At Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate, the GOP contenders did their best not to make any news. No one attacked anyone; no one disagreed on any major policy matter–except regarding a proposal to establish a national catastrophic insurance fund that would back up private insurance firms. (Rudy Giuliani, playing to Florida homeowners, voiced his support for it; Mitt Romney supported the general notion; John McCain attacked legislation that would set up such a fund as a $200 billion boondoggle.) Generally, the candidates made up a chorus for tax cuts and fighting–make that, winning–the Iraq war. (Then there was Ron Paul.) At times, the candidates hailed their rivals. It was so…. un-Democratic. No nastiness–even though McCain and Romney, essentially tied for first place in the Florida polls, have been hurling negative ads at each other. (A Romney ad assails McCain for flip-flopping on tax cuts; a McCain spot blasts Romney for…flip-flopping on tax cuts. McCain is actually comparing Romney to John Kerry.)
If you were forced to pick a winner–and in the absence of policy disputes, the debate was all about the horse race–you’d probably have to choose Romney, who seemed quasi-commanding and who this night, for some reason, looked more like Hollywood’s idea of a president than usual. But no candidate hurt his own prospects. That doesn’t mean, though, they didn’t come out with some whoppers. Here’s a sampling:
* Moderator Tim Russert asked McCain about a comment McCain had supposedly made–“I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues; I still need to be educated”–and McCain shot back, “I don’t know where you got that quote from; I’m very well-versed in economics.” Well, McCain did tell the Baltimore Sun, “The issue of economics is something that I’ve really never understood as well as I should.” So much for being “well-versed.”
* Asked whether it was un-American for U.S. banks to seek infusions of billions of dollars in capital from foreign sources, Giuliani said there was nothing wrong with that as long as “they’re transparent.” Giuliani, though, still refuses to be transparent about his own multi-million-dollar business dealings, declining to release information about the clients and foreign officials he has worked with as a consultant.
* McCain said that the invasion of Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was “hell-bent on acquiring” weapons of mass destruction. Actually, he wasn’t. Saddam might have desired WMDs. But for years prior to the invasion, the Iraqi dictator had suspended his WMD program and done nothing to pursue WMDs, according to the final report of Charles Duelfer and his Iraq Survey Group.
* Mike Huckabee, voicing his support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, said that just because the United States didn’t find WMDs in Iraq that “doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.” The aforementioned Duelfer report–and Duelfer took over the Iraq Survey Group as a hawk who had believed Saddam possessed WMDs–made it clear that Saddam not only had no weapons in the years leading up to the war, he had no WMD program. In other words, there were no WMDs to be found in Iraq–period.
* Romney praised Bush for mounting the Iraq war and making sure al Qaeda could not gain “a safe haven” in Iraq “for launching attacks against us.” That was certainly not an issue prior to the invasion. Saddam had no operational ties with al Qaeda. And now there’s little, if any chance, that the small and unpopular al Qaeda outfit in Iraq could take over Iraq, pushing aside the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.
* Romney claimed that under Hillary Clinton’s universal health care proposal, everybody will get their coverage “from the government.” Here’s how Clinton describes it: “If you have a plan you like, you keep it. If you want to change plans or aren’t currently covered, you can choose from dozens of the same plans available to members of Congress, or you can opt into a public plan option like Medicare.” That’s not a government-only plan.
* Huckabee said that Americans “ought to be able to respect people who don’t have any [faith].” Yet in a book he co-wrote in 1998, Huckabee huffed, “Men who have rejected God and do not walk in faith are more often than not immoral, impure, and improvident (Gal. 5:19-21). They are prone to extreme and destructive behavior, indulging in perverse vices and dissipating sensuality (1 Cor. 6:9-10).” That just doesn’t come across as a respectful attitude regarding people who don’t have faith.
But the candidates sure did behave nicely.