A Vigorous Debate with No Ideas

Seven GOP presidential contenders on the stage before the Republican presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire on June 13, 2011.

The first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate was about a lot of things.

For Mitt Romney, it was about running away from his past as governor of Massachusetts. For Newt Gingrich, it was about running away from the past four weeks of his campaign. For Tim Pawlenty, it was about reaching out to Sarah Palin followers. For Michele Bachmann, it was about showing those followers that they don't need Sarah Palin. For Rick Santorum, it was about remembering what the spotlight is like. For Herman Cain, it was the joy of just being there. And for Ron Paul, it was about being true to Ron Paul.

For the whole field, it was about not looking like a group of in-fighting wannabes, and they succeeded in keeping the intra-party divisions invisible as they focused in unison against Obama. For conservatives around the country, it was about seeing which candidate is willing to go to the extremes where Tea Party voters have carried the conservative cause.  For the media, it was a sign that the circus has come to town.

For nobody, though—with the possible exception of Ron Paul—was it about leading the Republican Party into a new era.

Gingrich may talk about his "candidacy of ideas," but his two biggest ideas were not mentioning why his senior staff fled his campaign and taking back his criticism of Paul Ryan's highly unpopular plan to gut Medicare.

Romney wants the presidency so bad that rather than offer a vigorous fight about how his healthcare plan in Massachusetts is successful, popular, based on conservative principles—and the model for the national system—he needs to denigrate and call for the repeal of Obama's plan.

Pawlenty, who as governor of Minnesota took steps on climate change, has now disavowed the threat entirely. (Romney came under assault by conservatives last week for acknowledging man-made impact on our climate.)

The frontrunners did not use this debate to wrestle over the future of a Republican Party that is alienating younger voters, non-white Americans and the gay community. They did not offer a compelling vision of how Republican principles are essential for facing global challenges. Rather, they used it for two purposes: 1) Attack the Obama administration on everything; 2) Follow, not lead, by chasing the rightward march of Tea Party voters who make up a vocal portion of Republican primary voters.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad strategy. Keeping their in-fighting in allows them all to soften the foundation of their opponent. Obama deserves plenty of criticism -- over high unemployment, the failure to address the foreclosure crisis, the continuation and expansion of destructive wars -- and the candidates took the opportunity to make their attacks.

But their other goal was to chase votes—even if that meant running from their signature achievements, their honest disagreements or their more interesting, nuanced approaches. None of them were interested in a challenging, provocative debate. None of them offered the Republican voter something new to consider. They all just tried to deliver voters exactly what they wanted.

With the exception of Ron Paul. He was against the Patriot Act when few Democrats voiced their concerns; and now Tea Party members of Congress nearly sunk the Act's renewal. He was against the wars, and now Mitt Romney is calling, weakly, to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Four years ago, he was the eccentric voice at the end of the stage—but his ideas, more than any of the other candidates from 2008, became part of the fuel that energized the Tea Party, which then carried his own son into the Senate.

But seeking to lead four years ago didn't win him the nomination. Leading with ideas, as Gingrich keeps saying he'll do, didn't make Paul too much more mainstream in Congress. And taking a few idiosyncratic stances now isn't raising his poll numbers in the early caucuses and primaries.

Ron Paul tries to lead and it gets him nowhere. That’s why the rest of the field knows better and instead each of them, in his or her own way, tries to become the Follower-in-Chief to conservative primary voters.

It may be a strategy for winning the Republican nomination. It may even be a strategy that will give them a shot at the White House. But it's not a strategy for strengthening our country…then again, that's not what New Hampshire primary debates are all about.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."