What the GOP Was Arguing About as Their Last Primary Began

By Conor Friedersdorf

In early May 2007, 10 candidates gathered for the first Republican debate. The questions they faced afford an interesting look back.

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When the Republican Party's primary season kicks off tonight with its first official debate, five candidates will take the stage: Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former CEO Herman Cain, former N.M. governor Gary Johnson, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Most front-runners will be absent.

It's quite a contrast from four years ago. During Election 2008, the initial GOP debate was held around the same time -- May 3, 2007, to be exact. But back then, 10 candidates faced voters, including eventual winner John McCain, runners up Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, widely thought to be a strong contender for the nomination. Also present were Sam Brownback, James S. Gilmore, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Tommy Thompson.

Those forgotten names got me wondering if I remembered the questions posed during that era. It turns out that If you're a political junkie, the whole transcript is an interesting read. Below I've condensed just the questions posed by the moderators. Perusing them now affords interesting perspective on how the country has changed, and the ways in which it remains the same. The War in Iraq and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons were both big issues. America's poor performance in global popularity surveys came up. Tax cuts were discussed more often than deficits, as was immigration. And the candidates were asked whether they'd retain Karl Rove, or pardon Scooter Libby.

Afghanistan wasn't mentioned. It will surely be raised in the back-and-forth tonight, as will the economy and torture. Plus Johnson is on the stage, so a moderator will feel compelled to make a stupid joke about marijuana rather than asking a serious question about the drug war. It will be interesting to note other ways tonight's questions compare to the ones below:

• Just 22 percent believe this country is on the right track. How do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?

• Do you need anything, beyond what the president has now, to win the war?

• 55 percent of Americans say victory is just not possible in Iraq. They've made up their minds on this war. Why shouldn't they have a president who will listen?

• Recent polls in the Islamic world reveal a sea of hostility toward the United States, feeding what General Petraeus calls the central front of Al Qaida in Iraq. How do we win this war if every dead terrorist is so easily replaced?

• Countries like Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, another Islamic country, 10, 12 percent of the people support us, the rest are angry at us. Doesn't that create a sea of recruitment opportunity for our enemy? Do we have to reduce that temperature of hatred before we win the war, or simply continue to fight the terrorists?

• I'd like your views on how you balance loyalty and accountability. Would you have fired Don Rumsfeld before last November?

• The Rumsfeld removal was perhaps timed to the election. Do you think a general shake-up in this administration's Cabinet would be good?

• You voted against the war. Why are all your fellow Republicans up here wrong?

• Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson said that Iran has already committed acts of war. Do you agree? And, secondly, as part of that, what's your tripwire for a U.S. strike in Iran? Is it the building of a nuclear weapon? The threat to use a weapon once built? A delivery system? Is it preemptive or preventive?

• Imagine you're president of the United States. You get a call from the prime minister of Israel saying Israel is about to strike Iran's nuclear sites and he wants U.S. help. What do you say?

• When speaking about Osama bin Laden last week, Governor Romney said, quote, "It's not worth moving heaven and Earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." Senator McCain called that naive. Who's right?

• Is President Bush partly responsible for the worldwide sea of hostility against the United States, in your view?

• Sara from Arlington, Virginia, wants to know if you would be comfortable with Tom Tancredo, a stanch opponent of illegal immigration, as head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

• One of our prized guests here today, Governor Schwarzenegger -- looking this man in the eye, answer this question -- Should we change our Constitution, which we believe is divinely inspired...(Laughter) ...to allow men like Mel Martinez, the chairman of your party, born in Cuba, great patriot, the senator from Florida, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to stand here some night?

• Bradley Winters of New York would like to know if there's anything you learned or regret during your time as mayor in your dealings with the African-American community?

• Daniel Duchovnik from Walnut Creek, California, wants to know: What do you dislike most about America?

• Thousands of reputable scientists have concluded with almost certainly that human activity is responsible for the warming of the Earth. Do you believe global warming exists?

• David Diamond from Memphis writes in, "Do you have a plan to solve the shortage of organs donated for transplant?"

• Maggie from Highland Park, Illinois, wants to know if you consider yourself a compassionate conservative, like President Bush.

• Pete from Rochester Hills, Michigan wants to ask you this. If you were president, would you work to phase out the IRS?

• Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?

• You have said in the past that you believe in the first eight to 12 weeks of pregnancy that the woman should have the right to have an abortion. Do you still want to stick with that exception?

• Do you have any nuance on this? Or are you just happy with the repeal of Roe v. Wade?

• In recent months, you've said you were, quote, "always for life," but we've also heard you say you were once, quote, "effectively pro-choice." Which is it? With respect, some people are going to see those changes of mind as awfully politically convenient.

• Could you support a nominee of your party who is not pro-life?

• You became very well known for standing up against the use of public funds for what many people considered indecent exhibits at the Brooklyn museum and places like that. Why do you support the use of public funds for abortion?

• Every cab driver in America knew what Ronald Reagan stood for: defeat communism abroad; reduce big government at home. Can you, Senator McCain, restore that kind of unity of purpose?

• How do you unify the country the way Reagan did, a good portion of the country?

