A few observations about tonight's debate in Columbia, S.C., as viewed on television from New York City:
- Nobody laid a glove on George W., who is increasingly comfortable at these events, and seemed in complete control of his opponents throughout the evening. But Bush acquitted himself poorly nonetheless, by once again shirking an opportunity to stand up to ugliness in his own party.
Bush first gave a pass to conservative bigotry several months ago when he was unwilling to say that Pat Buchanan didn't belong in the GOP. He did it more recently when he declined to meet with the an organization of gay Republicans because he didn't want to be a "divider." And he was at it once again tonight, when in response to repeated questions from Brian Williams of NBC, he refused to criticize the flying of the Confederate flag over the state capitol in Columbia, S.C. In response to Williams' request for his personal opinion about the flag, Bush just kept reiterating that he thought it was up to "the people of South Carolina" to decide.
This was a craven, spineless response. If Bush had any guts, he would say what I'd bet he really believes, which is that while it may be up to the people of South Carolina to decide the issue, he is personally offended when he sees a symbol of segregation flying over a public building. If he wanted to be politic about it, Bush could have said that while he doesn't believe that the flag is intended as a racist symbol, it is hurtful and divisive to many Americans and should be hauled down for that reason.
In the short run, criticizing the flag might have led to Bush getting conked on the head with one of the Bud Light cans visible on the tables where a large and rowdy audience sat, baying for red meat on guns, gays, and gambling. But ultimately, I think that finding some way to indicate disagreement with this unattractive mob would have been both the honorable and the politically shrewd thing for Bush to do. Bush will almost certainly win the GOP nomination. That means he should be thinking beyond the nomination. If he wins it with his tolerant principles held high, he will be in a far stronger position in relation to the eventual Democratic nominee. Much hinges on Bush's attempt to cleanse his party of bigotry and reposition it closer to the center. It ought to be obvious to him that pandering to the revanchist sentiments of a roomful of boisterous white Southerners--on national television--undermines that effort.
- It was almost funny that just after Bush's pathetic answer, Steve Forbes put a question to Gary Bauer that accused Al Gore's black campaign manager, Donna Brazile, of being a racist for criticizing Colin Powell and J.C. Watts in the course of suggesting that the Republican Party doesn't really care about blacks. Bauer responded that he shared Forbes' outrage at the way the Democrats have long "tried to smear our party with accusations of racism." The complaint about Brazile might have carried more credence at an event where the entire Republican primary field wasn't so actively sucking up to conventional, white-on-black racist sentiment.
- John McCain turned in what I thought was his worst debate performance to date. In place of the good nature and quick wit he has shown in all the past, he was anxious, defensive, and far from lucid. Of course, it probably didn't help that the first question Williams put to him was about another letter he sent to the FCC on behalf of a big campaign contributor. McCain tried to change the subject back to the faults in Bush's tax plan. "George, the America people are tired of people who make promises about tax cuts they can't keep," he said. But the fact that McCain's integrity has been called into question made his aspersions against Bush's honesty look churlish.
McCain's nadir came when Bush cleverly asked Orrin Hatch to explain why Republicans oppose McCain's campaign-finance-reform plan. Hatch zinged McCain by saying his Arizona colleague was "starting to sound like an accordion player who only knows one tune--'Lady of Spain.' " Apparently unsettled by this effective one-two punch, McCain responded with a rambling compendium of his most familiar lines on the subject of campaign finance reform culminating in his repetition of his not very funny joke from last night about how Bush should get a better picture of McCain for the attack ads running in New Hampshire (which aren't in fact connected to the Bush campaign).
With his strongest ally, the press, suddenly turned hostile, McCain is clearly struggling. Luckily, there's an easy way for him to win back the affection of the news media. All he has to do is call a press conference before he leaves South Carolina and in no uncertain terms denounce the Confederate flag.