At the end of the final Republican presidential primary before Super-Duper Tuesday, CNN's Anderson Cooper, the lead moderator, noted it had been "a remarkable evening of politics." Not so.
The debate, held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday night, was all-too predictably a contest in Reagan-hugging, with John McCain, the apparent frontrunner, and Mitt Romney, the apparent No. 2, trying to out-Reagan the other. Neither said much new. After all, they agree on keeping in place George W. Bush's war in Iraq and his tax cuts. But the two men needed something to argue about, so they tussled over McCain's charge that Romney last spring supported setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. This was the exchange that would be sliced and diced by the pundits and the analysts. In a way, both McCain and Romney were wrong.
This dust-up began last week when McCain said "Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal similar to what the Democrats are seeking." McCain pointed to an ABC News interview, during which Romney was asked, "Do you believe that there should be a timetable in withdrawing the troops?" His reply:
Well, there's no question--but that the President and Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn't be for public pronouncement. You don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're gonna be gone. You wanna have a series of things you wanna see accomplished in terms of the strength of the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police and the leadership of the, of the Iraqi government.
Was Romney talking about a timetable for a withdrawal or a timetable for other steps? He wasn't clear. So the interviewer pressed him: "You wouldn't do it publicly because - the President has said flat out that he will veto anything the Congress passes about a timetable for - troop withdrawals. As president, would you do the same?" And Romney said,
Well, could you, yeah - well, of course. Could you, could you imagine the setting where, where during the Second World War we said to the, the Germans, gee, if we haven't reached the Rhine by this date, we'll go home, or if we haven't gotten this accomplished, we'll, we'll pull up and leave? You don't, you don't publish that to your enemy, or they just simply lie and wait until that time. So, of course, you have to work together to create timetables and milestones, but you don't do that with the, with the opposition.
Romney might have been talking about a timetable for some sort of disengagement. It seems more that he was trying to be both for winning the war and for ending the war. Yet McCain has overstated the case by proclaiming Romney was an outright supporter of establishing a date for withdrawal.
At the debate, neither budged. Romney called McCain a liar and declared this was a "dirty trick." McCain fired off another blast and essentially branded Romney a weasel, noting that in December 2006 Romney declined to take a position on boosting troops in Iraq, when McCain was fighting for such a policy. Romney had at that time said that as a governor he would not be weighing in on the matter, but a month later he backed Bush's so-called surge right before Bush announced it. Nice timing, there.
It took Ron Paul to raise the obvious meta-point: both men were arguing over "technicalities of a policy they agree with." But it was obvious that the two main GOP candidates have little respect for the other. While jousting over all this, McCain bitterly snapped at Romney for running negative ads against him and against Mike Huckabee. "You can spend it all," he said, referring to Romney's fortune.
In calmer portions of the evening, Romney tried to depict McCain as not a true Reagan conservative, citing McCain's support for bipartisan legislation dealing with campaign finance reform, global warming, and immigration. He also slapped McCain for having initially opposed Bushs tax cuts. (Surrounded by Reaganites, McCain declined to repeat his original reason for that opposition: that those tax cuts were tilted to the wealthy.) McCain punched back, calling the former Massachusetts governor a tax-raiser and excoriating him for passing health care reform that compels citizens of his state to obtain medical insurance.
For most of the night, Huckabee and Paul were bystanders.
The debate left the GOP race where it has been for months: a contest dominated by self-proclaimed conservatives who many conservatives don't embrace or fancy. Both McCain and Romney been trying to shine up their I-Love-Reagan badge. But neither stands above the pack when it comes to true-blue conservative credentials. At this stage, whoever wins the GOP nomination will be the object of suspicion and disappointment for a great deal of conservatives. At the end of the debate, one could almost imagine Reagan looking in and saying, "Is this the best we can do?" Short answer: yes.