REMEMBER THE FIRST or even the second or third debate among Republican presidential candidates in 2000? I don't, except George Bush's insistence--I think it was in Iowa--that Jesus Christ was the political philosopher who'd influenced him the most. Recall anything that happened in the endless Democratic presidential debates in 2004? I pretty much draw a blank there too.
Those debates fall in the forgettable category. And so does Thursday's debate involving ten Republican presidential aspirants at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. It wasn't boring. Some of the questions by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and his cohorts were zingers, particularly the ones on abortion. But debates more than eight months before actual caucuses and primaries are rarely pivotal, and this one certainly wasn't. Better luck next time.
The chief beneficiaries of mass debates like Thursday's are marginal candidates, those second and third tier candidates who are long shots at best for the nomination. They normally get minimal media attention, but in debates they're treated just the same as the frontrunners. They are asked the same number of questions and frequently the exact same questions. And they get to define themselves before a national TV audience made of folks who couldn't identify them in a lineup.
So we learned that Congressman Ron Paul is a libertarian who opposes the war in Iraq rather fervently and thinks America should have "a non-interventionist foreign policy." And his fellow congressman Tom Tancredo is concerned chiefly about the perils of immigration.
Former Gov. Jim Gilmore is a "real conservative" who has never flip-flopped. "Where you've been is where you're going to go," he said in reference to candidates who've changed their positions. The implication is that the flip-floppers can't be trusted. They'll return to their old ways.
A third House member, Duncan Hunter, has serious ideas about winning the war in Iraq, says Iran has already "crossed the line" by aiding Iraqi terrorists, and sounds a bit like Pat Buchanan on protectionism. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, believes we should "leave the planet in better shape" than we found it and that President Bush has gotten in trouble in Iraq because he listened to civilians too much and generals too little. Tommy Thompson, Bush's ex-secretary of health and human services, thinks that because he won elections for governor in the "blue state" of Wisconsin, he can win nationally. And Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is a strong supporter of pro-life positions and believes more needs to be done to produce a political settlement in Iraq.
The big three--Senator John McCain, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York--performed ably, but they didn't dominate. Nor were they the targets of incessant attacks by the also-rans, which is bound to have disappointed Matthews and company. There were few harsh words, period, though when McCain was asked if he'd feel comfortable with Tancredo as his director of immigration he said, "In a word, no."
McCain was forceful on the imperative of winning in Iraq with a new strategy now in place. He did not soften his support for more federal money for research using embryonic stem cells. And Giuliani, who was asked repeatedly about abortion, didn't flinch from saying he favors a woman's right to choose an abortion.
But Giuliani did come up with a fresh position on taxpayer-funded abortions. A week or two ago, he defended that policy. Now he says he's in favor of the Hyde Amendment, which bars such funding. In short, abortion continues to be a troublesome issue for Giuliani. On the other hand, he touted his record in New York effectively.
Matthews tried to stir a fight between Romney, a Mormon, and Huckabee, once the pastor of a large Baptist Church. Romney distinguishes between his faith and his political views. Huckabee had earlier suggested a person's faith isn't meaningful unless it does affect one's other views. Matthews said Huckabee was backing away from his earlier statement. Huckabee said he wasn't and indeed he wasn't. In any case, a fight between Huckabee and Romney didn't develop.
One more thing. Matthews and his colleagues, John Harris and Jim Van de Hei of the Politico, appeared eager for the candidates to put distance between themselves and Bush. They put some, but not much. And the actual criticism of the president was muted. When asked to state a difference between himself and the president, Giuliani declined to offer one.
The most praised person was, of course, Ronald Reagan. The candidates put as little distance as possible between themselves and Reagan. The debate may have been forgettable. Reagan wasn't.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.