This was the "debate" that the Republicans almost cancelled several months ago after the Dems had too much fun with it. Questions from a snowman? Oh, they were too grown-up for that. But on Wednesday night, the slightly-winnowed field of Republicans fighting for a chance to lose to a Democrat sucked it up and showed up in Florida to take questions from real and imaginary video people – anything to get their face in front of voters as crunch-time collides with the holiday season.
Immigration – set up and planned as a wedge issue for the party this year – was the subject early on. The first question was to Giuliani about New York being an immigrant "sanctuary city". Rudy denied making NYC a sanctuary city ("Did, too/Did not" exchange with Romney). He actually made fairly sensible arguments for letting immigrant kids go to school, etc., all of which makes him less likely to be the nominee of the rabid GOP. As Romney tried to play tough guy on the issue, Giuliani dropped something I haven’t heard before – that Romney had undocumented workers working on his mansion in Massachusetts (apparently a year-old story in the Boston Globe). Mitt then asked, if you have a company working for you, are you supposed to go out and ask for everybody’s papers? Good question – for the rich, immigration status ignorance is bliss. Even for professionally-constructed tough guys like Romney.
More rabid immigration heavy-breathing questions -- will you allow amnesty? It goes to Fred Thompson, and the heat in the room when Romney and Giuliani were going at it was suddenly sucked out of the room, replaced by the tepid, slow-motion bleatings of a guy who looks like he just woke up. He agreed with the video guy and then made the remarkable admission that "we have all hired people that in retrospect was a bad decision." Really, Fred? Do tell! He doesn’t, of course. You really have to wonder why Thompson bothered getting into this thing. He looks like he wants to be home petting his dog.
John McCain finally got to contribute something 20 minutes into it, denying that his immigration bill was "amnesty" and making a strong statement about the demagogic tone of the immigration discussion. He even brought up border security as a failure like Katrina and Iraq, calling the undocumented "god’s children who need some protection under the law". It was quite a statement – the most human sentiment of the night.
Tancredo then soiled the room by applauding the demagogues. Then he made it worse when the told the next questioner, who needs a guest worker program for his seasonal workers, to go stick it. "I’m not going to aid any more immigration into this country." The equally irrelevant Duncan Hunter then checked in, so proud of his border fence efforts – sez he can do 854 miles in 6 months! Only 1,145 miles to go!
Hitting every immigration hot-button, Huckabee got a question about why he gave resident tuition to the children of the undocumented. Like Giuliani, he gives a good-government answer why those kids should be treated like the other kids who grew up in the state. Romney, for some reason, then gets to slab the red meat back on the grill, saying that his reasoning was "great", but liberals have great ideas, too. "But, Mike, that’s not your money." Ah, the punch-line. No doubt this guy was a great Mormon salesman – set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. Mr. Clean forgot he was up against a real preacher, though. "We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," says Huckabee, and Romney slinks back into his cave.
Q5: Now we’re talking – Ron Paul gets a question about Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission conspiracy theories! This is much more entertaining than Kucinich seeing a UFO! Paul surprised no one by actually signing on to the theories as an "ideological battle" between those who believe in "globalism" and those who believe in "national soverignty". He even talks about the reputed Super-Freeway between Mexico and Canada! Beautiful stuff. "Knowledge is out there if you look for it," sez Paul. Boo-yah, Trilateralist enablers! For some reason (wink), none of the other candidates are asked for their opinion on this important topic. CNN: In the Bag for the CFR!
Q6: National debt question to McCain. He attacks his usual spending targets, including S-CHIP, losing the credibility he built up on the immigration question. Next question on the same issue goes to Fred, who someone nudges and momentarily awakens to agree with everyone else and starts riffing on Social Security. OK, Fred – done? Fine, see you in 15 minutes.
Ron Paul finds a way in and says we can save all kinds of money if we just "bring our troops home", to boos and cheers. McCain takes his next opportunity, completely off-topic, to light into Paul for being an isolationist "which caused World War II". Lots of boos for his appeasement smear. Troops say "Let Us Win," says McCain to much applause (he liked that line so much, he repeated it a half-hour later). Paul asks, if that’s the case, why does he get most money from active duty servicemen – a pretty good question if true. He says McCain doesn’t know the difference between isolationism and opposing intervention. Which he probably does, but damned if he’s going to admit it while he’s running for president as the standard bearer of the Stupid War.
After a question on farm subsidies (Iowa suck-up Romney bends like corn in the wind), Anderson Cooper sandbagged Rudy with the breaking story about his billing the city in obscure ways to fund his trips to the Hamptons while he was cheating on his then-wife. Rudy says he had 24-hour security and didn’t have anything to do with the billing. Well, I guess that was good enough for Cooper, who then let it go, but we’ll see where the facts lead on that story.
A woman shows up on a video, waving a lead-based Thomas the Tank Engine toy in front of her kids face. Ack! Thomas! The line of Sir Top-em Hats on the stage nodded knowingly and pledged to buy American.
An ad by the Thompson campaign is played (they all get one) that attacks Romney on abortion and Huckabee on taxes by playing footage of from their past. Although he said he was going to a break, Cooper sees the ad and wakes up Thompson. "What’s up with that," he asks. Stunned – I mean, they did tell him they were going to break – Fred summons up something about those being their own words. Romney "admits" that he used to respect women’s choices but says he was "wrong" back when he was right.
