Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard
It's one of the most predictable and tiresome of the many presidential debate cliches: The candidate who didn't participate won because the others were so weak. And yet that was the case in the Republican presidential debate here Thursday night. A Republican presidential field often described as weak seemed to confirm that conventional wisdom in a debate that featured many tough questions and many more weak answers. Rick Perry, who will announce his bid for the presidency on Saturday, did well because he didn't do poorly.
It's a problem for the Republican party when the best performance of the evening came from a marginal candidate who lost virtually all of his senior staff in resignations over the past two months. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's answer on the economy in the first round of questioning was stronger than the answers from any of his rivals. He was better on immigration moments later, too. His whining about "gotcha" questions from Chris Wallace was silly. Wallace asked about the mass staff departures in recent weeks — not only a defensible question but a mandatory one. Still, complaining about the media is not something that will alienate Republican primary voters. Gingrich's critique of the debt committee — he called it "stupid" and railed against the failure of a Congress with a 10 percent approval rating — was among the highlights of the entire evening.
But Newt Gingrich is not going to be president. And neither is Rick Santorum, whose substantive answers on the debt ceiling and Iran stood out in a mediocre crowd.
What was missing from the debate, and what is missing from the Republican field, is a candidate who can explain and inspire. But there were no Ronald Reagans on the stage last night. And, in fairness, there never are. But there was no Marco Rubio, whose extemporaneous Senate floor speech two weeks ago was legend within a day of his giving it. And there was no Paul Ryan, who makes up for his lack of flash with regular and compelling demonstrations of his mastery of the details of policy.
Instead, despite the opening admonition from moderator Bret Baier that candidates abandon their talking points, most of the answers from the frontrunners and Iowa-focused candidates were some combination of stump-speech bromides and cheesy, prepackaged attack lines. Immediately after that request, Michelle Bachmann predicted, in her say-it-with-me lilt, that Barack Obama would be a One Term President. Mitt Romney offered a seven-point plan for the economy in one-minute, a rapid-fire response that included a call for a federal bureaucracy that works "not just for bureaucrats in Washington, but for the American people." Tim Pawlenty offered to cook dinner for anyone who could find President Obama's plan for debt and deficits. Cheesy, but not entirely ineffective, until he amended his offer to include lawn-mowing services but limited to one acre, in case Mitt Romney won the competition. Seriously?
Jon Huntsman also attended the debate.
Romney completely dodged a question about whether he would have actually vetoed the debt deal that he criticized last week. "I'm not president now, though I would liked to have been." Pawlenty denied that he believes Bachmann's migraines are disqualifying, arguing that the only headache that matters is the one Barack Obama is giving the country. Seriously?
The media focus coming out of the debate will undoubtedly include the biting exchanges between Bachmann and Pawlenty. Bachmann suggested Pawlenty governed as a liberal in Minnesota, citing his claim that the "era of small government is over" and his support for cap and trade. Pawlenty criticized Bachmann for leading on issues where Republicans have ultimately lost — on TARP, on Obamacare, on the debt ceiling. "If that's your record of leadership, please stop because it's killing us."
It's hard to see how this tough, new Pawlenty is going to generate much additional support. In attacking Bachmann, who is clearly the momentum candidate in Iowa, he risks alienating many of the very voters he needs to convert in order to be competitive.
But there is something that rings true in Pawlenty's attacks on Bachmann. And it's easy to see how they will continue to dog her as the race moves forward.
That's a pretty good outcome for the man likely to be her chief rival for non-Romney primary and caucus votes: Rick Perry.
Is Rick Perry the answer for Republicans longing for a candidate who combines conservative principles, electability and a touch of inspiration? That's unclear. But by skipping the debate he avoided demonstrating that he's not.