WASHINGTON -- Major grumbling among conservatives about the Republican field. So many candidates, so many flaws. Rudy Giuliani, abortion apostate. Mitt Romney, flip-flopper. John McCain, Mr. Amnesty. Fred Thompson, lazy boy. Where is the paragon? Where is Ronald Reagan?
Well, what about Reagan? This president, renowned for his naps, granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants in the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill. As governor of California, he signed the most liberal abortion legalization bill in America, then flip-flopped and became an abortion opponent. What did he do about it as president? Gave us Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, the two swing votes that upheld and enshrined Roe v. Wade for the last quarter-century.
The point is not to denigrate Reagan but to bring a little realism to the gauzy idol worship that fuels today's discontent. And to argue that in 2007 we have, by any reasonable historical standard, a fine Republican field: One of the great big-city mayors of the last century; a former governor of extraordinary executive talent; a war hero, highly principled and deeply schooled in national security; and a former senator with impeccable conservative credentials.
So why all the angst? If you'd like to share just a bit of my serenity, have a look at last Sunday's Republican debate in Orlando. It was a feisty affair, the candidates lustily bashing each other's ideological deficiencies -- Mike Huckabee called it a "demolition derby" -- and yet strangely enough, the entire field did well.
McCain won the night by acclamation with a brilliant attack on Hillary that not so subtly highlighted his own unique qualification for the presidency. Citing his record on controlling spending, he ridiculed Hillary's proposed $1 million earmark for a Woodstock museum. He didn't make it to Woodstock, McCain explained. He was "tied up at the time."
How do you beat that? McCain's message is plain: Sure, I'm old, worn and broke. But we're at war. Who has more experience in, fewer illusions about, and greater understanding of war -- and an unyielding commitment to win the one we are fighting right now?
Giuliani was his usual energetic, tough-guy self. He fended off attacks on his social liberalism with a few good volleys of his own -- at Thompson, for example, for being a tort-loving accessory to the trial lawyers -- and by making the fair point that he delivers a conservatism of results. His message? I drove the varmints out of New York City -- with their pornography, their crime and their hookers (well, a fair number, at least). Turn me loose on the world.
Romney's debate performance was as steady and solid and stolid as ever, becoming particularly enthusiastic when talking about the things he's done -- build a business, rescue the Winter Olympics, govern the most liberal state in the Union. He got especially animated talking about his Massachusetts health care reform, achieved by working with an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. His message? I'm a doer, a problem solver, a uniter.
Yet when Romney simultaneously insists that he represents the purest of the pure -- "the Republican wing of the Republican Party" -- he presents the paradox of a technocrat running as an ideologue. Figuring that running as a sane Ross Perot doesn't quite enrapture the Republican primary electorate, he is trying also to be the authentic Reagan conservative, filling the ideological slot George Allen forfeited when he lost his Senate race last year. It's an odd fit that all of Romney's smoothness and intelligence has yet to convincingly achieve.
As for Thompson, he is a paradox, too. He's been around forever -- since Watergate -- and yet is mostly a blank slate. Can anybody remember anything of significance he achieved in his eight years in the Senate? Nonetheless, he helped himself in Orlando, showing that while he can be appealingly amiable and affable -- a Reaganesque quality that should not be underestimated when people decide who they want in their living rooms for the next four years -- he can be tough, as demonstrated by his opening salvo at Giuliani's social liberalism.
Yes, I know. I've left out Huckabee, whom some of my colleagues are aggressively trying to promote to the first tier. I refuse to go along. Huckabee is funny, well-spoken and gave a preacher's stemwinder that wowed the religious right gathering in Washington last Saturday. But whatever foreign policy he has is naive and unconvincing. In wartime, that is a disqualification for commander in chief.
So no more gnashing of teeth. Republicans have 4 1/2 good presidential candidates. All five would make fine Cabinet members: Romney at Treasury, Thompson at Justice, McCain at Defense, Giuliani at Homeland Security, Huckabee at Interior. All the team needs now is to pick a captain who can beat Hillary.