The Gipper Debate

Republicans play nice at the Reagan library.

Republican presidential hopefuls

When I was 12, I met Ronald Reagan. I also co-wrote one of his obituaries when I worked for Time. I am compelled to say this because I just watched the first Republican debate at the Reagan library, where the 10 candidates couldn’t go very long without mentioning their ties to the 40th president or offering a devotional. I’d also like to thank Nancy Reagan for the opportunity to write this piece.

Perhaps the biggest tribute to the Gipper from the contestants was their adherence to his 11th commandment that Republicans not speak ill of one another. For men hoping to lead a party that says it knows how to see threats clearly, they sure treated each other nicely. This was, if possible, a less confrontational debate than the Democratic one last week in Columbia, S.C. Isn’t the GOP supposed to be the party that’s on offense? Sam Brownback, a second-tier candidate who is passionately anti-abortion, could have teed off on Rudy Giuliani’s pro-choice position when he was given a softball question, but he demurred. He said he could support a pro-choice candidate as the Republican nominee because the GOP is a big-tent party. (If Alan Keyes were running again, this question would have caused him to speak in tongues.)

Republicans may have been reluctant to define their differences with one another because they’re still defining themselves. I e-mailed a Republican veteran of the last two presidential campaigns whose response to the debate was: “Fred Thompson won.” That may be right, if for no other reason than the infatuation with Thompson is not entirely based on reason, and no candidate did anything spectacular. None of the top three candidates fixed their problems that have led to widespread GOP yawning, though that may not be possible in a debate. Here are a few observations:

You Look Fabulous: Mitt Romney was tan and studied, dropping facts about Iraq like he was trying to win a prize and whipping out “Altered Nuclear Transfer” in response to a question about stem cells. Even former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson didn’t have a fancy answer like that. For a candidate who is still introducing himself to voters, Romney hit that mark as well as a candidate can. But you get the feeling he may have had a polished apple under his podium for the moderator. Romney’s problem is not that people think he’s a dummy or messy, it’s that people think he’s too perfect and too calculating. He can make the answers sound right, but does he have a core and some grit? He didn’t show that tonight, and I’m not sure—except by some fluke—that he or any other candidate could show such a thing in a debate (he’d probably look like he was trying too hard). Good thing for Romney he was more approachable on Jay Leno the night before. (His aides wish they’d gotten all that talk with Leno about vintage cars from the green room on tape, though.)

McCain! During the presidential debates in 2004 there was a brief controversy about whether President Bush had some kind of device under his suit jacket. After Thursday night there may be a new inquiry along those same lines. John McCain answered his first questions with such gusto that he appeared to be plugged into a car battery hidden somewhere on his person. McCain said he would follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell, and you got the feeling he might walk off the stage to start right away. In the postgame spin, his ally former Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge kept talking about McCain’s passion and energy, but it sounded more like nerves. During McCain’s first two answers, you could hear him inhale staccato breaths. But not that many people are going to see those early answers. Their view of McCain will be mediated through sound bites, and he offered some, particularly on spending restraint, that will please GOP voters. His comments about the war were as forceful as they could be, wrapping in criticism, bluntness, and hope, the best he can do given that he’s the lead pitch man for an unpopular troop surge.

For a guy who is supposed to be pandering to the right wing, McCain sure does a lousy job of it. For the first time, he said that he would fund embryonic stem-cell research, which would require reversing a high-profile Bush executive order, and he said he believed in evolution (Sen. Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo said they did not). When McCain could easily have ducked a question about comprehensive immigration reform—which he has championed in the past and for which conservatives dislike him—he jumped in and made a pitch for it.

Abort, Retry: Rudy Giuliani had trouble with the abortion question. Repeatedly. He said that he’s personally pro-life but is pro-choice when it comes to the law. But then he said he’d be OK if Roe v. Wade were overturned (though he’d also be OK if it weren’t). He said that he’d always been for the Hyde Amendment, which excludes abortion from the comprehensive health-care services offered to the poor, but he supported public funding when it came to New York. When he finally achieved clarity, he was candid: He doesn’t like abortion, but “ultimately I think when you come down to that choice, you have to respect a woman’s right to make that choice differently than my conscience.” Will this waffling matter? Each high-profile reiteration of his pro-choice position will test anew his gravity-defying ability to do well in a party where many voters are passionately pro-life. So far his positions haven’t hurt him. Republicans who care about this issue already know where he stands, and he’s still leading in national polls. Though he wasn’t terribly on-message about abortion, Giuliani was relentlessly on-message about his New York record of battling crime, shrinking welfare rolls, and cutting taxes, mentioning his tenure at least five times.

Hillary Pillory: The candidates were asked what they thought about Bill Clinton returning to the White House, and almost all of them ignored the chance to take a shot. They pivoted to Hillary instead and talked about how awful it would be if she were elected. For the top-tier candidates, the specter of Hillary helps convince conservatives to get over their qualms and focus on picking someone who can defeat her. This raises the age-old question: Are Republicans raising Hillary merely to frighten their base or because they actually think she is the most formidable candidate on the other side? (We know what the Clinton camp would say.)