After-Action Report on the First GOP Skirmish

In honor of the actual substance of Thursday’s GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan library, nothing heavy here as far as observations are concerned.  Just a few drive-by Muthings…
* It’s a cliché to note that this was anything but a debate, but it really was anything but a debate.  In reality it was a 10-person press conference. That being said, moderator Chris Mathews did a commendable job moving things along and keeping control of the conversation.  The only real criticism was that he always started off asking Romney the question and then moving down the line.  He coulda/shoulda started with a different candidate on different questions and then moved along in order.  But that’s a minor critique.  Overall, an “A” grade.
*  With only rare exceptions, the dialogue and answers were generally filled with generalities, platitudes and in some cases, outright obfuscations.  Specificity was not the name of the game.  And the gratuitous references to Ronald Reagan became very annoying very fast.
*  Speaking as a huge fan of Rep. Ron Paul, folks who love Ron Paul love Ron Paul because he opposes government not authorized by the Constitution, not because he opposes the war in Iraq.  He separated himself from the field on this issue early.  But his continual harping on the issue during the remainder of the “debate” did not help his cause or inspire his natural base of supporters. 
*  On the question of what to do about Iraq — perhaps THE defining issue of the current campaign — Tommy Thompson gave the most specific response which surely resonated with a lot of people:  The Iraqis should vote on whether or not they want the U.S. to stay, create “state”-like elections to the Iraqi government, and redistribute the oil revenues.  Sounded reasonable and like a real plan…unlike what we have now.
*  Duncan Hunter actually admitted to being a “compassionate conservative” in the mold of George W. Bush in Ronald Reagan’s library where the Gipper is buried.  The phrase “rolling over in his grave” comes to mind.
*  Ron Paul hit a solid note in stating he’d get rid of the IRS; however, he hit an even more solid point when he stated that the country needs to decide what the proper role of government is supposed to be first.  THAT’S the Ron Paul that Ron Paul fans have come to know and love.
*  All the major media will be commenting on how Rudy Giuliani got tripped up on the abortion question, so I won’t dwell on it here.  But he did.
*  Tommy Thompson seemed to present the best response on the abortion question by stating it should be decided by the states, not the feds.
*  VERY curiously, the favorite of the Christian-conservative community, Sam Brownback, stated that he COULD support a pro-choice Republican if he agreed with that nominee on 80 percent of the issues.  This is diametrically opposed to the stated position of many social conservatives who see the abortion issue as an absolute litmus test.  Something tells me Sen. Brownback is going to have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do to a lot of people.
*  In an answer sure to infuriate gay activists, Tommy Thompson stated that it was OK for a private employer to fire a gay worker if the employer held religious objections to homosexuality.  But Thompson’s answer was more about defending employers’ rights to hire and fire than about any sort of anti-gay bias.  Good, non-weaselly answer to a tough question.
Mitt Romney, already under intense scrutiny by Christian-conservatives because of his Mormon religion, probably didn’t help himself any with that community by reaffirming Thomas Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doctrine in one of his responses.
* Tommy Thompson scored mucho points in pointing out that as governor of Wisconsin, he vetoed 1,900 measures…which is a huge contrast to President Bush who has now whipped out the veto pen all of…two times.
*  John McCain is known to be a sworn enemy of pork-barrel spending and earmarks; yet when presented the opportunity to name some specific spending cuts, he punted.  Huge missed opportunity.  Could have at least mentioned the now infamous Bridge to Nowhere.
*  Ron Paul again hit a high note in noting that his opposition to embryonic stem cell research was rooted in the fact that such spending was not permitted by the Constitution.
*  Mitt Romney has been playing down, if not hiding, the universal health care scheme he pioneered as governor in Massachusetts.  In short, his plan forces every man, woman and child to get health insurance under penalty of law.  In the “debate” he defended his plan without mentioning this coercive element.  Something tells me his opponents won’t let him get away with that again.
*  When tossed the softball question about what tax each candidate would like to get rid of, I believe the only candidate to mention the much-hated “death tax” was Rudy Giuliani.  My friend Dick Patten over at the Death to the Death Tax Coalition is, I’m sure, burning up some phone lines and email addresses as we speak.
*  Only Tom Tancredo raised the fact that the REAL spending problem in this country today isn’t discretionary spending, but mandatory spending on “entitlements.”  Would love to see a LOT more emphasis on that particular issue in future “debates.”
*  Only Ron Paul came out defiantly opposed to a national ID.  After he did, other candidates then began revising and extending their answers on the issue.  Who said Ron Paul’s presence in this campaign wouldn’t impact the discussion?
*  Mike Huckabee made a pitch for the 10th Amendment and state’s rights when asked what he would do differently from the Bush administration.  I took that as a direct slap at No Child Left Behind.  Wish more GOP candidates would rediscover this “lost” amendment.
*  Finally, I bestow the Chutzpah of the Night Award to John McCain.  When asked about the prospect of Bill Clinton returning to the White House, McCain answered that he thought that was a bad idea because that would mean Hillary had been elected president and that would mean court nominations would tilt way left.  He said that meant we wouldn’t get justices such as Alito and Roberts on the bench.
What McCain failed to mention was his role in leading the Gang of 14 which successfully blocked Senate Republicans from using the “nuclear option” to break then-Minority Leader Harry Reid’s filibuster of a large number of conservative judicial nominees when the GOP held the majority in the Senate.  If not for McCain, we’d have a heck of lot more Alitos and Roberts on the bench today.  Thanks, Senator.
It was the first “debate.”  It’s WAY early.  But this  first minor skirmish explains why the first choice for a Republican presidential nominee in the minds of so many conservative Republicans is “Somebody Else.”  It’ll be interesting to see how things change if/when Fred Thompson parachutes into the fray.