The First Republican Debate

The First Republican Debate

The First Republican Debate

Politics and policy.
Oct. 22 1999 9:45 PM

The First Republican Debate

The first of the 2000 Republican debates, which took place this evening in Durham, N.H., was a little like a production of Hamlet without Hamlet. If you tuned in to C-SPAN, you got to see what all the remaining minor characters were up to. But absent the central reference point of the GOP contest--George W. Bush--it was a performance of dubious value.  


Here's how the five candidates who showed up were running:

Gary Bauer was running against Steve Forbes. Bauer, like Forbes, wants to be the conservative alternative to Bush. So right out of the blocks, he laid into Forbes' flat-tax plan, criticizing it on the grounds that under it some rich people would pay no tax at all. Bauer hit him again on the issue of most-favored-nation status for China, asking Forbes directly if he supported keeping it. An agile debater, Bauer drew a bit of blood with these thrusts. His other strategy for wooing conservatives was to mention constantly his relationship with Ronald Reagan, whom he served in the White House for eight years. Bauer's low moment came at the end, when he made a craven plea to Pat Buchanan's supporters. "I wish he would stay," Bauer lamented. "I certainly want his supporters to stay and quite frankly I'd like his supporters to vote for me."

Steve Forbes was running away from Gary Bauer. Forbes appears to believe, against all evidence, that he has a chance of winning the GOP nomination, so he doesn't want to be drawn into an intramural right-fringe fight for third place. So he ignored Bauer's attacks on taxes and China and tried to demonstrate his conservative credentials by getting as far to the right on abortion as Alan Keyes. He did this by asserting that constitutional protections should apply to fetuses from the moment of conception (thus implying that women who use the morning-after pill as a form of birth control should be prosecuted for capital murder). Despite the best coaching millions can buy, Forbes still comes across as a robot running low on battery power. He emits his words metronomically. His hand gestures are dissociated from his words. He raises his eyebrows and forgets to take them back down again. With $600 million less, he would have been laughed off the stage.

John McCain was running against Bill Bradley. McCain hopes to attract Democrats and independents who in New Hampshire can choose to vote in the Republican primary. His first answer, to a question about child poverty, decried the "growing gap between rich and poor in America." McCain later pointed out that 11 million children don't have health care, which he called a "disgrace." He also framed education as a "civil rights issue" and repeatedly denounced corporate welfare, especially for ethanol. Asked a blunt question about abortion, he suggested continued, if tepid, support for overturning Roe vs. Wade. This ticked off Keyes, who responded, "By the way, senator, I think that the abolition of Roe vs. Wade would deserve a little louder affirmation that that." McCain held his own, but his appeal doesn't really come across in a debate format. He has Bob Dole's problem. To let fly with his caustic wit risks a boomerang effect. But restraining himself, he seems too restrained.

Alan Keyes was running against Vladimir Illych Lenin. Keyes thinks that the other side actually won the Cold War and that he is the only one who knows about this. "We must get rid of the socialist structures that control our government beginning with the income tax itself," he declared at the outset, explaining that he would prefer to fund the federal government with tariffs, duties, and excise taxes. He then tried to pick a fight with Cokie about whether the Catholic Church had gone socialist, too. Wearing a TV-unfriendly blooming lilac tie and a shirt that matched the color of his suit, he appeared to be having some kind of fit through most of the debate. I'm not sure that his technique of simply shouting over the moderator when his time is up is going to be effective.

Orrin Hatch

was running for vice president. Hatch takes every opportunity to praise his rivals, yielding time to his distinguished colleagues as if they were all in the Senate. Mainly, though, he praised himself, constantly reminding viewers of the many important committees he has served on. Hatch also took credit for just about everything significant Ronald Reagan did as president. "Frankly, if you look at it, we've had an unprecedented economic expansion over the last number of years. It's been primarily because Reagan got marginal tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent by 1986," he said. "I was one of a handful who convinced him that should be done." More extraordinary was Hatch's claim that he was the guy who talked Reagan into winning the Cold War. "I was the one who convinced Reagan we should give the Stinger missile to the Mujahadeen," Hatch said, "now called one of four reasons why the Cold War came down." I'd give Hatch the Admiral Stockdale Prize in the debate--the prize for having no idea why you're there.