First formal debate
WASHINGTON -- Fred Thompson did not disgrace himself in his first formal debate as a Republican presidential candidate, but he also did not dominate the stage full of White House hopefuls in Dearborn, Mich., on Tuesday.
At least three others -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney -- registered with policy specifics and personal anecdotes more often and more strongly.
Giuliani seized every opportunity to whack Hillary Clinton, and held his ground in a spirited debate with Romney on their respective economic records and on the issue of the presidential line-item veto -- Romney praising it and Giuliani defending his view that it is unconstitutional.
Their claims and counterclaims on spending and tax cuts are indecipherable to a layman, and it's questionable how many voters will be swayed by the issue.
But both men got to set their strong jaws in place -- and thereby assume the posture of leadership. Romney got to utter the word "Baloney!"
to dismiss his rival, but Giuliani topped it by noting that he "took President Clinton to court and I beat him" when the Supreme Court ruled against Clinton on the line-item veto. "And I don't think it's a bad idea to have a Republican presidential candidate who actually has beat President Clinton at something."
McCain was challenged only by such gadfly candidates as Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, and he used the opportunity to effectively drill home two big themes. As president, he said, he would crack down on "wasteful" spending, wielding the veto pen, and he would attack the health care inflation that he said has made Detroit cars uncompetitive in the world market.
But what was striking about the performance of the leading Republicans was the absence of fresh policy ideas. A listener satisfied with President Bush's economic policies would be safe in assuming their continuation -- if any of them won. But given the economic travail in Michigan, where the candidates were debating, such complacency seemed more than a little odd.
Thompson was treated respectfully by his rivals and his positions differed little from theirs: supporting free trade, tax cuts, spending restraint and regulatory relief. He was specific -- and politically courageous -- on one point, recommending a change that would index future Social Security benefits to prices, rather than wages, a change that over time would modestly reduce monthly benefits and help keep the system solvent. That is a change that opponents easily can criticize, even though it's good policy. But Thompson's frowning expression conveys less optimism than Romney's or McCain's, and his slow drawl has little of the urgency of Giuliani's message.
Only at the very end of the two hours on MSNBC did Thompson relax enough to show a little humor. Asked how he had liked his first debate, he said, "I've enjoyed watching these fellows. I've got to admit it was getting a little boring without me. But I'm glad to be here now."
It was hard for the leading candidates to acknowledge any serious blemishes in the current economic scene. That was left to others -- most notably former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a populist preacher who has been gaining traction among religious conservatives and disaffected working people. He admonished his colleagues that people "hear Republicans on this stage talk about how great the economy is, and frankly when they hear that, they're going to probably reach for the dial." He went on to say that "the people who handle the bags and make the beds at our hotels and serve the food, many of them are having to work two jobs," and still cannot afford college costs for their kids or health insurance for themselves. While the leading candidates preached the virtues of free trade, Huckabee said that Republicans have to address the dislocations caused by imports or "we're going to get our britches beat next year."
When the topic turned to unions, it was Huckabee who suggested that they are likely to grow in size and influence because the gap between top executives' and workers' pay will "create a huge appetite" for protection of wages.
And when confronted with the question of Bush's veto of the children's health insurance bill, a veto that was supported by all the leading candidates, Huckabee demurred. After squirming a bit, he finally said, "I'm not absolutely certain that that's going to be the right way. ... The political loss of that is going to be enormous."
That kind of candor -- and understanding -- would be welcome among others in the field.