GOFFSTOWN, N.H.-The world will little note nor long remember much (any?) of what happened at the first full-scale Republican presidential debate here on Monday. And yet the low-key encounter still offered important clues about how both the Republican primary and the general election may unfold.
The debate’s key message was that Republicans have coalesced around an economic agenda that will propose sharper reductions in federal taxes, spending, and regulation than the party has offered in decades. That convergence will diminish the role of ideology in the nomination contest--but then increase it in the general election.
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The debate dramatized the near-monolithic consensus that has solidified in the GOP since 2008. After President Obama’s victory, the dominant interpretation inside the Republican Party was that John McCain lost not because he was too conservative, but because he (and George W. Bush) were not conservative enough, particularly on issues relating to Washington’s role. In dialectical fashion, Obama’s efforts in office to expand Washington’s reach, particularly on health care, then ignited a tea party-led backlash that further enshrined small-government orthodoxy as the GOP’s dominant intellectual force.
From start to finish, Monday’s debate demonstrated the tidal force of that consensus. All seven candidates insisted that the key to economic revival was to take a sledgehammer to taxes, spending, and regulation. They engaged in a bidding war over the federal initiatives that they would repeal, with some promising not only to uproot Obama’s health care plan, but also his financial-services reform and even Bush’s post-Enron corporate reforms. None directly criticized the House Republican plan to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system that would provide seniors a fixed sum to buy private insurance.
In their metronomic agreement, the Republican contenders reaffirmed the tail-wagging-the-dog quality of their contest. The agenda that the party wants to carry into 2012 already has been largely defined by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, confrontational Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and the uncompromising ethos of the tea party activists who helped power the GOP’s 2010 recovery.
In the presidential race, the party doesn’t appear to be looking for someone to write a new script; it is debating who will be the most reliable, and effective, messenger for the script that the party has already written. That means that the nomination race is less likely to revolve around ideological differences than around questions of authenticity and electability.
The moment at the debate that best captured that dynamic came when Mitt Romney was asked about former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recently released economic plan. Pawlenty envisions as dramatic a retrenchment of government as any top-tier Republican candidate has proposed, arguably, since Ronald Reagan in 1976. Pawlenty would seek a constitutional amendment to limit federal spending to 18 percent of the economy, a level last reached in 1966. He would lower the top marginal tax rate to 25 percent, a level last reached in 1931. The Tax Policy Center, a center-left think tank, projects that that Pawlenty’s plan would reduce federal revenue by as much as $11.6 trillion over the next decade, more than double the 10-year cost of extending the Bush tax cuts. (Though Pawlenty disputes that number, his assumption of much smaller deficits requires heroic levels of economic growth.)
Romney, though, praised the plan as displaying “the right instincts,” and no one on stage demurred. That exchange signaled that all of the GOP contenders will likely advance proposals for retrenching Washington that vastly exceed those that Republicans offered in earlier races. “The exchange over the Pawlenty economic plan was very telling; there was no disagreement on the principles,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser. “On economic policy, I don’t see any great disagreement among the Republican candidates.”
In the primaries, that means the other contenders will try to undercut Romney, the front-runner, less by attacking his forward-looking proposals than by questioning whether he is truly committed to the party’s new consensus. Despite Pawlenty’s perplexing reluctance to repeat at the debate his attack only a day earlier against Romney’s Massachusetts health care record, it’s inevitable that he and (others) eventually will target Romney’s state plan--and his other gubernatorial deviations from conservative orthodoxy. Romney in turn will argue that he is the best equipped through experience to execute the agenda that the party has converged around. “The words are easy,” he told reporters the day after the debate. “The experience took a long time to get.”
These trends will suppress the role of ideology in the primaries but raise it in the general election. Unless economic recovery substantially accelerates, Obama needs to frame 2012 more as a choice between competing philosophies than as a referendum on his performance. The latter always looms large in presidential reelections, but the ambition and militance of the Republican agenda outlined Monday increases Obama’s odds of focusing more voters on the former. Monday’s debate showed above all how eager Republicans are for an ideological fight. At a time when economic discontent is draining support for Obama’s performance, that may be exactly what he wants too.