June 14 (Bloomberg) -- To the great disappointment of journalists, there was no blood in the water after last night’s first New Hampshire debate among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. The candidates directed almost all their fire at President Barack Obama and in particular his health-care reform, invariably referred to as “Obamacare.” Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had previously called it Obamneycare, in reference to a similar plan enacted in Massachusetts under then Governor Mitt Romney. But Pawlenty turned down several increasingly explicit invitations to repeat the jibe.
Not that the candidates didn’t compete or disagree on the important issues facing our nation. They competed, for example, on who had the most children. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum started the bidding with seven. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota countered with five -- and 23 foster kids. Romney tried to pull a fast one by including daughters-in-law: He’s got five, plus five sons and 16 grandchildren. Representative Ron Paul of Texas topped them all by noting that, as a doctor, he had delivered 4,000 children.
The candidates also competed on who would repeal Obama’s health-care plan faster or more thoroughly. Bachmann, with characteristic melodrama, declared, “I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare. It’s a promise. Take it to the bank.” Romney, eliding the similarities to the health-care plan he passed in Massachusetts, said he would repeal Obamacare “just as Michele indicated.” But he wouldn’t wait for repeal: On his first day in office, he would grant waivers to all 50 states, he said. Apparently it doesn’t matter how Congress would vote on the matter.
They competed on their devotion to the Tea Party. A self-identified mainstream Republican questioner, who asked if his party would still have room for him, got nothing. Santorum said the Tea Party is the “backbone to the Republican party,” protecting it against deviationism. By contrast, Bachmann offered the unreassuring reassurance that the Tea Party is just “a wide swath of America coming together… who simply want to take the country back.” (Back where? From whom?) The moderate Republican seeking comfort that his party still loved him wouldn’t have found it in this debate.
What was painfully on display last night was how far the Republican Party has wandered from its internationalist traditions into protectionism, isolationism and economic chauvinism. Santorum talked about tax subsidies to save manufacturing in the Rust Belt. Pawlenty said trade must be fair as well as free -- classic code words for protectionism.
Only Herman Cain, this year’s wild-card candidate and the former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza Inc., was willing to say point-blank that a 5-year-old who shows up in an emergency room should get treatment regardless of citizenship status. But even Cain went on to say that the problem should be turned over to the states. This is the Republican solution for almost everything -- it’s Romney’s new position on health care, for example. Surely, though, if anything is a national question, it is the question of who gets to be a U.S. citizen.
Not one of the seven candidates on stage would defend the war in Afghanistan, started by Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, yet they also found it hard to articulate their objections. Ron Paul tied up Afghanistan and immigration with a great big bow: “We should think about protecting our borders, rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan. That doesn’t make any sense to me.” Romney, perplexingly, said he would “bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,” provided that he has assurance from the generals that the Afghans are “able to defend themselves from the Taliban.”
As with health care, it’s not terribly clear how Romneywar is different from Obamawar. It appears, however, that all the Republican candidates now oppose anything like “nation-building” (that is, trying to leave behind something more than dead bodies, broken equipment and simmering resentments when we invade a country and then leave it). George W. Bush lambasted the idea of nation-building when running against Al Gore in 2000. Then he adopted it with a vengeance in Iraq and Afghanistan while in office. But nation-building appears to be out of style again in the GOP.
Pawlenty was the candidate most in the spotlight; he seems to be the media favorite and this was his first big opportunity to introduce himself to a wider audience. His entry means that Romney is no longer the only Republican candidate with the looks and demeanor of a president. But Pawlenty is either deeply conservative or pandering to the Tea Party element in his positions on specific issues. If he is pandering, he is much better at it than Romney, who always leaves the suspicion that he is only acting the extremist and actually has reasonable, mainstream views on most topics.
Nevertheless, Romney comes out of the first debate the clear front-runner for the nomination. The Republican hunger for a winner was vividly on display last night. Unless one or more of the other candidates takes him on, Romney will be hard to stop.
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