It could've been worse. Maybe.
Mitt Romney. Tim Pawlenty. Newt Gingrich. Michelle Bachmann. Rick Santorum. Herman Cain. Ron Paul. Earlier tonight, the GOP's presidential wannabes took the stage in New Hampshire for a debate amongst Republican presidential hopefuls. Moderator John King audibly mumbled and grunted through their answers, as if attempting to manually punctuate the candidates' sentences for them. Occasionally, he stopped to ask individual candidates to choose between two competing bits of inane pop-culture trivia (iPhone or Blackberry? Conan or Leno?) in a game he called "This Or That."
The pick-your-side questions, he explained, were intended to allow viewers to get to know the candidates a little better. But the quick, generally substanceless exchanges gave viewers little insight into the specific policies that each of the candidates would support, or how exactly they would make the sort of tough decisions required of a president. It wasn't that policy wasn't a factor; it was that it was discussed mostly in soundbites and rambling generalities. The candidates didn't really discuss policy issues so much as allude to the fact that those policy issues do, in fact, exist.
That almost certainly helped Romney. A former business advisor, he came off looking slick and professional, as if running for America's Consultant in Chief. When he wasn't talking, he watched the other candidates with a condescending perma-smirk plastered across his face.
Newt looked ornery and vaguely bored, except for the time he got to talk about why NASA, which he called "a study in why government can't innovate," is responsible for America's sad lack of awesome moon bases. Santorum came across as nervous and over-eager, like a puppy dog eager to return a Frisbee to his master. Cain didn't get a question for twenty minutes, and then sputtered through a flip-book of management catchphrases: As a businessman, he said, you learn to "make sure you're working on the right problem." As president, when it came to tough issues, he'd "take it to the people" and "do what's right, not what's politically right." He favors "common-sense solutions." (Is there an anti-common sense candidate?)
Paul relied on familiar maxims of a different kind. He repeatedly highlighted his hatred of the Federal Reserve, used the word "malinvestment" in a question about government assistance to business, declared that the government should get out of the marriage business, and promised that "free markets will give you 10 or 15 percent economic growth!"
Pawlenty, asked whether he prefers Coke or Pepsi, picked the market leader: Coke. It's clear that in the Romney/Pawlenty slugfest to come away the front-runner, Pawlenty was hoping to come away as the number-one candidate himself. He didn't. After displaying an initial reticence to follow up on his recent attacks on Romney for RomneyCare, the Massachusetts health overhaul that inspired ObamaCare, Pawlenty played second fiddle for the rest of the night.
Of all the candidates, Bachmann may have fared the best, though it surely helped that expectations were so low. While Romney smirked at the other candidates, she took notes. Romney played the players; she played the cards. It worked.
Most viewers, though, would've done just as well to spend the two hours of the debate playing a couple rounds of Go Fish themselves. There was precious little in the way of substantive policy talk this evening, even ignoring King's inane games. The candidates all agreed that they hated ObamaCare, and they all attempted to pin the nation's economic woes on the Obama piñata. Santorum came out swinging against the "oppressiveness" of the health care law and "what the president did on energy." Bachmann proposed the "mother of all repeal bills" and said that the Environmental Protection Agency should be renamed the "Job-Killing Agency of America." It's not subtle, but I guess it gets the job done.
The candidates piled on Obama at every chance. The Obama administration is "anti-jobs," "anti-American," a "destructive force," said Newt. Romney dropped punchy declarations like "This. President. Has. Failed." But few were willing to put forward their own solutions with any specificity. When Pawlenty was questioned about Medicare, he said that his proposal to save the program would be forthcoming. Asked to defend his perhaps overly optimistic (alright, alright—totally loony) five percent growth projections, he would only point to growth numbers in China and Brazil (not exactly fair comparisons) and accuse critics of just not having enough Care Bear Stare power, or something. Don't believe his growth targets are plausible? That's positively un-American! "This president is a declinist," Pawlenty said. "It's hogwash. It's a defeatist attitude."
Maybe. But after a dud of a debate like this, a certain measure of defeatism seems warranted.