The GOP’s pleasant debate

The New Hampshire GOP debate was, as Carl Cannon writes, a surprisingly friendly affair.

Now that was more like it. Seven Republican presidential candidates showed up Monday night to debate one another at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College, where they looked — if not entirely presidential — then at least poised, collegial and in command of their talking points.

All seven managed to express their differences on public policy without being uncivil to one another, or even disagreeing directly with their fellow candidates. This was made easier by the their shared antipathy for the Obama administration — and because their differences are pretty nuanced: In case there was any remaining doubt, Monday’s session underscored just how conservative the modern Republican Party has become, whether one hails from Ron Paul’s libertarian wing, Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus, or the mainstream establishment of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

Of course, the format almost ruled out any possibility of actual debate, with its quick-march question-and-sorry-to-cut-you-off approach. But the tone of mutual respect was still unexpected and, as everybody has pointed out, it certainly helped Romney.

Pawlenty’s artless, hesitant ducking of the chance to attack the front-runner on health care was embarrassing to see, and surely knocks him down the rankings. If Michele Bachmann finished in second place, as many are arguing, then Romney, barring new entrants and Jon Huntsman, is comfortably in command. And that is how he looked.

There will be more ferocity in due course, I expect, but the initial tone, now set, will be tricky to alter. Once you’ve expressed great respect for your rivals, you call your own judgment into question if go on to say they are foolish, or cowardly, or dangerous–the kind of charges that might have been thrown around. If Huntsman does emerge as a strong rival, it won’t be through furious denunciation–not his style at all.

Romney’s insistence that his health-care reform is not like Obama’s is unconvincing, and therefore remains vulnerable to attack, but the chances of his getting away with it have very much improved. As the FT noted, his promise to act against Obamacare if elected could well neutralise the issue for nomination purposes. It might not be a bad line in the general election, either.

Mr Romney insists that the Democrats’ health plan is significantly different from his, which is false. But by pledging to press for repeal and to grant every state a waiver from the law’s requirements, he may inoculate himself against attack on the subject from within the GOP – especially if his rivals continue to lack the killer instinct.

The FT deplores the lack of substance in the debate. Yes. The NYT makes the same complaint.

Mr. Romney, the presumed front-runner, provided almost no details of his economic plan, except to attack Mr. Obama for making the recession “worse and longer.” (He didn’t mention that the recession ended in June 2009.)

I don’t think Democrats would be wise to go with the line in parentheses. (Better a “bump in the road” than “the recession ended two years ago”.) But the main thing is, when are these events ever about substance? It’s simple. Democrats had reason to hope that the GOP would tear itself to pieces in choosing its nominee. That hope has dimmed.

(Could I ask, incidentally, does CNN really think the “This or That?” interruptions, as in “Coke or Pepsi?”, enlighten or amuse? The obvious purpose of this tiresome running gag was simply to remind viewers that CNN is in charge of the proceedings. “Look at us,” it said, “as we strive to make these bores more interesting.” Condescending, and very very annoying.)

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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