Before the debate, I cobbled together a list of things to expect , all of which predicted that the candidates would be looking to draw contrasts three weeks before the caucus. Boy was I was wrong. The only fireworks were between Fred Thompson and the debate's moderator, Carolyn Washburn.
That's what happens when you suck immigration and terrorism from the agenda. Right off the top, Washburn declared that she would avoid those topics because Iowans wanted to hear about issues that hadn't been widely discussed. But in a state where 63 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers think immigration is very important and 66 percent say the same about Iraq—according to the latest Newsweek poll ( PDF )—it seemed odd to prevent the Republicans from talking about what the people want to hear about.
Instead we got a moribund discussion of economic policy. Granted, 64 percent of likely caucus-goers care about the economy, but today's discussion didn't go into details. Candidates talked about fixing the deficit, repairing American industries, and making President Bush's tax cuts permanent, but we didn't hear how they would do these things. In the past , Giuliani and Romney have had fun drawing minute distinctions between their tax plans, but this is no longer a Romniani race. In Iowa, Mike Huckabee is the big fish, yet nobody scuffed up his fair tax plan.
On climate change, McCain—who is the most visionary on green energy among the Republicans—was one of the first to respond, so the rest just aped his plan. Not exactly illuminating.
The Republicans are most comfortable speaking about their platforms and drawing distinctions when they're talking about issues they can rally their base behind. That means national security, the war on terrorism, and securing the border. Without those issues on the table, we weren't left with much to get worked up about. Neither were the candidates.