Ballot Box

The Iowa Debate: Bush Fouls Off

A few comments on last night’s debate in Iowa:

1. John McCain’s guts

Everyone was waiting to see how McCain would handle a question about ethanol, the corn-based fuel that exists only because of a multibillion-dollar federal subsidy. McCain didn’t wait to be asked. He took the first opportunity to inform Iowans that “I’m going to tell you the things that you don’t want to hear as well as the things you want to hear”–namely that “those ethanol subsidies should be phased out, and everybody here on this stage, if it wasn’t for the fact that Iowa is the first caucus state, would share my view that we don’t need ethanol subsidies. It doesn’t help anybody.” McCain was booed for this answer. The others–Hatch, Bauer, Bush, Forbes, and Keyes–were quick to protest their fervent support for this boondoggle, which violates every known conservative principle but draws cheers in the corn belt. McCain’s handling of this issue, in contrast to every other candidate in the race, is the definition of political courage.

2. George W. Bush’s evasiveness

Given the way the expectations game works, any non-moronic answer by Bush now counts for as much as a superb answer by any of the other candidates. Bush fared well because most of his answers last night were successfully non-moronic. But if you pay close attention, you begin to notice that Bush’s answers have a more than ordinarily tangential relationship to the questions he is asked. Instead of engaging the premise of a question, he simply clicks on some key word he recognizes and links to a pre-programmed response.

Tom Brokaw asked, “Is there anything specifically that a president of the United States can do to interrupt what seems to be an evolving culture of violence and rage in America?”

Bush answered: “You know, one of the interesting parts of your question is that there’s so much focus on the Dow Jones industrial average today–and that’s fine. … The next president of the United States must tap into the great strength of America, which are the hearts and souls of decent Americans.” But “the Dow Jones industrial average” wasn’t part of Brokaw’s question–which was a request for something beyond the airy platitudes about compassion that Bush has been delivering.

When Brokaw asked, “Why should the family farm … be any more protected than the corner drugstore or the mom-and-pop shoe store or the little grocery store that we used to find on main street?” Bush responded: “I think if you ask the family farmer, they don’t feel protected.” He then gave an answer about the need to spend money on finding more uses for Iowa corn products. Bush simply ignored the challenge to his assumption that farms deserve benefits not accorded to other kinds of small businesses.

When Brokaw asked Bush whether he would be more aggressive in enforcing existing laws against possession of marijuana, Bush said he favored interdiction and sending the message to kids, “Don’t be usin’ drugs.” Once again, he ignored the challenge to a contradiction in his views: that gun laws should be rigidly enforced, but that certain drug laws should not be.

Bush isn’t the first guy to dodge and weave around awkward questions from reporters. But he is more than ordinarily unresponsive. To use the Bush-appropriate metaphor, he’s like a hitter facing a tough pitcher. Intent on not striking out, he bats pitch after pitch into foul territory. The best instance of this was Bush’s answer to a viewer’s question about what political philosopher each candidate identified with and why. Bush had time to think this over–he was third in line after Forbes, who cited Locke and Jefferson, and Keyes, who cited “the founders of this country.” Bush’s response: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Bush heard the word “philosopher,” seized on a related concept–“Christ”–and simply ignored the other key elements in the question, like “political” and “identify with” and “why.” The follow-up should have been: “Why do you think of Christ as a political philosopher?”

3. Orrin Hatch’s resentment

In the last debate, Hatch gave a patronizing lecture about how the unseasoned Bush would make a fine vice-presidential choice for him. In the one before that, he described John McCain’s anger as “a terrible thing.” This time it was Steve Forbes who got the back of his hand. Given a chance to ask a question of a rival candidate, Hatch said he would give Forbes a “home-run ball.”

“That usually means hold your wallet,” Forbes answered.

“Steve, I couldn’t even lift your wallet,” Hatch shot back.

This was the wisecrack of the night. But I think it also offered a glimpse of Hatch’s dark side–an envy that makes him into a more interesting character than I previously thought. Hatch also ribbed Brokaw on this same point. When Brokaw asked why someone who makes as much as he does should get the same Medicare benefits as an Iowa schoolteacher, Hatch went on and on: “Well, first of all, I don’t think you’re going to ask for Medicare with the amount of money you make. In fact, I think you could take care of all of us right up here on the dais with what you make–and maybe everybody in the audience as well.”

Later in the debate, Hatch spoke, as he always does, of how he once raised chickens and sold eggs and worked as a janitor and has been faithful to his wife for 43 years. I’m starting to understand why he’s running for president: because he sees everyone around him getting the money, fame, sex, and credit that he so richly deserves.