The Atlantic's big government conservative—my pick for communications director in the inevitable Huckabee Administration—thinks Sam Brownback won the debate last night.
Brownback generally seems lost in the crowd during these debates, and from a tactical perspective he ought to be throwing more punches. (Or getting out of the race entirely.) But – but – what Brownback did, in his non-response to Paul, was offer an actual strategy for moving forward politically in Iraq, addressing the central problem of our occupation head-on in a way that almost nobody else did during tonight's debate. His plan for partition may be a terrible plan (or at best, a plausible endpoint of a "stay till it burns out" strategy), but it's an infinitely more substantive contribution to the argument over Iraq than, say, Rudy Giuliani's famous slam of Paul a few months back, and Brownback deserved better – as do we all – than to have his response scored a failure because he didn't use it to score cheap points against a fellow also-ran.
The "as do we all" link is to James Fallows' 11-year old piece about the fight-crazed, substance-poor political media. I'm sympathetic to this. Back when Brownback was contemplating the race the punditocracy was genuinely interested in his ideas, in his version of pro-life politics, etc. And now everyone's baying for him to quit the race.
But… Brownback should quit the race. There was a contest for the role of consistent, pro-life, "family friendly" conservative, and Mike Huckabee won it. If Brownback's substantive Iraq answer actually got the rest of the field to respond with their own substantive answers he'd be playing a useful role, but they didn't, so he isn't.
As smarmy and superior as he can sound, Newt Gingrich is actually on to something with these debates: They're only good when candidates have to engage an issue at length, to see if they can. Rather than praising Brownback I'd like it if the moderators could skip the stupid "would you nuke Iran if Lex Luthor and Magneto gave them the doomsday device?" questions and instead follow up with Romney or Rudy (or better yet the lightweight Thompson) until they actually answer an Iraq question substantively. If they can't do it, then we've learned something. Douthat's right that we don't actually learn anything when these guys just pitch applause lines.