Michael Tomasky: The GOP Debate Was the Best One Yet

Michael Tomasky on why the Founders would have approved of Saturday evening’s unusual GOP debate. Plus, watch video of the best moments.

This was a pretty fascinating debate—no stupid gotcha questions, six participants (no Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman Jr.), and candidates actually speaking, on occasion, from their hearts about important moments in their lives.

I was struck by one of the last questions, when a woman asked them if they believed in the concept of the common good. That’s a liberal idea! You can read about it here, where you will see that yours truly is associated with the phrase. Anyway, how’d she sneak in there?

The question got tossed to Newt Gingrich first. As a Catholic for the last 15 minutes or so of his life, Gingrich presumably knows what “common good” means, since it is in no small measure a Catholic idea, and a liberal, social-justice Catholic one. You could see in his eyes that he didn’t like this business. He avoided discussing what the common good actually means and changed the subject to liberty, noting that by liberty the Founders meant wisdom and virtue, not “hedonism and acquisition.” He is right, even if he has done a far better job of representing the latter two concepts than the former ones for most of his life. Rick Perry, meanwhile, thinks the common good is about tax cuts, which is exactly and perfectly the opposite of what it’s about.

Anyhow, the debate in general and this question in particular reminded me that I have long felt that we should have debates sort of like this one more often. But rather than be about religious faith, they should be about civic faith. And civic virtue. What does it mean to you to be an American? What is your definition of liberty (which in fairness they did discuss tonight)? Who is your favorite Founder and why? Who is the most important Supreme Court justice in our history and why? Henry Adams wrote X, John Dewey wrote Y, Walter Lippmann wrote Z; do you agree or not, and why?

Go ahead, laugh. But I can promise you, that is exactly what the Founders wanted us to do, exactly the measure of our possible leaders they wanted and expected us to take. And it is exactly what our society has lost. What’s killing this country’s soul is not, as conservatives have it, lack of religion. It’s lack of civic virtue. To the extent that there was indeed a little bit of that on display in this debate, I applaud it.