Political Theater

Andy McCarthy, watching Sam Brownback propose a soft partition of Iraq during tonight's debate:

... is Sam Brownback insane? Chance to pounce on Paul after Wallace cleared the path, he's blathering.

Jim Geraghty, on the same moment:

Brownback totally whiffs on chance to whack at anything Paul has said, and cites Thomas Friedman's call for a political surge. Urrrrrgh. Seriously disappointing. We had some serious drama going there. Okay, who's gonna swing away at Ron Paul, since Brownback won't?

Look, I get where they're coming from: It's good when the candidates mix it up and actually address what one another are saying, and Brownback generally seems lost in the crowd during these debates, and from a tactical perspective he ought to be throwing more punches. (Or getting out of the race entirely.) But - but - what Brownback did, in his non-response to Paul, was offer an actual strategy for moving forward politically in Iraq, addressing the central problem of our occupation head-on in a way that almost nobody else did during tonight's debate. His plan for partition may be a terrible plan (or at best, a plausible endpoint of a "stay till it burns out" strategy), but it's an infinitely more substantive contribution to the argument over Iraq than, say, Rudy Giuliani's famous slam of Paul a few months back, and Brownback deserved better - as do we all - than to have his response scored a failure because he didn't use it to score cheap points against a fellow also-ran.

Having said that, I'll turn to precisely the kind of point-scoring analysis that I just criticized, and associate myself with Marc's analysis:

Debates are about moments, and this debate belonged to an impassioned exchange between Ron Paul and Huckabee about the Iraq War. Fox News smartly let the two men have their say. Refreshing: an actual substantive debate about core principles. What do we owe to the Iraqi people? Ron Paul says nothing -- "we" as in Americans didn't make the mistake, the neocon cabal did. Mike Huckabee believes that the war was a mistake. But -- America's honor is at stake. Honor -- a word that Huckabee associated with John McCain. A word that resonates with the Republican electorate. "We have to be one nation. That means, if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country. Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor." Huckabee said the country owes to the Iraqi people our best effort to prevent genocide and stabilize the country. "We have to continue the surge. What we did in Iraq is we essentially broke it. It's our responsibility to try and fix it." Huckabee earned the biggest applause of the night. It may have been -- dare we say -- his break-out moment in New Hampshire, where support for the war isn't all that strong. (If this exchange had occurred in South Carolina, it definitely would have been a vote-earning exchange.) Huckabee was also asked tough questions about his immigration stance; he should wear them as a badge of honor. It means that his rise is being taken seriously by the press and by the Republican electorate.

I particularly liked Huckabee's response, when asked why he had accused of some immigration opponents of racism: "Because I listened to them." He needs to go a little lighter on the folksy aphorisms (particularly when they're borrowed from Colin Powell!), but I thought he had a good night overall, as did McCain; Giuliani and Romney were both treading water; Paul was Paul; and Fred Thompson was decidedly not missed. As political theater, the Huckabee-Paul confrontation was one of the best moments in any debate so far, and as Marc says, it was a real clash of principles, and a vast improvement on the kabuki theater at the start of the debate, in which the leading contenders took turns launching bad-faith attacks on one another for being insufficiently right-wing on immigration. But principles aren't the same thing as policy, and again, only Sam Brownback made any kind of stab at addressing the central problem we face in Iraq, the political problem, and so for that reason (and because he mentioned illegitimacy, of course) I hereby pronounce him the winner.