• How do you reconcile this moral leadership kind of role of conservatism with the very libertarian strain of conservatism -- the Barry Goldwater conservatism that you represent?

• If a private employer finds homosexuality immoral, should he be allowed to fire a gay worker?

• What do you say to Roman Catholic bishops who would deny Communion to elected officials who support abortion rights? Do you see that as interference in public life?

• You've criticized Governor Romney for saying his faith wouldn't get in the way of his public life, his governing. Are you going to back that up tonight? ...Why are you changing that point of view now?

• Do you accept the fact that he wasn't talking about you?

• Governor Schwarzenegger, who is here tonight, has won the state twice by downplaying partisanship and taking centrist positions on the environment, immigration, abortion. Is that the way to win for Republicans?

• Is Karl Rove your friend? Do you want to keep him in the White House if you get elected president -- the president's chief political operative? As commander in chief and chief executive, would you employ Karl Rove?

• Has the increased influence of Christian conservatives in your party been good for it?

• Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, Duke Cunningham in prison for bribes. Just last month, FBI raids of two Republican members of Congress. What's with your party and all this corruption?

• When you announced last week, you took a couple of shots at incompetence in government. You talked about how you wouldn't put up with having police and fire radios on different frequencies. And I somehow got the idea you were talking about New York City.

• Chris Harris from Manhattan, Kansas, is very concerned about the budget and about deficits. He wants to know, what specific programs would you cut if you were president?

• A Politico.com reader wants a letter grade. He wants to know, A through F, how would you rate the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war?

• You said that being a pro-life president entails more than just appointing strict constructionist judges. A Politico.com reader wants to know what you meant by that and whether that was directed specifically at Mayor Giuliani.

• It seems like across the room here, this strong, unrelenting -- with the exception of Governor Gilmore, an unrelenting pro-life position. You seem to have a nuanced position on this. Many people think you're pro-choice. Could you define it in a couple of seconds?

• Is racism still a problem in our society, and can a president do anything about it?

• David Kim from here in California wants to know: Beside yourself, who do you think should be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, and why?

• Anyone disagree with the strong anti-illegal-immigration position, take a strong view?

• Kay Thomas from Honolulu, Hawaii, wants to know if you watched Al Gore's environmental documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

• Perhaps the most important skill a good president must have is the ability to make good, sound decisions, often in a crisis situation. Please cite an example when you had to make a decision in crisis.

• This question comes from Malika in Washington, D.C.: "Women are the fastest growing prison population. Most are mothers who are non-violent, first-time offenders. What will you do to address the issue of mothers behind bars and the children left behind?"

• Mrs. Reagan wants to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Will that progress under your administration, Governor?

• For embryonic stem cell federal funding or not?

• A year ago, it seemed that you couldn't wait to tell the world about your health-care experiment in Massachusetts. Since then, it's been criticized by conservatives as something Hillary Clinton could've devised. You hardly mention it on your Web site. What's changed?

• You now support extending President Bush's tax cuts. But you originally voted against them. That makes no sense.

• I want each candidate to mention a tax you'd like to cut, in addition to the Bush tax cuts, keeping them in effect.

• You said you plan to appoint a Democrat to a major candidate post. Tell us some of the Democrats you've got in mind. We will give you bonus points if you give us a name other than Senator Lieberman.

• Ryan from Los Angeles wants you to name one thing that the federal government does really well, and one thing that it does poorly.

• Do you believe in evolution?

• Which Cabinet official would be at the top of the list of those you'd like to carry into your administration if you're elected?

• What is the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim?

• A Politico.com reader says you claim to be the only real conservative in this race. They want you to explain why none of the other candidates deserves to label themselves as the true conservative.

• Carrie from Connecticut asks: Do you trust the mainstream media?

• A reader wants to know if your personal religious beliefs influence your foreign policy thinking.

• Jesse from Madison wants to know: "What do you consider to be your most significant weakness as a candidate for the president of the United States?"

• Do you find any faults in Mayor Giuliani?

• This question comes from a reader in New York: "In light of the scandals plaguing the current administration and its allies, involving corruption and cronyism, which mistakes have you learned not to repeat?"

• This reader requests a yes or no answer: "Will you work to protect women's rights, as in fair wages and reproductive choice?"

• Joanie from California wants to know how many American soldiers have lost their lives in the Iraq war, and how many have been injured, to date?

• Something you've come out for, I believe -- I want you to explain it and defend it: a national tamper-proof ID card. Governor Romney, I think -- are you with him on that, a tamper-proof ID card? Is someone against this on libertarian grounds, the idea of a national ID card?

• Let me go to a question that's more ephemeral... Do you think Scooter Libby should be pardoned. The judge is going to rule on that case next month and decide whether he will be in prison during his appeal. Would you let him be imprisoned?

• Terri Schiavo. Should Congress have acted or let the family make the decision, the husband? Was that a good thing for Congress to get involved that weekend?

• Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?

• Every president, if you look back to Ike, was elected to fill the problem of the previous president. We are, of course, correcting all the time in this country; it's how democracy works. How will you be different, in any way, from President George W. Bush?

Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/what-the-gop-was-arguing-about-as-their-last-primary-began/238395/