None of the candidates in the ballyhooed “commander-in-chief debate” in South Carolina offered a very commanding performance. With the conservative ideological light brigade intent on charging forward, the contempt heaped upon Pakistan and China was unmistakable. Any Pakistani or Chinese citizen might be outraged—if they were able to stay awake during what turned into a prolonged snooze fest. Even Jon Huntsman’s fluorescent tie couldn’t really light up the somnolent proceedings.
Herman Cain regurgitated far-right talking points. Huntsman wore a glazed smile. Mitt Romney spoke as though he were introducing a PowerPoint presentation. As usual, it was a struggle for Rick Perry to speak at all, but he managed to avoid any flubs except for announcing that he would not exempt Israel foreign aid from scrutiny—a big no-no in a GOP that, according to Eric Cantor, should ensure that any assistance to Israel be included directly in the Pentagon budget. Otherwise, the field veered between outlandish pronouncements about China ending up on the ash-heap of history (Perry) and accusations that Obama is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA and seems intent on losing the war on terror (Michele Bachmann). Say what? It was Bachmann herself who minutes later announced that President Obama had made all the right decisions in approving the assassinations of not only Osama bin Laden but also American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
So much for consistency. The only candidates who came across as sensible and cogent were Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum—in that order. Paul actually brought some genuine emotion to the debate, a deep sense of offended honor at the notion that America would sanction torture and assassinations, corroding its own democracy at the very same time that it purports to export it abroad. There is a problem here for Republicans. It is this: when Ron Paul emerges as the voice of sanity among the debaters, then the GOP is in what president George H.W. Bush liked to call deep doo-doo.
The main difficulty for the Republican field is one that it was unable to solve. Obama’s foreign policy, by and large, has successfully pilfered from the Republican playbook. He’s killed bin Laden. Muammar Gaddafi was toppled. American troops will no longer be stationed in Iraq.
To try and portray Obama as a wussbag, Mitt Romney and Co. evoked—what else?—the Iran threat. Iran, we were told, is testament to the colossal failure of the president. He should increase sanctions. He should up covert action. Wait a second: isn’t he already doing that? Romney was being coy. He wants military action as a last resort. Newt Gingrich agreed, but appeared to go further faster in his bellicose endorsement of undermining and attacking the mullahs.
Only Ron Paul had the cojones to point out that the brouhaha about Iran’s nuclear problem is awfully redolent of the hysteria leading up to the Iraq war.
But there won’t be any Pauline conversion to foreign-policy restraint in a GOP that is stuck on automatic pilot, rehearsing the chestnut that returning to the sainted Ronald Reagan’s verities will rid the world of today’s bad guys. The only consoling news about this dreary debate is that it means that there is now one less to watch before the primaries start.