What The GOP Candidates Really Debated

Brian Goldsmith is an associate producer for the CBS Evening News, based in New York.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As I watched what Al Franken famously called "HANNITY and colmes" after the GOP presidential debate last night, it occurred to me that what I'd just seen was less a debate about the Republican future than a debate about the Republican past. Two of the Big Three both hail from the Bush wing of the Republican Party. They just each represent a different Bush. Temperamentally and ideologically, John McCain and Mitt Romney were as close, and as far, from each other as father and son.

Senator McCain—by emphasizing bipartisanship and the deficit, supporting "comprehensive immigration reform" and campaign finance reform, and opposing "enhanced interrogation" that he equated to torture—stands for the conciliatory, consensus-building politics of George H.W. Bush and James Baker. That doesn't mean he won't attack his opponents; his I-don't-change-my-positions-in-even-numbered-years line sliced like a Ginzu. But it's not his preferred MO, and it usually comes in the form of a counterattack.

Governor Romney—by emphasizing "conservative principles," MBA management, doing whatever it takes to defend America, and cutely but savagely attacking his opponent with buzz words like "amnesty," "sanctity," "Kennedy," and "Feingold"—stands for the divide-and-conquer politics of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. He jumped at the chance to slam McCain—and even his positive message about three legs necessary for the Republican stool (strong families, strong military, strong economy) is an implicit jab at his opponents.

(Rudy Giuliani, by the way, is an interesting amalgam all his own: more hawkish than Wolfowitz on national security, as conservative as Forbes on the economy, but Evan Bayh on social issues. And, as his attempt at an "I paid for this microphone"/"You're no Jack Kennedy" moment with Ron Paul demonstrated, he would be absent from the stage were it not for 9/11.)

The larger question is: Having lost the Congress, having sustained a president with sub-30% approval ratings, having endured war and scandal and disappointment, will Republican primary voters believe now is the time to compromise, or now is the time to fight?