I watched the Republican candidates' debate the other night on Fox News, and my conclusion is that I don't need to see any more of them. The entertainment value of these telecasts has dissipated, and their political importance is evaporating very quickly.
The name of the game Monday night (MLK Day) was for each candidate to try to one-up the others by showing he was more "conservative"--in the South Carolina context, this meant more militaristic, more xenophobic, lower on taxes for their flat rates, cutting more from government assistance programs, putting responsibilities and authorities with states rather than the Federal government. Everyone except Ron Paul joined in the game at every opportunity, and the large, vocal crowd applauded the red meat being thrown out to it.
Mitt Romney, with a big opportunity to exploit his opponents' divisions, win a plurality in South Carolina, and get an even stronger hold on the lead for the nomination, generally showed himself willing to match his most rabid opponents. A good example was his flat refusal to consider negotiations with the Taliban. As President, he will no doubt see things differently, but in SC it was more politic to refute his foreign policy advisor's position (he blamed it on VP Biden and ignored his advisor's position stated in the question) and stick with a determination to fight and eliminate them (something well beyond our capability). He was caught out once, by Rick Santorum, advocating a tougher position on voting by felons than he actually administered as Massachusetts Governor, but that's one issue that is truly a state-administered one, so his position as President would be legally irrelevant.
Paul was certainly willing to play when it came to taxes--the others merely suggested tax reductions, but he said "why not a 0% rate?"--to service and aid reductions, and to devolution to states. He challenged the consensus and the crowd, though, on our military policy. He argued against "these undeclared wars", the huge quantity of overseas bases, and the concept that spending more on military brings improved defense of our country. His argument to apply a Golden Rule toward other nations was heckled and booed, but Paul is contributing something new to the debate of what is truly "conservative", something the national party is unwilling to consider but that many of the party faithful--and probably a growing number--will find attractive.
The worst of the worst was Rick Perry. Pandering to the evangelical base by arguing that the Obama Administration has "a war on religion" and that we can have "no space" between our policy in the Middle East and Israel's--something which is hardly going to assist us in making peace there--these things are nothing more or less than we should expect from his limited political strategy options at this point. Fox's Brett Baier threw him a poisoned piece of bait with a question about religiously-motivated violence in Turkey, and Perry went for it. He accused Turkey of being like "Islamic terrorists", questioning whether he would allow them to stay in NATO. The Muslim-baiting got by the crowd without a murmur, but the comments did not escape the notice of political forces in Turkey, one of our critical allies, a democracy, a major regional power in the Middle East and one generally having a positive influence on international affairs. Again, his pandering to the evangelicals is totally expected, but his willingness to advocate outrageous and poorly-considered policies is, once again, clear evidence that he is in over his head. Fortunately, it seems he has no chance of success in SC, and I would presume he will pull out shortly (as he did--for 12 hours or so--after his failure in Iowa).
As for the other two jokers, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, there are several points to make. One is that both can be reliably expected to be "bold" in coming up with extreme positions. They are very interested in pointing that out, and they are having some success--apart from the activity of hammering away at the presumptive nominee and exposing his weaknesses. I think there is emerging the possibility of a tag-team strategy between the two which would have some hope of countering Romney, state by state: Gingrich would hammer Romney in the "Santorum states", Santorum hacks at Romney in "Gingrich states". Newt's states would be the Southern ones, Santorum's the Midwest, Rust Belt, and others where the social issues predominate. If their combined efforts--and they are very close allies, probably just couldn't agree that one should drop out in favor of the other--can keep Romney from winning most of the states by focusing the "anti-Romney, non-Paul" forces in each on a single candidate, they might be able to prevent Romney's attaining the votes for a first-ballot victory.
I don't really see that as a big success, though; either would likely be a worse President than Romney, if it came to that; from the Republicans' point of view, either would be a weaker opponent to Obama. And it would put Ron Paul in the potential role of kingmaker--it probably wouldn't work to the benefit of either Santorum or Gingrich.
In other words, I'm getting used to the idea that Romney will be the major party opponent, and I think any plausible alternative (other than fantasy scenarios like a stalemate, no candidate nominated, complete fracture in the party) would be worse. Romney has plenty of exposed weaknesses that make him look very much like a true successor of Bushism: his advocacy of tax reductions for the wealthy and corporations, his history of flip-flopping, his support of big government Republicanism. We don't need this charade to continue, and its ability to hold our interest is over.