This was the first 2008 election debate I've been able to watch. I'm glad CNN kept it dignified for the most part, although they ran one silly cartoon question that implied Cheney has too much power. At least no one asked, "Boxers or briefs?"
The Republican Party is in trouble. The candidates are all mixed economy mediocrities, with the possible exception of Ron Paul, who is out in left field. None had specific, courageous answers about what Thompson called the "entitlement tsunami" headed our way. By all indications, the presidency of any Republican except Paul will be an extension of Bush's policies. Some made general statements about cutting spending, but only Paul gave specifics. The rest are too terrified of offending the legions of Americans who now suck off the federal teat.
McCain said he would cut all pork with the line item veto, which is nice, although I doubt it will really happen; but even if it does, cutting pork does not get to the essential problems in our vast welfare state. Pork as a general concept is an easy target because there is no constituency lobbying for "Pork in general." But when you get specific, as McCain did not, then you start offending pressure groups and then the compromises begin.
Romney came off as a weasel. He danced around the question of torture and waterboarding, saying that candidates should not go into specifics. In other words, he's saying, "As President I will get advice and make a good decision on this issue, but I'm not going to tell you now what I think." He said the time has not yet come when gays can be openly admitted into the military. Weasel.
Romney also looks like a political opportunist who was more liberal when he had to be to win election as Governor of Massachusetts, but is more conservative now that he needs to be to win Republican presidential primaries.
Giuliani, the candidate I favor, disappointed me. He made a foolish attack on Romney for using a company to work on his home that employed illegal aliens. Romney crushed Giuliani by asking if he thinks people should ask for the papers of anyone working for them who has a suspicious accent.
Hunter and Tancredo came off as protectionist, anti-immigrant, nativist boobs who desperately need to read Ludwig von Mises.
Worst of all, the debate was clearly won by the candidate who is most religious and most statist: Mike Huckabee. He came off as honest and human and he flashed the best moments of wit -- not much of an achievement among this crowd of dunderheads.
CNN showed a campaign video from each candidate. Fred Thompson did not look good by going negative -- against Romney for once supporting abortion and against Huckabee for supporting higher taxes. The others stayed positive about themselves (or attacked Hillary Clinton, the easiest of targets before a Republican crowd). Fred is still a little vague and unfocused in his answers -- Grandpa, wake up! -- although he seems human with his homey remarks. I get the impression Fred would sleep away much of his presidency; but as Mencken wrote about Coolidge, there are worse ways to govern.
Yes, the Republican Party is in trouble. The only two candidates who sounded like they had integrity were the libertarian antiwar candidate and the Christian big government candidate. The rest are the kind of middle-of-the-road hacks you would expect among Republican politicians. The candidates are in a welfare state bind: the only way to look principled is to risk angering some pressure groups full of voters; but being controversial is the quickest way to marginalization. It is impossible in today's America to be honest and principled about getting the government out of our lives and remain a serious candidate. I don't think I've ever been so depressed after a debate.
The Republican Party is in trouble. America is in trouble.
UPDATE: Slight revision.