Sen. John McCain, lower left, answers a question from moderator Chris Matthews, center, as fellow presidential hopefuls, former secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Rep. Duncan Hunter, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore listen during Thursday’s first 2008 Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP photo)
Note to Democratic presidential candidates: If you don't make frequent references to "Islamic fundamentalist terrorism," then you are girly-men (or in the case of a certain senator from New York, an authentic girly-girly) certain to weaken the country, go back on the defense, and generally not be serious about confronting and smiting the evil-doer crowd.
That penetrating observation was courtesy of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Thursday's Republican "American Idol"-style debate in which there was no shortage of tough, tougher and really tough talk about how to get the country back on track. With a few exceptions, the consensus among the 10 candidates was that reliable post-9/11 Republican leitmotif: When in doubt, scare the hell out of people, elevate the rhetorical terror threat level to screaming red, and send folks into duck-and-cover mode.
Overall, the MSNBC-run debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California was not unlike the first major Democratic scuffle held the previous week: lame and only partially revealing. It's hard to get a serious read from these events because it's like a crowded horse race stuck in freeze frame as soon as the gate opens. Too many ambitious politicians struggling to make their stump speeches, present the winning sound bite, and reach their talking points quota can be a chilling insight into the human condition.
Speaking of equine themes, I was watching the pre-debate coverage and watched the GOP contenders being led around for photo opportunities like horses on the track heading for post time. Of course, looming over everything was the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who for modern Republicans is the Holy Trinity wrapped into one mortal. Debate moderator and political celebrity suck-up Chris Matthews presented the myth as gospel that "every cab driver in America knew what Ronald Reagan stood for." Really.
What the all-male, all muscle-bound GOP field couldn't say enough was the magic word of strength. Reagan was all about strength the GOPers endlessly rhapsodized. Giuliani said Reagan was so industrial-grade strong that, like a miracle, within minutes of taking office in January 1981, the American hostages in Iran were released. It was utter nonsense, but it made for a good sound bite. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the candidate who most morphed Reagan's suave looks and presentation, talked about the virtues of strength and added for good measure that Osama bin Laden would be tracked down. "He is gonna pay, he is gonna die," Romney said. Not to be outdone in the muscle-flexing department, Sen. John McCain of Arizona promised to follow bin Laden "to the gates of hell."
In this macho beauty contest, Axis of Evil top dog Iran was mentioned more than Iraq, which was a perfectly rational example of groupthink given that Republicans and Democrats have run into a roadblock of descriptions and solutions when it comes to the Iraq war pit. Charged-up McCain blurted out that Iraq was "on the right track," which will no doubt come as a surprise to many in Iraq. He also fell back on the refrain that they are coming after us here in the homeland if we don't face them down in Iraq — which contradicted the fear-factor theme that they are coming after us here in the homeland anyway.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California chimed in with warnings about the threat of China, and "Iran has crossed the line," and he looked ready to let the missiles fly at a moment's notice. He also established his immigration credentials by bragging about a strong "double fence" built at the Mexican border near San Diego.
There was some nuance about Iraq and foreign policy. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson actually offered a policy alternative highlighted by asking the Iraqi people to vote in a referendum to decide whether we should stay or go and a solution to divide oil revenues (at least one-third to the Iraqi people themselves.) Rep. Ron Paul of Texas paraded his libertarian credentials by noting he opposed the war from the beginning and called for a "non-interventionist" foreign policy.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas mentioned Sudan and Congo and called for a three-state, one-country solution. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who was short-changed in the face-time department, barely spoke at all about his signature issue (immigration). He was able to mumble something about "disengagement" before he was cut off.
The former governors in the crowd vied for the honor of most vetoes signed and most taxes cut. Thompson said he was the "reliable conservative," and Jim Gilmore of Virginia crowned himself the "consistent conservative," and called for a comprehensive solution to the Middle East.
Mike Huckabee of Arkansas raised eyebrows when he called for criminal sanctions of some type for American corporate executives who shipped jobs overseas. Who would like to be Huckabee's fund-raiser after that broadside?
More observations: George W. Bush was barely mentioned as if he were a mad uncle locked in the attic. Romney looked too smooth explaining his conversion to anti-abortion standard bearer. He had a Frankenstein epiphany when considering the moral quandaries of stem-cell research. On abortion, Giuliani danced and pranced, but confirmed his belief that women do have the right to choose. McCain was the one candidate who enthusiastically said he believed in evolution, while a few candidates raised their hands saying they didn't.
Real men don't spend much time talking about health-care reform and global warming, and this crowd didn't spend much on those sissy matters. The GOPers had no comic relief moment like that of former and long-forgotten Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who said his fellow Democrats frightened him (just imagine how they felt about having him on the same stage.)
They got their fair share of softballs lobbed by Matthews and his collaborators from the new, inside-the-Beltway online magazine politico.com. The gutter-grade question of the day was whether these Republicans would like to see President Bill Clinton back in the White House as a first spouse to his wife, Hillary Clinton. Gee, what do you think? It's hard to tell which was more embarrassing: the predictable, even gleeful responses from many of the candidates or the utter vapidity of the question.
Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Herald.