Politics & Policy

Fred-less Debate

How the others did.

The candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential debate met for the fifth time in New Hampshire Wednesday night. National Review Online asked Mona Charen, Kate O’Beirne, and John J. Pitney Jr. for their assessments.

Mona Charen

The most memorable part of last night’s debate was the colloquy between Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul. (And speaking of Paul, who needs the Daily Kos when you have a libertarian of this stripe?) Huckabee strove to defend the United States and to deny that the Iraq war could be laid at the feet only of the “neocons” and George Bush. But however admirable Huckabee’s intentions, the upshot was that the liveliest moment of the debate concerned two Republicans arguing about how to regard the “mistake” of going into Iraq.

This comes just as General Petraeus is about to report on progress in Iraq and just when it appears that the new troops and the new strategy are finally turning the tide. Many of the Republican candidates — most particularly John McCain — understand that defeat is not an option in Iraq (and by the way, McCain had his best night yet). But Huckabee’s squabble with Paul about who gets the blame for Iraq was not helpful.

Mitt Romney received a scolding from McCain for saying the surge is “apparently” working. And while at other times Romney has appeared resolute about winning in Iraq, McCain managed to make him look like an overly tentative technocrat last night. It was effective.

 – Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Kate O’Beirne

With the caveat that I quibble with answers that are inconsistent with past positions and note missed opportunities, so viewers with more balanced lives are likely to have different responses — my summary takes on the leading candidates:

In past debates, I have thought that John McCain seemed detached and physically jittery — as though he’d rather be somewhere else. Last evening, he came to play. He was particularly strong on national security and his answer on taxes and spending effectively handled his refusal to sign an anti-tax pledge. He made a nice distinction between leadership and management. I do wish that when the issue of torture comes up he would note that America doesn’t torture, rather than just state his own position.

Rudy Giuliani had a good night. He deftly takes his openings and made a point of criticizing the liberal media and Democratic candidates. I think the other frontrunners could profit from doing the same. He supports comprehensive immigration reform, including amnesty, but gets away with his answers concerning what he did as mayor given the neglect of the federal government.  He gives the only possible answer to questions about his personal life, i.e. “it doesn’t matter.”  Why hasn’t he been to Iraq?

Mitt Romney should take on Giuliani’s support for amnesty rather than sanctuary cities. The former governor is not as fluid on national security as he is on domestic issues. I think it was probably a good idea to talk about bringing troops home from Iraq as long as the timetable is dictated by events on the ground and a withdrawal is “from a position of strength.” He may have appeared to be too dismissive about civil liberties concerns in protecting the homeland.

The three at the top appeared to be confident, likable, and conversant with the issues. They have clearly benefited by being active campaigners for the past months (Romney has done 462 events in Iowa and New Hampshire alone?!). I have thought that Fred Thompson should have joined them last evening, but maybe his newbie status would have been obvious?

 –Kate O’Beirne is NR ’s Washington editior.

John J. Pitney Jr.

Early in the debate, there was a discussion of Larry Craig. Toward the end, a college student asked Rudy Giuliani whether his personal life sets a good example. Together, these two moments suggest a question that will haunt Republican candidates for all levels of politics. In light of Craig, Vitter, and God-only-knows-who’s-next, some voters will ask: “How can Republicans preach about moral issues when so many of you are moral menaces?”

It’s a tough question, but Republicans could turn it around in support of conservative principle. Here’s one way to answer: “Everybody on this earth is flawed. That applies to members of my party. It certainly applies to me. And precisely because we’re imperfect, we need policies that support the better angels of our nature. Schools should teach about virtue. Children should have the chance to pray if they wish. And couples should have every encouragement to choose life.

“That’s what our party stands for, and I’m proud of it.

“The question isn’t whether the messenger is faultless. It’s whether the message is right.”

This way, Republicans could stand firm without inviting charges of moral arrogance and hypocrisy.  And the acknowledgment of human imperfection has the added advantage of being true.

 – John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

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