Why No One Really Measured Up at the GOP Debate

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On Saturday night, all the Republican candidates gave us reason to worry about what they'd do as commander in chief

It was, CBS's Scott Pelley said, the "commander-in-chief debate," and the 90 minutes that followed fairly well fulfilled that description. For the first time, the Republican presidential candidates were thrust into hypothetical tests of what they might decide from the White House on critical national-security questions ranging from Iran's nuclear program to torture.

While there was no foreign policy equivalent of Rick Perry's "oops" moment from the last debate, a colossal error in other words--Perry himself, in fact, made something of a comeback--some of the candidates were clearly squirming. Many of their answers made us squirm. And many of them gave us reason to worry.

Mitt Romney has clearly oriented his entire campaign toward attacking President Obama and leaving his GOP rivals behind. Asked about Iran, he declared bluntly that this is "of course President Obama's greatest failing." Since he's lodged similar charges about "Obamacare" and other policies it seemed to be, for Romney, a bit of slippage back into the kind of careless hyperbole associated with his first presidential campaign. "If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon," he said, without offering up anything resembling evidence.

Challenged on how he would achieve this, Romney proceeded to outline steps similar to what Obama has apparently taken, including sanctions, covert action and helping the "insurgents" in Iran though there aren't any (there are democracy protesters). It was altogether an uninspiring, even somewhat unnerving, performance on a central issue. Rick Perry, badly needing to put his brain-freeze moment behind, came out strong, winning audience applause for his "zero-budget" approach to foreign aid (though he stumbled a bit when he suggested that Israel, along with Pakistan, might have to make the case anew why it should receive U.S. assistance, a comment that will arouse the wrath of many GOP voters. But ultimately Perry delivered a somewhat mystifying answer when he was asked whether the U.S. was engaged in "financial warfare" with China. He awkwardly invoked Ronald Reagan's famous prediction that the Soviets would end up on the "ash heap," saying that the Chinese regime would end up in the same place "if they do not change their virtues." For a candidate who does not need another reason to remind people of George W. Bush, it was a moment that did just that.

Herman Cain, already struggling for credibility against accusations of sexual harassment, sounded very much like a stammering grad student who had just spent the night cramming for exams. He didn't get anything dramatically wrong, but he didn't demonstrate anything close to mastery of any issue and evinced a worrisome lack of depth. When asked whether Pakistan was America's "friend or foe," he answered: "We don't know. Because Pakistan, it's not clear." In truth, U.S. policymakers have known for years that Pakistan has been playing a double game with the United States, helping against terrorism in some areas, aiding its own sponsored terrorists in other areas. It's disconcerting to think Herman Cain still would have to master that brief as president. Rick Santorum, for his part, was in danger of looking very naïve on Pakistan, insisting "they have to be our friend," a nice sentiment but not terribly practical.

Cain, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich also seemed willing to turn the clock back to an uglier, earlier period when waterboarding was permitted and the rest of the world's views didn't matter, which it seems most have moved past.

Jon Huntsman came off as perhaps the most reasonable of all the candidates, but at moments he seemed as if he were back working for Barack Obama as his ambassador, especially when he said America needs to withdraw from Afghanistan and nation build at home--a virtual echo of what the president has been saying.

Video credit: National Journal

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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