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Issues of Primary Importance
Discussion among candidates remains mired in the less consequential.


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With just 30-something electoral shopping days until the Iowa caucus, and the New Hampshire primary, indecision reigns, and its clear from some of the video submissions being considered for tonight’s YouTube debate that the very definition of Republican is in play. Said Cynthia Zinn, 22, a mother of two who uploaded a question about abortion: “I’m not entirely sure who to support. Giuliani is pro-choice; I can’t support a Republican who’s pro-choice. . .” Ms. Zinn apparently has doubts about Thompson and Romney, too, and strange endorsements from once-reliable figures are no help. Referencing the oddity of Pat Robertson’s strained embrace of Giuliani, independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg commented: “It’s almost like the endorsement was dreamed up by some sort of novelist who wanted to further create confusion in the Republican ranks.”

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Rothenberg is right, but the disarray runs rampant among the Democrats as well. Just watch any of the let’s-pillory-Hillary sessions advertised as “Democratic Debates.” “It just adds to the sense that there is no consensus developing as to who the nominee should be,” Rothenberg says.

There is no national consensus and the oddly aligned “endorsements” and the multi-state polling still shows the leaders of both parties in a bunch. The late Tip O’Neill wisely reminded us that “all politics is local,” so staying on the Republican side where it would not be presumptuous for a one-time Reagan adviser to speak: Why is Mitt Romney leading in Iowa and New Hampshire? The short answer: people meeting him face-to-face like what they see — a good and decent family man with a positive message about America’s future and a heck of a lot of business smarts intimating that he is capable of accomplishing it.

Stylistically, Romney’s biggest challenge at the moment is Mike Huckabee, who has a knack for delivering Romney’s message with a far less crisp-white-shirt formality, and (though a much unwarranted consideration) no Mormon stigma. But Minister Huckabee has a troubling history of being a tax raiser who, when the conservative fight proves too challenging, flinches in the clinch. With his Arkansas baggage and far less campaign money, Huckabee is likely to hold onto his second tier perception. Yet, the polling margins are definitely narrowing and if the caucus in Iowa ultimately mumbles: “Mitt Ruckabee” that could well spell trouble for Romney’s strategy, which is premised on solid showings in early contests.

So what about the others?

Rudy Giuliani — of course — continues to have mysterious attractiveness. Thanks to loyal friends like Ted Olson, Rudy is capable of delivering conservative gospel with the best of them, as witnessed by his fine speech to the Federalist Society Convention earlier this month. Yet, when pressed, Giuliani supporters always seem apologetic tendering little more than the vague claim that “he could beat Hillary.” In truth, Rudy’s allure lies in his reminder of 9/10 — that’s right, the day before the unthinkable attack. His New York swagger is a middle finger millions of Americans have permanently raised in the direction of one Osama bin Laden. But if we are really going to address the continuing terrorist challenge to the free world, we are going to need more than a sassy mayor.

The next president needs the savvy to engage friend and foe alike; to remind the often overly critical international crowd, nominally aligned with us, that it’s not just America in the path of suicidal terror, and that the cost and burden of defense that must now be shared more fully and equitably. The next president must also have the courage to tell those killing our soldiers, and untold hundreds of innocents, that the world intends to de-couple itself from the blood-soaked oil of enemies. The next president, moreover, must actually have the intellectual capacity to follow through on such a position. Rudy’s dilemma is proving he has the credentials to match his moxie.

Fred Thompson was heralded as the next Ronald Reagan. He’s not. On the stump, he is unable to inspire or communicate on anywhere near the same level as “the great communicator.” On occasion, he seems even to misunderstand conservative principle. Unlike Thompson, for example, Reagan favored federalism and giving the people the opportunity to amend the constitution (say, in support of human life which Thompson opposes, or marriage, which Thompson somehow makes more complicated than calculus), simply because he trusted the judgment of his fellow citizens.

There are others in the GOP ranks, of course. John McCain and Ron Paul generate sparks of attractiveness from time to time, but neither is likely to finish. McCain is a genuine POW hero, but was likewise in his last election. Doctor Paul speaks with authenticity and resonates with the Ross Perot strain in the Republican psyche, but like that fellow renegade Texan, making contrarian or libertarian hearts flutter is not enough to win a nomination. And frankly, another Texas president may just be too much to bear. With Bush ratings stuck in the 20s, there is good reason to think the general electorate now perceives the once cocky “Don’t Mess with Texas,” as a consumer warning.

