I'll have more later, but I want to mention two strong impressions I got from attending the first Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The first is that most Republicans are in deep denial about the fact that the main reason they lost control of Congress last November is because of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. The second is that most media outlets don't know a man-bites-dog story when they see one in front of their eyes.
As this story shows, most of the candidates walked what is called a "tightrope" on the war, distancing themselves a bit from Bush but endorsing the idea of the war, and that it is the central front in the war on terrorism and we simply have to win it blah-blah-blah. This story doesn't mention it but if anything former Wisconsin Gov. (and former HHS Sec.) Tommy Thompson probably had the most clearly-thought-out position, advocating elections in each of the 18 provinces and an oil revenue-sharing agreement among the central government, the provinces, and individual Iraqis.
This strikes me as a sure way for Republicans to lose the White House in 2008. The polls have been steady for many months. A solid 60 percent of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake and want the United States out. McCain acknowledged some of this by saying the war was mismanaged for four years but there's a new strategy in place that gives us a chance of winning (though he never quite defined what that meant). Moreover, almost all the candidates vied with one another to be aggressive about Iran. A war with that country would complete the decimation of U.S. military strength, and I suspect most Americans, while despising Ahmadinejad, know that too.
But look at what that story, and almost all the network news shows I watched in L.A. didn't mention. There was one presidential candidate who forthrightly declared he was against the war and as Chris Matthews acknowledged in a question to him, had voted against authorizing it back in 2002. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas didn't get much of a chance to talk -- given the format, with 10 candidates squeezed into 90 minutes none of them did, and Chris Matthews spent some of that time being cute -- but when he did talk he criticized the war, advocated a foreign policy of non-interventionism, arguing that it was the traditional American and traditional Republican approach to the world at large, and noted that as long as the U.S. plays the role of policeman of the world it will be virtually impossible to reduce taxes.
A Republican presidential candidate opposed to the war. Wasn't that a story? Ron made his case civilly rather than declaring that these other candidates scared him, as Mike Gravel did in the Demo debate last week, garnering a few moments of media attention.
I talked to Ron briefly before the debate and then a bit more afterward. I asked him why he was doing this. He said, "Why do you think? We need to hold these guys' feet to the fire -- on the war issue." Afterward he said he just doesn't see how any Republican candidate can win on a platform of more war, so he plans to stick with the process all the way rather than dropping out if he doesn't raise enough money to play with the big boys.
Maybe the media will notice then. I noticed in the spin room afterward that a lot of TV stations were interested in talking to him. He spent considerable time with Time-Warner Cable and MSNBC. We'll see if it makes an impression or garners attention from old-fashioned Republicans who thought their party was devoted to the Constitution and the kind of "humble" rather than nation-building foreign policy that candidate Bush declared would be disastrous during the 2000 debates. Well, he was right about something.