In the South Carolina debate, Republicans tell one another what they want to hear.
GREENVILLE, S.C.—The first debate between the candidates who would lead their party in 2012 led Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina , to ponder an existential question: So what's the point of debates, exactly?
"The notion that we can solve what ails our country and our economy in 60 seconds is driven by television," he said disdainfully, hobnobbing in the spin room after the debate, which included former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and businessman Herman Cain. "What we really ought to have is Paul Ryan, with whoever the best economist who has the contrary viewpoint is, and a thorough discussion."
That didn't happen last night. Instead there was 90 minutes of sparring about weighty topics like economy and the capture of Osama bin Laden, and sparring about less weighty topics like legal heroin and Rick Santorum's 2005 book It Takes a Family. The consensus going in was that the lack of frontrunners in the room would minimize the importance of the event. The consensus going out was that the lack of frontrunners in the room minimized the importance of the event—and that Ron Paul's supporters are really loud.
From the start of the day, the inaugural debate—sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party—didn't feel like an event that was gripping the city of Greenville, much less the nation. In the early afternoon, as a National Day of Prayer rally ended on a downtown plaza, a professional activist named Bob Kunst arrived, sat on a park bench, and held up one of his signs: "OBAMA, Show Us Osama's Photo." He'd driven up from Miami to protest "gutless" Republicans, he said, and it turned out that he was one of very few protesters who'd make the trip. As he sat, he engaged a Greenville local in a dialogue about what should be done with the corpse of the late terrorist.
"I'd put him in a glass box and display him at ground zero in New York," said the Greenville resident, pausing from his lunch.
"What we should do," said Kunst, "is cover him in pig oil and march him into a gathering of the victims' families, and see what they do."
This was not the most serious conversation ever conducted about Bin Laden's fate, but in some way it jibed with the mood of the event. The very first question to the candidates was about Bin Laden's death; the first yes-or-no question was whether they'd want to release the military's photo of a bullet-riddled corpse. All of the candidates save for Cain raised their hands, indicating that they would. Asked about the details of the raid, they found ways to bend the question toward their own theories of what was learned and how terror could be thwarted.
"If it turns out that many of the techniques he criticized during the campaign led to Osama Bin Laden being captured or killed," said Pawlenty, "he ought to explain that."
"If you look at the decision to get Bin Laden," said Santorum, "it was a tactical decision, not a strategic decision. The strategic decision was made by President Bush."
Pawlenty's take was factually murky; Santorum's take was factual nonsense, compounded when he suggested that Obama had only continued George W. Bush's policies in Afghanistan. If the goal of these soundbites was to confirm a Republican voter's impression of the Obama administration as weak and wrongfooted, it was neatly done.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Ron Paul by Steve Pope/Getty Images.