Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Man, I would not want to be a Republican this year. The invocations of Reagan sounded downright plaintive in last night's Dearborn, Michigan debate. "How about a little optimism?" was the refrain. Huckabee, Brownback, Romney and Giuliani all played their own
variations. But then they and the other candidates got back to the bad news: Iraq, the economy, climate change, oil dependence. Then more plaintive cries for optimism. Giuliani: "Get your head up!" Brownback: "We gotta be optimisitc!" and, to tepid applause, "This place rocks!"
The fact that it was Fred Thompson's debut debate did very little to lighten the mood. On Iraq: "We didn't go in with enough troops and didn't know what to expect when we got there." And on the current leadership of the country: "I think we have to tell the truth . . . I don't think the American people believe anything coming out of Washington these days."
Romney got off a brief, forced joke about Law and Order, but otherwise the faces were glum, the candidates dull and low energy.
Again and again they criticized Bush. Interestingly, the President they invoked most often was a Democrat--John F. Kennedy. And even more interestingly, it was the Apollo mission and the analogous push to free our country of oil dependence that the candidates kept referring to. Mike Huckabee took his line directly from the Apollo Alliance web site: "We have to become energy independent and commit to it within a decade." Score one for the labor and environmental movements that formed the Apollo Alliance and its catchy theme of a massive push for alternative fuel: They are feeding the Republican presidential candidates their best lines. Giuliani also linked energy independence to "putting a man on the moon." Of course, he had to show he's a tough guy and not just some wimpy solar-power fan by talking about nuclear energy. John McCain is the same way: acknowledges climate change, and the urgency of doing something about it, and lists nuclear power first among the alternatives to oil.
Debate's weirdest moment: When Mitt Romney said he'd have to ask his lawyer whether the President needs to ask Congress to authorize an attack on Iran. That's why we have Ron Paul. "This idea of going and talking to attorneys totally baffles me!" he declared hotly. "Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it!" He went on to point out that going to war with Iran would be "the road to disaster for us as a nation."
But the dreams of a benevolent dictator who will protect us from the bad guys overtook advocacy for a President who actually follows the law.
Duncan Hunter said it would be OK to skip the whole declaring war step, as long as the target was "fleeting."
"Yes we have a right," declared Mike Huckabee. He promised not to "let the American people get hit with a nuclear device" because of the slowness of "politics in Washington."
That was an applause line. You see why we're in the fix we're in.
Giuliani, making up his own constitutional law as he goes along, claimed it "really depends on the exigency of the circumstance."
Thompson, perhaps influenced by playing a lawyer on TV, gently pointed out that "in any close call you should go to Congress" before starting a war solo and without authorization.
You gotta love the balanced, split-the-difference approach.
It's tough out there for an avuncular Republican candidate. They are all (except for Paul, of course, and Tom Tancredo) so obviously aiming for Reaganesque indifference to bad news--but the bad news itself is piling up faster than they can shrug it off.
Huckabee, asked point blank if he would have vetoed the State Children's Health Insurance Program like Bush did last week, demurred, saying the President was in a difficult position, but finally conceding the veto was a "political disaster."
The same could be said for the entire Republican program. Caught between mad-as-hell social conservatives and mad-as-hell fiscal conservatives they've got a President who has spent two terms running up deficits and is now desperately trying to appease the base by vetoing popular appropriations like the bipartisan children's health insurance program. (As if scripted by Michael Moore, throughout the debate the same insurance company ad kept running over and over again.) While the Democrats talk about universal health care, the Republicans offer little besides talking loops about how bad and dangerous the world is and how we've got to find something to feel optimistic about. Then their President takes health care away from kids.
The social conservatives are not that keen on withholding insurance from children, as it turns out (remember the Social Security debacle?), and even the fiscal conservatives smell a rat when Bush chooses to veto a well-run program that costs the equivalent of three months of the Iraq debacle.
“On the SCHIP bill veto, the division in the party is underscored by the fact that among the bill's most ardent supporters are conservative Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah,” The A.P. reports. “Grassley has called Bush's veto of the children's health care bill ‘irresponsible’ and says he agrees with criticism of runaway spending during the six years when Bush was president and Republicans controlled Congress.”
So much for appeasing the base.
Grasping at straws, Mike Huckabee declared that "people on this stage are living better than we ever dreamed as kids." How's that for the American Dream? Politicians getting fat at the public trough.
It's going to take one lame Democratic campaign to lose to this crowd. But I wouldn't want to underestimate them.