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.
Pawlenty also made the fair point that Bachmann had achieved nothing in Congress and that for all her talk about a “titanium spine,” the major fights she emphasizes in her campaign boasts—against TARP, Obamacare, the debt ceiling deal—all proved to be losing battles. It didn’t help T-Paw, however, that Bachmann looked hurt, dazed, and almost deflated at his criticism; she never answered him with a persuasive citation of any legislative accomplishment. Instead, she offered outrageous lies about Pawlenty’s gubernatorial record—claiming he’d said the era of small government was over, or that he imposed cap and trade—that quickly provoked appropriate scolds from some of the truth-squadding crews that try to clean up the factual detritus that follows such events.
Under the “what might have been” category, Bachmann could have enhanced her stature and her status as Iowa front-runner, had she smiled back at the taunts from Pawlenty and the moderators, placing herself above the fray. “Actually, I always supported Tim when he was governor of my state—because he was a good governor,” she could have said. “And I’m surprised to hear him speaking about me as he has tonight, because he’s always provided generous support in all my congressional races. If he really thought I wasn’t accomplishing anything, why did he help campaign for my reelection? And the fact is, Tim and I agree on most issues, as do all of us on this stage. It’s just a question of who can offer the sharpest contrast with Barack Obama—who can paint in bright, primary colors, not pale pastels, as Ronald Reagan used to say. I know I have the passion and the toughness and the clarity on the issues to take the fight to the president.”
Had she responded in that style, she could have empowered her candidacy, as she did in the New Hampshire debate, when she seemed vastly more energetic and zesty and positive. The key difference? This time Bachmann didn’t look as if she were enjoying herself; none of the candidates did.
Perhaps most uncomfortable (and disastrous) of them all was the new kid on the block, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who badly fumbled a precious opportunity to differentiate himself from his competitors. Questioners pressed him on two issues on which Huntsman’s position corresponds to the American mainstream and even to a plurality of self-described Republicans, according to polls: his support for civil unions for same-sex couples (not gay marriage) and for a path to earned legalization for undocumented immigrants (not blanket amnesty). On both issues, Huntsman could have made firm, conservative arguments on behalf of his positions and come across as a straight shooter—a plain-talking Westerner who might disagree with some primary voters but could still win their respect by courageously and clearly making his case. Instead, he punted and dodged, repeatedly (and irrelevantly) asking people to examine his Utah record to prove his right-wing bona fides. Considering Utah’s status as, arguably, the most rock-ribbed red state in the union, it hardly makes Huntsman a pillar of conservative righteousness that he compiled a more rightist record there than did Pawlenty and Romney in liberal Minnesota and Massachusetts. And speaking of Romney, his polished, suave demeanor served him well, as usual. As the widely perceived front-runner, he gains by avoiding stumbles (as he did) and by his superior mastery of television mechanics (finding the camera, listening earnestly and respectfully to his opponents).
The sad news for Republicans is that the two candidates who gave the most impressive performance in terms of substance and forceful argument, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, have no war chests, no campaign organization, and no chance of winning anything of note in caucuses or primaries.
Meanwhile, the two candidates considered the front-runners for the crucial straw poll in Ames on Saturday, Bachmann and Ron Paul, looked utterly inconceivable as president of the United States. When Paul faced the obvious question of whether he actually expected his radical program (ditching our current monetary system, restoring the gold standard) to miraculously clear a divided Congress, he seemed flustered and disarmed, revealing his underlying aim of advancing ideas rather than winning the White House. The wild cheering from his claque in the big crowd gathered at Iowa State University only added to the sense that Paulestinians represent a quasi-religious cult unconcerned with real-world results, à la the relentless, glassy-eyed followers of Lyndon LaRouche. Paul’s repeated, energetic denunciations of U.S. “militarism” also sounded a jarring note in a party that has always revered our men and women in uniform.
The presence of eight candidates dividing time and attention made each of them seem smaller and reduced the credibility of the more serious contenders by putting them on equal footing with hopeless, long-shot distractions like Paul, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum, who really should be running to reclaim his Senate seat in Pennsylvania. One can only hope that by the time of the next televised encounter, the field will look more formidable with the addition of Perry (and, very possibly, other fresh faces) and the departure of some of the participants who are bidding for attention more than presidential power.
A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST on August 12, 2011.