The serious concern with the incumbent president’s performance, of course, is an important reminder: neither party can see the primaries as intra-mural. With the exception of a few fleeting moments of statesmanship, the candidates in both parties still seem unduly reticent in vision and agenda. The Republicans have not broken free from the president’s ill-executed Iraq occupation while the Democrats are sparring over abstract, big spending plans that, to say the least, seem out of touch with the realities of the budget. The American voter deserves better. In the times we live, party loyalties — and the usual campaign sloganeering — are insufficient. Leadership means, well, leading, not polling. So let’s take honest stock of what needs doing:

1. End the war in Iraq. Democrats are for ending the war. Republicans are for ending the war so long as we win. Neither is ending the war. It is morally irresponsible to think the war is on hold for the primaries. Bringing a pragmatic conclusion to Iraq has been the national instruction at least since the 2006 mid-term election; yet, the dying continues, with both political parties paralyzed in parliamentary maneuver. Stop it. Is this or is this not still a government “of the people?” There have been 3,874 U. S. soldiers killed, and 28,489 seriously wounded. As this is written, the economic cost of the war is edging past $600 billion, with the president requesting yet another $200 billion for 2008. Our daily spending is over $270 million, with the cost of deploying one U.S. soldier for a year in Iraq roughly $390,000. Think of the schools, hospitals, homes, and businesses not being built, but that could be with a fraction of the money. True, one cannot build in chaos, but as the Army Corp of Engineers has learned, even basic services promote peace.

Responsibly substituting reconstruction for military expenditure, while bringing significant numbers of troops home, is overdue. General Petraeus’s weekend confirmation of his plan to bring a brigade home (a modest 5,000 of the roughly 162,000 deployed) from Diyala in about month should prompt serious attention from the candidates who really want to be taken seriously as the next commander-in-chief.

2. Intelligently explain how we can end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Electricity is less expensive and cleaner than petroleum, and electricity can be generated domestically independent of the global oil market. It makes no national security sense to buy $100 barrels of oil from those who in turn use this vast revenue to promote hate and religious distortion.

3. Confront terrorism with international understanding. A year ago, 38 Islamic scholars authored an open letter of religious common ground to Pope Benedict XVI within a month of his Regensburg lecture. The number this past fall grew to 144 from 44 nations, belonging to the different currents of Muslim thought — Sunni, Shiite, Ismaili, Jafari, and Ibadi. Some among the signatories have in the past praised terrorist suicide missions, so caution is needed here, but the letter ought not to be ignored. Presidential debates have come and gone with little or no recognition of this positive development. The Church can be an emissary for peace, but the person in the oval office must lead.

4. Confront terrorism with the international rule of law. In fairness to the United States, it has been bearing the singular responsibility for the world’s defense against terror far too long. Whomever we choose as our next president must work with his or her foreign counterparts to unify, and more equitably share, the duties of both military defense and containing terror. The surveilling, investigating, prosecuting, and detaining of those who threaten the world order must reflect worldwide commitment. Keeping true to the promise of the international rule of law, including the Geneva Conventions, means neither overstating abstract privacy claims, nor over-extending the Geneva accords — at least not without thoughtful modification — to a terror force that targets civilian populations. Guantanamo Bay may close when there are well-managed alternatives in foreign venues.

5. The new domestic project is “U.S.” — that is, getting our own house in order. It’s time to remind young people of the importance of forming families and raising children well. In addition, part of the happy calculus of reducing the dependency on Middle Eastern oil, will be strengthening our stewardship of natural resources, and frankly, just reducing excess consumption. Tax burdens on these young families ought to be lightened and simplified so that education and health care decisions are made from the bottom-up. The last thing America needs is more excuses — and new, centralized bureaucracies are usually excuses.

As the primary bells sound, the primary discussions remain unduly mired in the far less consequential. Claims and counter-claims of who had the most sanctuary cities or whether Mrs. Clinton does or does not think undocumented aliens should have a driver’s license, while entertaining for the politicos, fall very short. The candidate with the honesty and ability to lead in the far more difficult search for national purpose should receive the endorsement that matters.

Douglas W. Kmiec is chair and professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University. He is a volunteer legal adviser to the Romney for President campaign.



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