“Who wouldn’t take that deal, 10 dollars in spending cuts for every one in tax increases?” asked Fox News moderator Bret Baier, at the Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa. Every single one of the candidates raised their hands, to loud applause.
It was, as Jonathan Alter later noted on MSNBC, an “iconic” moment. The GOP field is in total agreement that compromise with Democrats and the majority  of Americans who agree with them that deficit reduction must happen and must be done fairly is unacceptable.
In general the debate featured unanimity despite the loud, petty arguments about who supported raising cigarette taxes in Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty versus Michelle Bachmann), and who said what about who (Pawlenty versus Mitt Romney). There was plenty of sniping, but no meaningful disagreement, except for Ron Paul versus Rick Santorum on Iran.
There were pledges of undying fealty to extremist ideology, but no practical explanations of how change would be achieved, other than Representative Michele Bachmann’s promise not to rest until Republicans win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Of course, who doesn’t want to vanquish your ideological opponents? But when it comes to how you govern in a country where certain realities, among them the existence of Democrats, apply, the Republican contenders didn’t offer answers. Take Bachmann’s and Herman Cain’s insistence towards the end of the evening that we should not have raised the debt ceiling. Bachmann perversely claims Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of the US’s credit rating as proof that we “don’t have the money to pay off our debt,” and therefore should not have raised the debt ceiling.
The reason  S&P downgraded our credit rating—other than the explicit demand by congressmembers like Bachmann that we ought not to pay our debts—is because Republicans refuse to raise any tax revenue. And there they all were on Thursday, saying they would not raise revenue no matter how sweet the deal.
But solving problems with actual solutions was not on the agenda. Got a problem with healthcare reform? Repeal it, said Bachmann, Romney et al. What to do about the conundrum the Affordable Care Act was designed to solve, which is that we spend more on healthcare while covering a lower proportion of our population than any other developed country? No one said, because no one has answer.
Even Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who shows flashes of sanity, such as his (faint-hearted) reiteration at the debate that he supports civil unions for gay couples, was equally unhelpful on most issues. Take education: the pendulum has swung in the GOP, away from George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” back to believing that the federal government should not guide local schools to better results. So Huntsman said we should repeal No Child Left Behind, but he has no coherent alternative national strategy to address our ongoing educational challenges.
The best articulation of how to solve problems pragmatically came from Romney, but in defense of a policy he has repudiated at the federal level. Romney explained that rather than letting freeloaders obtain healthcare at emergency rooms and pass the cost on to the rest of society he preferred to require Massachusetts citizens to take personal responsibility and buy health insurance. It was, in other words, a good explanation of the rationale for the individual mandate, a sensible conservative answer to the problem of adverse selection in insurance pools. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of position that is verboten in the GOP primary.