Each additional debate seems to confirm for me the feeling that while nearly all of these Republicans would be better than President Obama, there isn't a single one of them I can be unreservedly enthusiastic about.
Governor Romney gave a really good answer when asked whether he thinks President Obama is a socialist. He called the president a "big-spending liberal" who wants to make America more like Europe. He said "Europe isn't working in Europe." He said, "I believe in free enterprise and capitalism." He said, "I spent my life in the private sector, not in government," noting that he only served four years as governor and "didn't inhale" (and drawing an implicit distinction between his own service and Governor Perry's decade-long tenure as governor of Texas).
Other times, he was disappointing. Criticizing Governor Perry for offering an in-state discount at the University of Texas to illegal immigrants brought here as children, Mr. Romney said, "that kind of magnet draws people into this country....We have to turn off the magnet." I understand Mr. Romney needed to find issues on which to attack Mr. Perry, but don't we want to draw people into this country? I certainly do — not by offering them government goodies, necessarily, but not by discriminating against them if they manage to get into the University of Texas as the child of illegal immigrants, either. There was just no acknowledgement by Mr. Romney that America is a nation of immigrants.
I also thought Mr. Romney's answer to a question about he'd turn America around — "We place our hand on our heart during the playing of our national anthem. No other nation on earth does that" — was a little flaky. So was his vague vow to help the American economy by installing regulators who would "crack down on cheaters like China." Surely not all of China's success has been because of theft.
And Governor Perry landed a series of pretty tough shots to Mr. Romney when he accused (alright, he bobbled the language a bit) Mr. Romney of being "against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment," and also accused Mr. Romney of similar reversals ("for...before he was against....") on ObamaCare and on Roe versus Wade.
Maybe it was the ground rules set by the campaigns or enforced by the moderators, maybe it was the slightly increased number of candidates in this debate (Gary Johnson participated and got off some good lines), but I felt like there was more wasted time in this one than in the CNN Tea Party debate. Herman Cain spent a while talking about eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, Ron Paul spent a while talking about his views on the morning-after-pill in cases of rape, and Rick Santorum spent a while talking about gays in the military ("Keep it to yourself, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual.") Michele Bachmann is going to go to the federal Department of Education, "turn out the lights," "lock the doors," and "turn all the money back to states and localities." Rick Perry would like his vice president to be a hybrid: "Herman Cain — mate him up with Newt Gingrich." Though Mr. Perry didn't explain which characteristics of each man he'd want in the final mix.
I know it's getting late in the game, and maybe one of these candidates would rise to the occasion in office. Or maybe some other candidate will yet emerge from either the Republican or third-party sidelines. But part of the contest here and in the general election — not all of it, but part of it — is finding someone that Americans will want to watch on television for the next four or eight years. Doubtless some of these candidates are better off camera, person-to-person, or in small groups. But for the generation of Republicans who still remember Reagan — a professional actor — as the kind of gold standard of cheerful and confident articulation of American principles, it's hard to escape the sense that there's something, or someone, missing from the stage.