Though otherwise almost perfectly valueless, the South Carolina debate did prove one thing: three of the top four candidates — Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney — are not conservatives by any reasonable definition. The debate was within reach of any of the three to win, and each nearly lost it. After the first Republican candidates’ encounter, in which Mayor Giuliani famously blew it on the issue of overturning Roe v. Wade, he had his big chance in Columbia last night. Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked him how he — a pro-choice, pro-gun control Republican who once supported liberal Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor of New York — could claim to be a conservative.
Giuliani danced around the question through his allotted time, and when Wallace extended the time for another thirty seconds “…so you can answer the question…”, the best Giuliani could do was to say that the important issue was to unite against the threat of a Democratic win. If it weren’t for Rep. Ron Paul (and Brit Hume’s later questions about terrorist interrogation) Rudy’s campaign might have crashed to a halt last night. But it didn’t. Giuliani is still in it, though more clearly than ever something other than a conservative.
Neither McCain or Romney did any better than Giuliani for one simple reason: when questioned about the core conservative issues, neither has a decent record, or even a decent answer.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul — who by any rational measure shouldn’t even be on the stage — said at one point that the terrorists attacked us on 9-11 because of our interference in Middle Eastern affairs. That insane comment resulted in a genuine eruption of outrage from Giuliani, who demanded that Paul retract the statement. It was a perfect Rudy moment, and in it he erased his earlier blunder. Giuliani survives, mostly because the other top-tier candidates have as little claim to the conservative mantle as he.
The McCain — Romney match resulted in the best theatrical moments of the night, the two taking turns kicking at the other’s biggest vulnerabilities. Romney went after McCain for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that — aside from being an attack on free speech (yes, save me the e-mails on the Supreme Court decision upholding it. We can talk about that after the court reconsiders it this term) — is bad policy. He also took McCain to task for going along with the amnesty approach to the illegal immigration problem in last year’s bill and in the McKennedy bill that is now being muddled through the Senate without McCain’s open support.
McCain lashed back at Romney for being a flip-flopper, changing his position in “even numbered years” and “depending on the office” being campaigned for. This round was a draw: neither scored a knockout, but each did enough damage to the other to prevent much climb in poll numbers. There were no conservatives (except perhaps Chris Wallace, who was the questioner in that segment) involved in this part of the debate.
McCain got cornered on illegal immigration. Trying to defend his position on illegal immigration, McCain said that some of the Fort Dix Six (the Kosovars who are being held on terrorism charges, having been planning a massacre at the New Jersey army base) were here on expired visas. Reports have indicated, however, that at least three of the six were here illegally having sneaked across the border. McCain also said that he had never supported amnesty. But he did: the Senate illegal immigration bill in 2006 was amnesty enshrouded in a cloud of blue smoke that required fines to be paid and time waited.
The Fox News team did their best to make this otherwise boring evening a little more interesting. Brit Hume led the contestants through a fictional scenario, posing the following facts: that suicide bombers had attacked shopping centers in America, causing a large number of casualties, that another team had been caught and taken to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation, and that intelligence indicated that another attack was imminent. Hume then asked each of the contestants (candidates seems too dignified a term at this point) about interrogation and other “next scenes” in the scenario.
Sen. McCain — in line with his so-called “anti-torture” amendment — said he would not allow the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that former CIA director Tenet says (in his new book) produced valuable information when used on high-ranking terrorists. McCain said that acting too aggressively would mean we lose the battle for world opinion. Wow. At that point, McCain stood very much alone.
The best response came from Sam Brownback who, in his only good moment of the night, scolded McCain saying it’s more important to save lives than to worry about world opinion. (Rep. Duncan Hunter scored heavily then, too, saying it would take a “one-minute conversation with the Secretary of Defense” for Hunter to say the interrogators should “get the information.” Hunter wasn’t about to spare the horses.
Giuliani — again in his element — said that he’d tell the interrogators to use “every method they could think of” and didn’t shy away from the “waterboarding” that interrogators apparently used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed (and which McCain says is torture.)
To their credit, the Fox team covered three of the 10 most important issues: Iraq, illegal immigration and abortion and did so in a way that actually got some answers from some of the ten contestants who were doing their very best to escape and evade. It would be far better if there were many fewer contestants on stage. This isn’t a beauty pageant, it’s the process of winnowing the candidates for the most important elective office in the world. And these debates could be a very useful tool in helping voters decide. But that can’t happen with so many on stage.
Before more “debates” such as these, there must be some reduction in the number of people allowed to participate. At this point, at least seven months before the first primary, the only way to do this is by poll numbers. Fair is fair: choose a point in time, say two weeks before the next debate. Use the RealClearPolitics poll average, and invite everyone who rises as high to have the support of at least 10% of the voters polled. Let the rest just go away.