"WHEN REPUBLICANS ACT like Democrats, America loses," Mitt Romney said last night. "You've seen that over the last several years." It was a typical Romney comment, and typical of Thursday's GOP debate, which confirmed much of what we already knew about the top contenders but did not cause any major ripples in the campaign.
As is his wont, Romney found a way to repeatedly bash "Washington" without directly attacking President Bush by name. When asked whether he would run away from the recent Bush-GOP record, Romney responded, "I will run away from the record of Washington."
John McCain used a similar rhetorical tactic on Iraq. He said he was proud of being the only Republican candidate on the stage who had called for abandoning "the Rumsfeld strategy." Not the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy--the Rumsfeld strategy. "It was worth getting rid of Saddam Hussein," McCain stressed. "The problem was not the invasion of Iraq; the problem was the mishandling of Iraq for nearly four years by Rumsfeld." Not by Bush and Rumsfeld--by Rumsfeld.
But if McCain avoided knocking Bush on Iraq, he also avoided giving him too much credit on the economy. McCain endorsed making the Bush tax cuts permanent, called for slashing corporate income taxes, and trumpeted his credentials as a spending hawk. But he refused to say that his votes against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were wrong, and he did not link those tax cuts to economic growth. When asked why voters should trust Republicans on the economy despite their Bush-era track record, McCain chose not to defend that record. Instead, he went after the Democrats, warning that they would boost spending, increase taxes, and generally prove irresponsible fiscal stewards.
As in other Republican debates, it was striking how rarely the candidates mentioned George W. Bush's name (aside from using the phrase "Bush tax cuts"). That made it even more noticeable--especially given his past criticisms of Bush's foreign policy--when Mike Huckabee said "we owe him our thanks" for acting against Saddam Hussein. The GOP candidates are in a bind: they realize their party, their president, and the Iraq war remain woefully unpopular among the national electorate--but they also know that directly assailing Bush may not be the wisest primary tactic. So their basic approach seems to be: lecture the Republican party for sacrificing its principles, and admit that the war has been mismanaged, but treat Bush himself with kid gloves.
Conservatives were surely pleased to hear McCain list former Texas senator Phil Gramm as one of his top economic advisers. They were no doubt less pleased to be reminded of McCain's closeness with Warren Rudman, the ex-New Hampshire senator who over the years has alienated many social conservatives and supply-siders. In April 2003, Rudman co-authored a New York Times op-ed piece entitled, "No New Tax Cuts," which was published a month before the Republican-led Congress voted to reduce taxes on dividends and capital gains. Another co-author of that Times piece was Pete Peterson, who served as U.S. commerce secretary under Richard Nixon and later co-founded the Blackstone Group, the Wall Street private equity giant. Peterson was also named as part of McCain's economic brain trust.
As for Romney and Rudy Giuliani, an interesting moment came when the former Massachusetts governor boasted about his vaunted state health care plan. "We found a way to get everybody insured with private free-market health insurance," Romney said. To which Giuliani responded, "But in that case, you used mandates, and you're not in favor of mandates for the country." Indeed, whatever else can be said of RomneyCare in Massachusetts, it is not rooted in free-market principles. Yet Romney's conservative backers seem inclined to ignore or discount this, and focus instead on his national health care proposals.
Earlier in the debate, Romney had asked Giuliani how America could ensure that trade with China was done on "a level playing field." After acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns about the domestic business climate in China and the safety of Chinese imports, Giuliani launched into a robust defense of bilateral trade. "I think we have to look at the rise of China as a wonderful opportunity," he said. "I see 20 or 30 million people coming out of poverty in China every year. To me, that's 20 or 30 million more customers for the United States. That's 20 or 30 million more people we can be selling things to. We should be thinking like aggressive entrepreneurial Americans."
At a time when globalization is under fire and Americans are souring on free trade, it's unusual to hear a U.S. politician speak so favorably of China's emergence. But then, Rudy Giuliani is a most unusual candidate, with a most unusual primary strategy. Whether that strategy has any chance of succeeding may hinge on the outcome in Florida next Tuesday.
Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.