When the CNN-You Tube debate among Republican presidential candidates began with a guy named Chris Nandor playing a guitar and singing, my wife Barbara exclaimed, "This is humiliating. This is really bad." Of course she was right. And then things got worse. This debate not only was mortifying to the candidates. It also should have been embarrassing to the viewers, especially Republican voters who might have been watching.
I don't know if the folks who put the debate together were purposely trying to make the Republican candidates look bad, but they certainly succeeded. True, the candidates occasionally contributed. For the first few minutes, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney continued their debate over their records on immigration and did so with the kind of intensity that this trivial matter didn't warrant. These are two fine candidates who have only themselves to blame for looking petty.
But it was chiefly the questions and who asked them that made the debate so appalling. By my recollection, there were no questions on health care, the economy, trade, the S-chip children's health care issue, the "surge" in Iraq, the spending showdown between President Bush and Congress, terrorist surveillance, or the performance of the Democratic Congress.
Instead there were questions - ones moderator Anderson Cooper kept insisting had required a lot of time and effort by the questioners - on the Confederate flag, Mars, Giuliani's rooting for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, whether Ron Paul might run as an independent for president, and the Bible. The best response to these questions was Romney's refusal to discuss what the Confederate flag represents. Fred Thompson discussed it.
The most excruciating episode occurred when Cooper allowed a retired general in the audience to drone on with special pleading in favor of allowing gays in the military. This was a setup. The general had asked a question by video, then suddenly appeared in the crowd and got the mike. The aim here could only have been to make the Republican candidates, all of whom oppose gays in the military, squirm. As it turned out, they didn't appear to. The general turns out to be a Clinton supporter, by the way.
By my count, of the 30-plus questions, there were 6 on immigration, 3 on guns, 2 on abortion, 2 on gays, and one on whether the candidates believe every word in the Bible. These are exactly the issues, in the view of liberals and many in the media, on which Republicans look particularly unattractive. And there were two questions by African Americans premised loosely on the notion that blacks get nothing from Republicans and have no reason to vote for them.
These questions would better be asked of Democrats at one of their presidential debates. After all, the biggest news so far at a Democratic debate was when Hillary Clinton muffed a question about illegal immigrants and drivers' licenses.
My impression was that Ron Paul, the libertarian, got considerably more attention than he usually does in debates and far more than he deserves as a marginal candidate. At least Paul's harping on the need to keep American troops at home prompted one good exchange. John McCain's response to Paul was that he'd been with the troops on Thanksgiving and their message was, "Let us win. Let us win. Let us win."
Nonetheless, it was a good night for Paul if only because he was treated as a major political figure rather than as the Republican version of Dennis Kucinich. The other candidates, with the exception of Mike Huckabee, were losers. They came off as a bunch of squabbling cousins.
Huckabee, though, knows how to conduct himself in TV debates. He's genial, funny, extremely likable, and not very substantive. He seems to understand that a CNN-You Tube debate is not a serious forum at which serious people discuss serious issues. So he doesn't get worked up, and this posture works.
At the end of the debate, I was left with one question. Why would Republican candidates with a chance of actually winning the presidential nomination subject themselves to two hours of humiliation? I wish the candidates had been asked that. It would have the highlight of the evening.