It was only fitting that the Republican presidential hopefuls -- or at least eight of them out of a growing crowd -- would be invited to gather at the Reagan Library in the once Golden State, whose parlous economic condition now mirrors that of the country.
It was an occasion for the candidates to have their picture taken with Nancy Reagan, who's still holding her own as a link with the GOP's glory days. Once again the country seems waiting, in the Gipper's words, for a new beginning, for morning to come to America.
But by the debate's welcome end, the crowd of candidates had brought at least as much darkness as light to the discussion. For as the debate lengthened, so did the shadows. Little new was said; it felt more like twilight in America. Where was that old Reaganesque optimism?
The platitudes and cliches flew, but few stick in the mind. There were some embarrassing moments (Ron Paul provided most of them, as expected), but who, except for the usual political junkies, will remember anything that was said in this debate come next week, let alone next month or next year?
This was Rick Perry's debut in a national presidential debate, so naturally enough he had the spotlight. No doubt his fans were impressed; others weren't.
Gov. Perry comes across as a George W. Bush without the winning personality behind the dyslexia. This unapologetic Texan stuck with his attacks on Social Security ("a Ponzi scheme") and Global Warming theory, which was renamed Climate Change when the evidence for it proved tricky.
The governor's case against both may have some basis, but he spoke as if daring his national audience to disagree. A soft word turneth away wrath; his manner invites it. Style can be all in these matters.
Despite the setting, Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" -- was honored mainly in the breach. And soon this wide-open debate became essentially a two-candidate contest: Mitt Romney vs. the candidate who isn't.
In Iowa, the non-Romney was Michele Bachmann. She was present at this debate, but only present. The non-Romney these fickle days is Rick Perry. When the Texas governor started slugging early on, Mr. Romney more than held his own, but somehow remained above the fray, that is, presidential. As in his riposte when Gov. Perry did his Social Security Equals a Ponzi Scheme number. The former governor of Massachusetts finessed that issue by reminding his party that Social Security needs to be mended, not ended:
"Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security. I will be sure that we keep the program (but) make it financially secure."
It was as if Mitt Romney were already campaigning in the general election rather than the primaries -- and keeping his eye on the prize: all those independent voters and wavering, disillusioned Democrats out there. In the primaries, his party will face a choice between tickling its own ideological fancies or nominating a candidate who can seize the middle ground of American politics -- and victory with it.
It's the kind of choice that goes back at least to 1952 and the Taft-Eisenhower battle for the Republican presidential nomination that fateful year. The GOP can choose a candidate who will talk sense to the American people or one who'll go wandering off into the ideological wasteland populated by the Ron Pauls of the country.
This evening Congressman Paul came out against fencing off the border not because it might keep foreigners out but because it might keep Americans in, preventing us from emigrating with our life savings in hand in some kind of doomsday scenario. Ron Paul never sounded more like Ron Paul, that is, strange.
At their more ideological moments, the leading anti-Romneys on that stage in California, the Rick Perrys and Michelle Bachmanns, bring to mind Whittaker Chambers' warning back in the 1950s:
"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to the masses of people -- why, somebody else will. Then there will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find at the back an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
The past may belong to the Ron Pauls in the Republican Party, but it's hard to believe the future does.
Despite all the campaign foofaraw every four years, Americans remain above all a practical-minded people. The American voter wants ideas that work in the real world. The big problem with Obamanomics is that it doesn't. Why go for an opposite-but-equal kind of politics that's also based more on ideology than reality?
It's hard to believe any of the ideologues in the Republican Party will win out if the voters can choose a practical-minded alternative. Like Mitt Romney.
It's a long, long way to November of 2012. But at this point the GOP's best chance next year would seem to lie with a uniter, not a divider. And so does America's.