It’s probably a good thing that coverage of the Iowa Straw Poll and Rick Perry’s announcement of candidacy upstaged the discussion about the televised GOP debate two days before. That two hour encounter highlighted profound problems with the Republican field and increased the widespread yearning for some additional Republican choices. In fact, Rick Perry emerged as the clear winner of the debate because he displayed the good sense not to show up.
The losers? All of the eight candidates who stood on the stage, sniping at each other and looking unserious and unpresidential. The Republican Party lost as well: with Americans increasingly sour on Barack Obama, the Ames debate offered an obvious chance to show that the GOP offered constructive, refreshing, hopeful alternatives. Instead the candidates looked petty and petulant and full of bile—angry at the world in general, at their opponents, and, in the case of Newt Gingrich, full of righteous indignation at the moderators from Fox News.
In fact, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier also emerged as conspicuous winners, since their tough, needling interrogation, probing each candidate’s embarrassments, blunders, and contradictions (what Newt described as “gotcha” questions) should serve to rebut ongoing charges from the left that Fox functions as a partisan, cheerleading wing of the Republican Party. If the panel put comparably nasty and insistent questions to President Obama or Vice President Biden, David Axelrod and Jay Carney would no doubt holler foul.
Of course, no one forced the contenders to respond to these challenges in the self-destructive style that most of them chose.When baited to confront each other and to abandon the restraints of “Minnesota Nice,” both Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty promptly and disastrously obliged. Pawlenty in particular felt forced to display a more aggressive style after his widely panned performance in the New Hampshire debate in June, when he pointedly declined to confront Mitt Romney on his health-care reform in Massachusetts. This time he not only stood by his gibe about “Obamneycare” but managed a gratuitous dig at his rival’s wealth: When saying he’d come over and mow the lawn of anyone who could find an Obama plan for economic recovery, he added that if Mitt won the prize he’d only cover the first acre of Romney’s presumably vast swaths of greenery.