. Paul would do well to read more and speak less on our Constitution.  A good place to start would be the Supreme Court’s 1953 opinion on the constitutional underpinnings of executive privilege in US v. Reynolds.  (It’s at volume 345 U.S. Reports, page 1.)

There were a lot of other issues discussed, from taxes to healthcare, infrastructure to restoring the presidency.  Tommy Thompson promised to eliminate breast cancer by 2015.  There was much about refusing to raise taxes, fighting earmarks, and two great moments of humor. 

Mitt Romney scored first, speaking of Baby Obama’s new-found affinity for nuclear weapons.  Romney’s line – “Obama has gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove” – will pop up on a lot of talk radio shows today.  A less audible, and much funnier, moment came when Stephanopoulos asked one of the inevitably inane questions that comes up in every one of these debates.

Stephanopoulos (using an e-mailed question) asked each candidate to describe his biggest mistake and what he learned from it in thirty seconds.  Most fumbled homilies, but when Giuliani’s turn came, Da Mayor looked at the camera in mock astonishment, asking, “To have a description of my mistakes in 30 seconds?” To Stephanopoulos, whose father is a priest, Giuliani promised to “…tell it to your father.” 

There has too little energy, and too much conformity in the Democrats’ debates.  But their amen chorus in the media continues to spotlight them as if they were rock stars.  Republicans aren’t rock stars.  But unlike any of the Dems, some of them are actually qualified, by experience, skill and temperament to be president in time of war. 

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