James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Campaign 2012: The First GOP Presidential Debate

by James M. Lindsay
May 5, 2011

A White House staffer places the Presidential Seal on a lectern before President Obama delivers remarks.

A staffer places the Presidential Seal on a lectern. (Jason Reed/courtesy Reuters)

The 2012 campaign season formally kicks off tonight with the first GOP presidential debate. Fox News is carrying the event live at 9 PM EDT. Fox’s Brett Baier will be asking the questions. With virtually all of the GOP’s headliners sitting this one out, the excitement level for tonight’s debate is pretty low. CSI, which has a new episode, will crush the debate in the ratings race. Nonetheless, tonight’s contest could be very revealing—and set the tone for GOP debates to come.

Who will being showing up at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina? Well, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman will all be elsewhere tonight. Each of these GOP luminaries may be mulling over a presidential run, but they haven’t formally created a presidential exploratory committee. That’s one of the formal criteria to participate in the debate. Mitt Romney has created an exploratory committee. He has decided, however, that he is better served by staying out of the debate fray until other heavyweights show up.

So tonight’s line-up will feature Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson, and Rick Santorum. Not exactly the 1927 Yankees. But that’s not a reason to miss the debate. Longshot candidates have captured presidential nominations before, and what these candidates say tonight will shape what they say down the road.

The thing to watch for tonight is where the candidates come down on the intervention versus non-intervention spectrum. Republican candidates have for decades staked their flag on interventionism, or if you prefer, robust internationalism. They invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, cite American exceptionalism, and champion America’s ability and obligation to remake the world.

That traditional approach may get tested tonight. First, two of the six candidates—Paul and Johnson—are committed non-interventionists. With the headliners sitting on the sidelines, they should get the chance to make their argument that it is time for America to do less overseas. That in itself might pull the other candidates away from a full-throated internationalism.

But broader trends will also be at work. Americans are tiring of the soon-to-be decade-long commitment in Afghanistan. The killing of Osama bin Laden has created a political opportunity to rethink U.S. policy toward not just Afghanistan but also Pakistan. The mission in Libya remains muddled. The trillion dollar deficit has created pressure to cut federal spending, and the defense budget is no longer sacrosanct. The ground work has been laid domestically for a mainstream Republican candidate—and neither Paul nor Johnson are in the mainstream—to try to reclaim an older Republican tradition of preferring an America that is less engaged in the world (or, if you prefer, more isolationist).

Haley Barbour looked to be that candidate. But he has decided against a run. Who else might take up the cause? Could it be Sarah Palin? In a speech on Monday, she sounded less like a hawk and more like, well, Ron Paul. Whereas only about a month ago she was calling for imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, she now has criticized the Libyan mission:

We can’t fight every war. We can’t undo every injustice around the world.

Other GOP candidates no doubt noticed that a market leader is pivoting. So stay tuned. The Republican conversation could get pretty interesting.

Post a Comment 18 Comments

  • Posted by Ed Ward II

    Ron Paul is closest to winning against Obama of ANY candidate in latest CNN poll.
    Ron Paul is likely to raise $1 million in today’s moneybomb. Who else can do that?

  • Posted by Michael

    Ron Paul is the man to watch tonight. His current 24 hour Moneybomb has already raised over $580,000!

    Veterans for Ron Paul 2012

  • Posted by Black Friday

    I will be skipping tonight’s debate too. I don’t see the point with the “Big Guns” not showing up. I may set my DVR to record it and watch it over the weekend. Ron Paul might be interesting to watch.

  • Posted by Joe M

    Yep, Ron Paul is going to be even bigger in 2012 than he was in 2008, and the old guard media can’t ignore him forever.

  • Posted by Evan M

    I expect Ron Paul to win this debate but am also looking forward to hearing what Gary Johnson has to say. The others will just tow the establishment line, for the most part

  • Posted by Paul N

    I’ll be looking for those snarky smirks that Ron Paul usually gets from the other candidates from previous debates. The thing is Ron Paul’s ideology makes more sense now than anytime in the past.

  • Posted by Jennelle O

    Ron Paul 2012!!!

  • Posted by Gerard Schmidt

    Ron Paul I expect to win.
    All the others are ‘apparently’ mainstream.
    Well the mainstream on both sides have failed abysmally.
    Two wars without end, with torture, pat-downs and the patriot act with ‘reds under bed’ paranoia, add in a bankrupt economy, fraud, corporatism, massive unfunded liabilities and no accountability in either parliament or the Federal Reserve and both sides have proven their inability to govern, let alone balance a budget.
    Why would we want the establishment in again to finish the republic off?
    Ron Paul warned of all these things happening.
    More of the same is only going to get us more of the same.
    As for the ‘big guns’ they’ve only delivered rhetoric, corruption and bankruptcy.

  • Posted by Dave W

    Ron Paul already has the momentum to take to take him straight to a debate with Obama. He’s far stronger than he was in 2008. Romney should be shaking in his boots.

  • Posted by Susann

    Love this guy! He’ll push to legalize gay marriage and currently illegal drugs, pull us out of NATO, United Nations, shut down FEMA, Dept of Education, Dept of Energy, Homeland Security, IRS, severely shrink the CIA, and so much more. Ron Paul 2012!

  • Posted by Paul Tanksley

    Palenty won every element .
    While each contributed some fine ideas,
    Paul and most dropped the ball on trivial
    matters .. You must ask ..Who was most “presidential”?

  • Posted by Francis C

    Ron Paul vs Obama. What a dream election. I’d be glued to the news constantly.

  • Posted by AnnInFL

    Herman Cain is a former board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. He dismisses questions about auditing the Federal Reserve. Ron Paul is the only candidate who truly understands, supports and defends the U.S. Constitution and individual liberty. He will end the wars, bring home the troops, defend our borders, end corporate welfare, and restore free markets and honest money.

    Ron Paul for President!

  • Posted by Jebril

    Ron Paul was barely even mentioned once I believe in Sean Hannity’s show afterwards, Fox News bias kicking it in hard again.

    They put him and Gary Johnson at the far corners of the stage and focused more on the 3 center Neo Con politicians, asking Ron Paul and Gary Johnson stupid questions even, like what reality show would you have and is this person a threat? Seriously?

    Ron Paul still got the most applause out of all candidates, Fox News can ignore and ridicule him all they want, it’s not going to stop the inevitable. He will win.

  • Posted by Zadoc

    I think Romney et. al were wrong to not attend. As a result, Ron Paul pretty much won it on his own.

    Who do you think won the debate?
    Poll: http://www.wepolls.com/r/153407/Who-won-May-fifth
    Click to vote

  • Posted by Nick Riley

    That was the Ron Paul show last night.
    He handled every biting question from fox like a pro. My favorite was his response to ending the war on drugs. Asking the audience if they would go and get some heroine if it were not illegal. The audience erupted fully understanding that Ron Paul is teaching about individual liberty and other issues are only appendages to Freedom.

  • Posted by bilge

    Ron Paul, consistent, rhetoric and voting record for over 30 years. The “main stream” including past and present presidents, all liars and flip floppers.

  • Posted by Joseph Zrnchik, MAJ (Ret.)

    The military agrees with and supports Ron Paul and seeks a leader that will defend the Constitution from its domestic enemies. We have sworn an oath to defend liberty but watch with horror as the nation we defend becomes a corporate-fascist police state ruled by corrupt politicians. Please help Ron Paul save the nation

    Joseph Zrnchik, MAJ (Ret.)

    Day of Rage in D.C.

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