The first big GOP candidate debate of the 2012 presidential cycle was from a conventional perspective unexciting. Nobody hit a home run, and nobody made a major gaffe. From a tactical point of view, the most astounding moment was Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to stand behind his “ObamneyCare” sound bite about health reform delivered over Fox News this weekend. T-Paw disingenuously argued the term was simply his gloss on the president’s description of the similarities between the Affordable Care Act and Romney’s Massachusetts health plan—a decision which essentially took the issue off the table for the rest of the debate (if not the rest of the campaign). And whenever RomneyCare is off the table, Mitt Romney has to be judged the winner.
But from a broader perspective, the overriding message of this debate is how thoroughly the conservative movement has conquered the GOP on domestic policy. Like myna birds, the candidates emphatically agreed the economy is the main issue, that radically reducing the power of government to do good or ill is the only thing a president can do to help the economy, and that there is scarcely a problem where the federal government can make a single positive contribution to national life, other than by deploying National Guard troops to the border.
The main differences between the candidates on domestic issues strictly revolved around the precise strategy—mechanical and political—for destroying any vestige of a positive government role in the economy. When former restaurateur Herman Cain was cornered by moderator John King into admitting the federal government ought to continue food safety inspections, the candidate rapidly changed the subject into areas where government is doing a terrible job that it ought to abandon. But Cain won the biggest audience reaction of the entire night with his fiery support for state right-to-work laws, including a prospective decision by New Hampshire to join the South in that anti-union policy; Pawlenty tried to trump him by supporting a national right-to-work law.
On the politically sensitive issue of Medicare, Gingrich repeated his critique of Paul Ryan’s voucher proposal on political grounds, a lot more effectively than he did in his disastrous Meet the Press appearance a few weeks ago, and Pawlenty reserved the right to propose his own radical approach to Medicare. Not a soul challenged the idea that Medicare as we know it had to die, sooner rather than later, as rapidly as political markets would accept.
And on the tax front, no one took up King on his open invitation for someone to disagree with Pawlenty’s claim that tax cuts and total deregulation of the private sector could produce never-before-experienced rates of economic growth. Any doubt on this subject, it seems, smacked of dark, decadent Europeanism.
Moreover, none of the candidates gave a single hint of support for the idea that the risk of a fresh financial disaster might trump the demands for radical spending cuts in negotiations with Democrats over the debt limit.
So if the Republican candidates lined right up in favor of the most radically conservative economic positions since Barry Goldwater, did they distinguish themselves elsewhere? Not a lot. Bachmann, who needs no additional credibility among social conservative ultras, said she wouldn’t spend time as president intervening in state debates over same-sex marriage. Cain, who recently endorsed the idea that Planned Parenthood was pursuing a genocidal policy towards African-Americans, also had sufficient Christian Right street cred to say he wouldn’t make restoration of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell a big priority. Nobody was even vaguely pro-choice or pro-marriage-equality; it was all about tactics for achieving Christian Right goals. It said a lot about the horizons of conservative opinion these days that no one defended church-state separation, and Mitt Romney came across like Thomas Jefferson by demurring in response to the suggestions of Cain and Gingrich that American Muslims posed a risk of subjecting America to Sharia law (crowd-pleasers, by the way).
There was a faint glimmer of potential diversity on foreign policy and national defense, aside from Ron Paul’s predictable heresies: Bachmann attacked the Libyan engagement categorically, and Romney hinted that the Afghanistan war might need to be liquidated.
Insta-reaction to the debate suggested that Romney and Bachmann were the big winners; Romney because no one laid a glove on him, and Bachmann because she fit right into the mainstream of the debate, managing to seem engaging and reasonable. For those who know Bachmann well, that should be a bit scary.
But it’s also fitting. This debate was the most homogenous discussion among presidential candidates I can remember, the more remarkable because all the candidates were many degrees to the right of where Republican candidates were in 2008 or 2000. For the first and probably last time in this cycle, I yearned for the presence of Rudy Giuliani, who at least would have created a bit of cognitive dissonance.
Throughout the debate, King tried to supply light moments by asking candidates boxers-or-briefs type questions that were unrelated to politics. The closest thing to a decisive answer was Gingrich’s emphatic endorsement of American Idol over Dancing With the Stars. This Republican presidential debate was like an Idol contest where everyone sings the same song, over and over.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.