Seven Republican presidential prospects (most of them announced as such) will debate for two hours tonight.
In that time, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul. Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum—yes! the Rick Santorum!—will jockey for a position in a race where everyone who is still trying to figure out whether a candidate who is not present, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, might make the race.
So it is that, no matter what the candidates on stage say, the big “news” from this debate probably involve what Sarah says about it.
That’s because, in addition to their obscurity, the debaters will bring to the stage a reticence when it comes to mentioning the elephants in the room at the Grand Old Party.
Here are some issues and ideas the Republican contenders won’t be leaping to address tonight:
1. Will You Endorse Paul Ryan’s Budget As It is Written?
No Republican presidential candidate wants to go the way of Newt Gingrich and get chided for showing insufficient deference to the GOP’s latest “golden boy.” So, while all the contenders know that the Ryan plan is a failure practically and politically—even Bachmann, who backed it in the House, now claims she’s for the proposal with an “asterisk”—they won’t say that.
By the same token, none of the candidates will fully embrace a proposal to end Medicare as we know it and prepare for an assault on Social Security. To do so would guarantee defeat in November 2012, and, despite appearances to the contrary, these candidates really would like to occupy the Oval Office.
2. Should President Obama Be Censured (Maybe Even Threatened With Impeachment) for Launching an Undeclared War With Libya?
Republican presidential contenders would dearly love to get in some Obama-bashing. But it does not work to hold him to account for his undeclared war-making. It’s not that the president’s Libya mission is legitimate; the problem is that calling out Obama on this fight raises the question: Where were you when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney led us into an even more physically, emotionally and economically devastating war of whim with Iraq?
Only Ron Paul could come close to answering this question without exploding the inconsistent meter. (In fairness, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson could also answer ably; but anti–drug war candidate has been excluded from this debate under CNN’s don’t-let-this-get-interesting rule.)
3. Isn’t the Whole Point of This Debate to Destroy Mitt Romney?
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential run has always prompted the question: “Why?” Plodding and predictable, Pawlenty was a forgettable governor and his presidential candidacy has always lived in the shadows of what passes for a GOP frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Romney. But on the eve of this debate, Pawlenty debuted the term “Obamneycare”—a pitch-perfect reference to the Massachusetts health-care reforms that Romney implemented as governor, and that mirror the reforms President Obama and the Democrats outlined at the federal level.
Pawlenty is poised to lead the anti-Romney pile on. And it could get ugly—indeed, it must get ugly if this race is going to open up enough for any of the second-tier candidates to be serious players. But despite the obvious targeting of Romney, all the GOP candidates will claim that their true target is Barack Obama. Ultimately, that’s true. But right now, they’ve got their knives out for each other.
4. How Come So Many of the GOP Candidates Are Out of Work?
The last time a former elected official was elected president was thirty-one years ago, when Ronald Reagan, the ex-governor of California, secured the Republican nomination and the top job. Democrats tried running former Vice President Walter Mondale four years later. But since then, both the Republican and Democratic parties have regularly nominated sitting officeholders.
This year, however, most of the major Republicans are used-to-be somebodies.
So where are all the GOP’s high-profile senators and governors?
The GOP field of the former governors, a former senator and a former CEO does not inspire much confidence. While two people on the stage, Texas Congressman Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann, have been actively engaged in policymaking in recent years, the majority of the supposedly serious contenders have been far from the action—in some cases for decades. That’s particularly true of former House Speaker Gingrich, who left Congress during President Bill Clinton’s second term, and Romney, who left his job as governor of Massachusetts when President George Bush was still considered the leader of the Republican Party. Pizza millionaire Cain, who made his last big political play during Clinton’s first term (when he confronted the former president on healthcare issues) and whose previous electoral experience involved losing a Republican primary for a Georgia US Senate seat is considered a fresh face—or, at the very least, a “hold the pepperoni” stand-in for Donald Trump.
5. Why Are So Many of the Serious Contenders for the GOP Nod Showing Up for CNN’s Debate When so Few Showed Up for Fox’s Forum?
Pawlenty was the closest thing to a credible contender to appear on the Fox-hosted debate several weeks ago—creating a circumstance so comic that NBC’s Saturday Night Live mocked it mercilessly. Yet now, barely two months later, the major announced and unannounced GOP candidates—with the exception of Palin—are packing the stage at a debate hosted by CNN, a “lamestream” media outlet (in Palin parlance). What gives? Where is the Fox love? Could it be that, at a point when the Republican field wants to be taken seriously, they are opting for a (somewhat) more serious network?
6. If Anthony Weiner Should Quit Because He Was Too Facebook-Friendly, Should David Vitter Quit Because He Was Too Prostitute-Friendly?
House majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, says it is time for Democrats to force their wayward member out of the caucus.
Here’s a good test for the party of “family values”: Given a choice between taking a strong stand for family values that might offend a powerful Republican senator from state that could influence the nominating process or picking on an already thoroughly embarrassed Democrat, how courageous do you think the contenders will be?
Here’s an even more unsettling question: Will seven presidential prospects and a CNN anchor be able to make it through two hours without mentioning Anthony Weiner? If they do, it will be the longest break the political and pundit classes have given America from the whole distraction that ate the discourse.