Reading the reactions of thoughtful commentators after the stage emptied, talking with conservative policy types and GOP political operatives later last evening and this morning, we know we’re not alone. Most won’t express publicly just how horrified—or at least how demoralized—they are. After all, they still want to beat Obama—as do we. And they want to get along with the possible nominee and the other candidates and their supporters. They don’t want to rock the boat too much. But maybe the GOP presidential boat needs rocking.
The e-mails flooding into our inbox during the evening were less guarded. Early on, we received this missive from a bright young conservative: “I’m watching my first GOP debate…and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!!” As the evening went on, the craziness receded, and the demoralized comments we received stressed the mediocrity of the field rather than its wackiness. As one more experienced, and therefore more jaded, observer wrote: “I just thought maybe it’s always this bad…they’re only marginally worse than McCain and Bush.”
Now there are some legitimate excuses. With nine candidates on the stage, and answers restricted to one minute, it’s hard to really show your stuff. And two of the candidates—Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney—did provide respectable performances. But no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry. It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him. And Mitt Romney remains, when all is said and done, a technocratic management consultant whose one term as governor produced Romneycare. He could rise to the occasion as president. Or not.
But in a week in which markets collapsed, Solyndra exploded, our Middle East policy was in meltdown, the Iranian nuclear threat became more urgent, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff fingered our “ally” Pakistan as a sponsor of terror against American forces in Afghanistan—none of the candidates really seemed up to the moment, either politically or substantively. In the midst of a crisis, we’re getting politics as usual—and a somewhat subpar version of politics as usual at that.
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