Gun control questions. Oh brother, here we go. Rudy declares an individual right to bear arms (the Supremes have that question now – we’ll see) but almost sanely says there can be reasonable restrictions. Cue boos from gun nuts in crowd. Thompson looks up from his lapel to say that Ruby never met a gun law he didn’t like and declared that "the 2nd Amendment is not a choice thing", one of the less articulate ways of discussing law I’ve heard from a lawyer. The next YouTuber asks all candidates what kinds of guns they own and what kind. Thompson, who last week said his trip to a gun store was like a "day in paradise" said he has a "couple of guns", but wouldn’t (or, more likely, couldn’t) describe them. Hunter got misty about his dad’s gun.
A woman asked what should a woman be charged with if abortion was made illegal? Ron Paul (Motto: Right on the War, Wrong on Everything Else), who says he was an OB doctor, pretty much says go ahead and lock her up. Another asked, if Roe v. Wade was overturned and Congress passed a national ban on abortion, would you sign it? Romney would "be delighted" to sign the bill – "terrific!" he shouts with a spooky smile on his face.
Huckabee, the preacher, excelled on a couple of religious questions, without beating everyone over the head with his beliefs. Asked "What Would Jesus Do?" with the death penalty, he got off the line of the night – "Jesus was too smart to run for public office". But he immediately lost some credibility as when he admitted snuffing several people as governor of Arkansas – after taking all the facts very seriously, of course. Asked in another video by a visibly disturbed young man waving around a bible if they "believe this book", Huckabee went preacher on everyone’s ass in a fairly delightful way, saying that we shouldn’t worry about the rest of the Bible until we get "love your neighbor" and "what you do to the least of us, you do to me" right.
Rudy actually came up with a funny clip, "claiming" he saved the city from King Kong and higher snowfalls. Later, he jokingly took responsibility for four World Series wins by the Yankees.
The best question of the night – booted by all the candidates – was by a Muslim woman, who asked what they would do to repair our image in the Muslim world after the Iraq invasion and the various other Bush foreign policy disasters. Rudy missed the point (on purpose) and said we should "remain on offense against Islamic terrorism" and managed to get in his first mention of 9/11. McCain would continue the surge and fight a date for withdrawal. Hunter would never apologize for what we’ve done. It couldn’t be clearer listening to these responses how wrong all of these men are to restore our image and stature in the world. They don’t think we’ve done anything wrong. They’d probably do it all over again.
As if to drive the nail further in our national-image coffin, Romney announced, proudly, that he would not agree not to waterboard or torture detainees. McCain showed Romney to be the cheap punk that he is, proclaiming that the U.S. should always take the high ground. Romney lamely named the bunch of wrong people he’s getting advice from. McCain said then we would have to withdraw from the Geneva conventions. "We will never allow torture," said McCain, as right about that as he is wrong about Iraq.
So, how long do we stay in Iraq, asked the next video. Fred! "As long as it takes!" "Iran is waiting to fill the vacuum!" Great stuff, isn’t it? Ron Paul said we should let them have their country back. McCain, who knows better, then claimed "American public opinion" made us lose the Vietnam war. This is nuts, but it's what passes for revisionist history on the right.
The biggest line of nonsense came from Duncan Hunter on a question about gays in military. Hunter made the wild claim that most recruits are "conservative" with "family values", and shouldn’t have to hang around a bunch of people who made them uncomfortable. Cooper quoted Romney back to himself when he said "I look forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve openly in the military". Romney seemed to be caught off-guard by that particular flip-flop – I mean, how could he be expected to keep them straight? "Now is not the time," he declared. Well, does he still "look forward to that day", asked Cooper. Apparently not, as Romney tried to disappear behind the podium.
And so on.
So what did we learn after over two hours with the GOP candidates:
1) Fred Thompson is ridiculous. Always looking down into his shirt, speaking in the most unattractively-slow Southern drawl you’ve ever heard. There is a reason Thompson has never played a leading role in a movie or on TV. He is a two-bit character actor, who producers call in when they need someone cranky to sit behind a desk and be a jerk. In real life – as real as these political games get, anyway – he’s bland as Velveeta. He might even be interesting if he were more cranky and more of a jerk. But he doesn’t have it in him.
2) It's hard to watch John McCain. It’s a shame to have someone with his history come up with these brilliant, in-your-face moments on immigration and torture – and then completely blow it with his jingoistic Iraq shtick and his tired quacking about pork-barrel spending. The guy obviously has a sense of humor and a sense of decency. But he negates all his grace by talking up this Stupid War and lying about the last one. What a waste.
3) Rudy Giuliani is not a Republican. He has respect for the good things that government can do, has some idea of government’s limits in controlling personal behavior. He appears to have a good mind for public policy – the best in this field, anyway, but that’s not saying much. He decided to run for President, seeing the dearth of talent that is the Republican field. And he figured he’d run as some sort of tough-on-terror strongman, riding his 9/11/ coattails, and agreed to say "yes" to every goofy GOP proposal they put under his nose, some of which I’m sure he and Kerik used to have good laughs about when they got drunk and watched Pat Robertson talk about the same things on TV.
4) Mitt Romney is playing his role to the hilt. Built from the ground up as the Robo-Candidate, he looks the part, has most of his tough-guy lines down pat, and he’s willing to change even more, if it will get him there. If Republicans want to stay stupid and make the same empty-suit play they did with Bush, he should be the nominee. I'm hoping, anyway.
None of these men will be able to win against whoever the Democratic candidate is. They are all, to one degree or another, too locked in on the wrong side of the war, torture, immigration and the Bush legacy. The American people are looking for a change, and these guys ain’t it.