WASHINGTON -- You have to admit it: The Republicans set up a nice group of candidates Monday night for the upcoming campaign. There was something crisp and in-your-face about them, even though they spoke mostly about economics, which to them is spelled not "economics" but "jobs."
If you wanted winners and losers, that choice doesn't strike me as easy because they were all well-spoken. But in choosing a few for special talents, I'd have to single out Mitt Romney as the most self-consciously presidential, Michele Bachmann as the most surprisingly engaging, Ron Paul as the most delightful and Newt Gingrich as the most intellectually daring. The others were smart, too -- I'm just running out of appropriate adjectives.
But if you wanted something to give depth to the search for jobs -- if you wanted some kind of seriously delineated program for the country to follow -- you didn't get it in this first debate. The general approach was to accept, but neatly sideline, the blame that rests with George W. for the financial collapse and, instead, blame Barack Obama for the failures that have come since his election. And, of course, government spending was always the real devil!
Here is where I have my first problem with this year's Republican crop of candidates. I can't remember once during this two-hour televised debate on CNN, with all the blame on government, that anyone brought up any blame for the private sector. Wall Street? Barely mentioned. The insurance companies? No -- they were too busy attacking health plans, even that of Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. The Enrons, the AIGs, the Goldman Sachses, et al?
I have to wonder (I could start out nearly every sentence these days with those four words) why they did not bring up the sad fact that most of the financial collapse of 2008-'09 began with the greed and lack of integrity in some areas of our private enterprise. Yet there was barely a word on this -- and no real serious talk, either, about hated regulations.
Would you have the chutzpah to tell one of Bernie Madoff's victims that "the market solves all problems"?
On Monday night, too, there was the question of our wars! Until recently, the Republicans still supported W's two 2001 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seemed to blame President Obama even for being alive while the wars were being waged. At least, there was no way he was going to get out of them, once he approved more money and more lives to wage them.
There were some changes on Monday night -- a far more nuanced position, in particular, on Obama's NATO attacks on Libya. Some were even surprising. Mitt Romney said at one point that it was "time for us to bring our troops home," continuing with emphasis, "as soon as we possibly can."
Then he added: "But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
In fact, the old hawkish GOP was nowhere in sight, as virtually all of the candidates took some kind of anti-war stance, or at the least a questioning stance.
Four years ago in the campaign meetings, it was almost always Libertarian Ron Paul who took the non-interventionist position; now that position dominated this first discussion.
As for Paul, he gave his usual, often humorous anti-war stance. And when a questioner asked if he could think of anything that President Obama had done right, Paul shrugged and said, "I can't think of anything."
Tellingly, this first performance of the political season was also noted for its total lack of discussion on some of the major themes in any campaign today. Global warming? Not a mention. Infrastructure rebuilding? Nada. Real education reform? Hardly a thought given to it. Counterterrorism? Nope.
What the Republican candidates did talk about, they talked about quite knowingly.
Yet one has to wonder if this pleasant evening, hosted brilliantly by CNN's John King, will be a true precursor of things to come. It would be a shame if, with so many overwhelming problems in the world, our best conservative political figures did not give those problems the attention they deserve.