We've now seen three full-dress debates among the Republican politicians who want to be the next president of the United States, and here's what we've learned:
They all believe taxes are too high, even though federal taxes are lower as a percentage of the U.S. economy than any time in the last 60 years. They all believe onerous environmental regulations are preventing economic recovery, though few economists would agree. They believe President Obama's healthcare law is getting in the way of recovery, though most of its provisions don't really take effect until 2014. And they believe, correctly, that Social Security and Medicare are heading into fiscal crises — but in most cases, they haven't offered specific solutions.
GOP. There's a robust argument about just how much of the federal government to dismantle — Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry say they'd get rid of most of it, Mitt Romney only some of it — but to most voters, that's a narrow, sectarian divide. This year's Republican Party starts roughly where Ronald Reagan was in 1980 and extends rightward from there. It's a party with no discernible moderate wing.
Yes, there are disagreements within the party on foreign policy (between hawks who want to stay in Afghanistan and budget-cutters who want to get out) and on immigration (not so much a debate as an opportunity to beat up Perry, who suffers under the handicap of actually having had to deal with the problem as governor of Texas). But those aren't the issues that will decide next year's election.
That's what we've learned. What haven't we learned?
Last week's debate in Florida lasted two full hours, but none of the nine would-be presidents found time to mention the global economic crisis, the swooning financial markets or the decline in the incomes of most Americans.
How would President Perry fix Social Security, which he's derided as a Ponzi scheme? He hasn't said. (Romney, to his credit, has at least proposed some fixes, including raising the retirement age.)
How would Presidents Romney, Perry or Bachmann fix Medicare, whose rising costs are the biggest threat to the federal budget over the next 25 years? They haven't said. Perry maintains vaguely that the problem can be solved by eliminating waste. Bachmann voted for the House budget proposal that would have changed Medicare to a voucher system but said that didn't mean she agrees with it. Romney mostly avoids the subject.
What would Presidents Romney, Perry or Bachmann do about healthcare after they repeal the Obama law? Not much, apparently, beyond kicking the issue back to the states.
What would they do to make the American economy more competitive beyond reducing regulations and lowering corporate taxes, goals even Obama has embraced? Most of them haven't said — although, to be fair, Romney has produced a 59-point economic plan that includes some sensible proposals.
Would they do anything to improve education beyond favoring charter schools and, in some cases, vouchers? They haven't said.
Are they concerned by the Census Bureau's report that the median household income of working Americans has been falling since 2000, and that more people are living in "deep poverty" than any time on record? If they are, they forgot to mention it.
Do they think the federal government should do anything to protect the environment? Not that anyone cared to mention. The only time the subject came up was in denunciations of the Environmental Protection Agency.
And don't get me started on foreign policy.
Of course, a debate can't be expected to cover every subject, even when it lasts two hours. And the television networks that run the events naturally try to focus the candidates on issues that might spark telegenic exchanges, such as the clash between Perry and others over immunization against the human papillomavirus.
Still, there's nothing to stop the candidates from changing the subject to something they'd rather talk about; politicians do that all the time.
Handicappers say the debates have been good for Romney; he's been more polished and quicker on his feet than Perry. But in the polls, Romney still has a hard time cracking 25%, which means he hasn't won the party's heart yet. Instead, the debates have mostly exposed his opponents' flaws.
Luckily for Romney, at least nine more debates have been scheduled, including two in October. But that may not be as good for the former Massachusetts governor as it looks.
Every Republican presidential candidate faces the same challenge if he hopes to win. As Richard M. Nixon supposedly advised Bob Dole many years ago: "Run like hell to the right in the primaries, then run like hell to the center."
But this year's GOP and its core of "tea party" believers are making that two-step more difficult than any time in recent memory. They've created a powerful magnetic field pulling every candidate to the right, Romney included.
If the general election were held today, Barack Obama — with his 40% approval rating and a national unemployment rate of 9% — wouldn't stand a chance. But if enough moderate and independent voters tune in to those next nine Republican debates, the GOP could manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet.
McManus: The GOP's hard-right tilt
This year's GOP and its core of 'tea party' believers have created a powerful magnetic field pulling every candidate to the right. That could spell trouble in 2012.
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