An Incomplete Field

They stood earnestly in a row, combed, primped and prepped, as Nancy Reagan gazed up at them with courteous interest. But behind the hopeful candidates, a dwarfing shadow loomed, a shadow almost palpable in its power to remind Republicans of the days when men were men and the party was united. His power is only increased by his absence. But enough about Fred Thompson.

This is a piece about Thursday night’s Republican presidential debates, but first I would like to note that the media’s fixation with which Republican is the most like Reagan, and who is the next Reagan, and who parts his hair like Reagan, is absurd, and subtly undermining of Republicans, which is why they do it. Reagan was Reagan, a particular man at a particular point in history. What is to be desired now is a new greatness. Another way of saying this is that in 1960, John F. Kennedy wasn’t trying to be the next FDR, and didn’t feel forced to be. FDR was the great, looming president of Democratic Party history, and there hadn’t been anyone as big or successful since 1945, but JFK thought it was good enough to be the best JFK. And the press wasn’t always sitting around saying he was no FDR. Oddly enough, they didn’t consider that an interesting theme.

They should stop it already, and Republicans should stop playing along. They should try instead a pleasant, “You know I don’t think I’m Reagan, but I do think John Edwards may be Jimmy Carter, and I’m fairly certain Hillary is Walter Mondale.”

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I return to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Thursday night. It was an incomplete field that made its debut, but not an unimpressive one. For the first time, as I watched, I thought: Fred Thompson shouldn’t take forever to get in. History moves.

The debate was important because it offered a chance for each candidate to enter the national memory trove. For most normal humans, the presidential race is still a blur they catch from the corner of their eye as they walk through a room with the TV on, but if you’re running it’s better to make a blurry good impression than a blurry bad one.

The three front-runners had and have different challenges, long-term ones that can’t be resolved with a single debate. John McCain has to make himself new again, not just an old warrior working out old dreams but a fresh and meaningful choice. Rudy Giuliani has to make himself serious. America’s mayor needs ballast. What does he know? Is there wisdom there or only instinct? Mitt Romney has to show he is not just an intelligent and articulate operator who is chasing the next and logical résumé point for no particular reason beyond that it’s next, and logical.

The rest of the candidates had to show they’re here, and potentially a force.

Here’s how I saw it:

All the candidates save one, the obscure but intellectually serious Ron Paul, seemed to be trying to show they will not break with the Bush administration on the war, but that, at the same time, they each know a heck of a lot more than President Bush. There were criticisms of the administration’s handling of Iraq, with the first and strongest coming from Mr. McCain. Mike Huckabee had the most spirited explanation. The administration listened to “civilians in silk ties” rather than generals “with mud and blood on their boots.” On Iran, the candidates seemed in general to be indignant to the point of bellicosity.

If we view the proceedings in vulgar and reductive Who Won, Who Lost terms, and let’s, Mitt Romney won, Rudy Giuliani lost, and John McCain is still in. The moderator, Chris Matthews, seemed to think he was on “Hardball” and had to keep the pups, punks and rubes—that would be the candidates—in line. He cut them off—”Congressman, that’s time!”—and occasionally hectored. One of the stars was the buzzing clock. It interrupted all thought.

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Mr. McCain seemed alert, and full of effort. Somehow he seemed both high-energy and creaky. He uncompromisingly supported fighting it out in Iraq. He also had the best line of the night. When Mitt Romney was tagged for saying catching Osama is not of pre-eminent importance—”It’s more than Osama bin Laden”—Mr. McCain quickly pounced. “I’ll follow him to the gates of hell.” Go, baby. But there was something “Poignant Echoes of the Past” about his performance. He didn’t make it new, but I think he made it more moving.

Mr. Giuliani seemed unsure at first, and was badly lit, or badly made up since he had the same lighting as everyone else. He did not make a strong impression until he spoke on abortion, and then it was a bad one. He seemed to support overturning Roe v. Wade and also not overturning it. Whatever. He shouldn’t be surprised by such questions, and should have enough respect to have thought it through. His New York riff seemed tired. His problem is the same as Hillary Clinton’s. Both of them do well by themselves. Both seem diminished when standing and vying with others. They are solo acts.

Republican DebateThe statuesque Mr. Romney had a certain good-natured command, a presidential voice, and a surprising wiliness. He seemed happy to be there, and in the mysterious way that some people seem to dominate, he dominated. He had a quick witted answer when Mr. Matthews asked him if the Roman Catholic Church should deny communion to pro-abortion politicians. What, said, Matthews, would he say to the bishops? “I don’t say anything to Roman Catholic Bishops,” he said. “They can do whatever the heck they want!” He deftly flipped it into a church-state issue. He did some light-handed and audience-pleasing Clinton bashing, and was confident on stem-cell research. But he was weak on Iraq, predictable, like someone who knows the answer that polls right with the base. How can you be utterly banal about a war, and such a controversial one?

Sam Brownback seems a very nice and sleepy fellow who means it on the social issues. Jim Gilmore, Duncan Hunter and Tommy Thompson all got sort of jumbled together, and seemed to merge into one, “The Guy You Don’t Know and Don’t Think You Have To.” The disappointment was Tom Tancredo, who can be colorful and passionate on the stump, and not only on immigration, and who was expected by some to be the wildcard, the Mike Gravel of the GOP debate. He seemed hemmed in by the format, and looked as if he knew it, getting, halfway in, the disheartened look of a talk-show guest who just realized he left it in the green room.

Each had flubs and false moves. Something tells me it will all get more interesting, and not only because Fred Thompson will get in.