The “No Hand” Show

Here’s a prediction: Fred Thompson won’t be getting any Des Moines Register endorsements anytime soon.

“I’m not doing hands,” he said, when moderator and Des Moines Register Carolyn Washburn asked all of the field of candidates to raise their arm up in the air if they believed that global warming is man made. “No hand shows.”

“You want a show of hands and I’m not giving it to you,” Thompson said.

It was Washburn’s one aborted and awkward attempt at a debate gimmick at the Wednesday forum, the last such gathering of GOP candidates before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. Otherwise, this debate, sponsored by the Register and Iowa public television, was a snoozer. That worked to Thompson’s advantage: Just create a little trouble with Marion the Librarian to stand out.

Emboldened by the exchange, Thompson gloated afterward, “I am not sure how these other candidates plan to defeat al-Qaeda when they can’t even take on Carolyn Washburn. The format of this debate was more of a joke than a Mike Huckabee foreign policy answer.”   

With the candidates standing on a staid, industrial-strength set free of any buzzers or bells and whistles, this could safely be called the opposite of CNN/YouTube.

It made you wish for something. Anything.

The problem, though, was not the lack of lighting rounds but the questions and the lack of follow up. There was little attempt to define any differences between the candidates, with some issues, like Iraq and immigration, completely off the table.

All of the candidates said they wanted to do something about global warming, but they were never pressed on how they would do it through government regulations, or even what they thought of the Bush administration’s approach to the problem.

A sample query: Is it more important that the President be a fiscal conservative or a social conservative? Typical answer: Both.

“These questions were deadly,” Fred Barnes said on Fox News afterward, noting that it seemed like the humorless Washburn was more concerned about time than what was being said.

There was substance, and that is a laudatory goal, but all too often candidates sounded as if they were culling from their stump speeches. In fact, each was given 30 minutes of free time to articulate their campaign’s vision.

And all but ignored was the controversy of the day, Mike Huckabee’s comments in an article for the New York Times magazine, in which he said, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” Huckabee himself voluntarily referred to it when he said, “I’m going to be a lot more careful about everything I say.”

There were moments of levity. After Mitt Romney said that he’s less concerned about the tax rates for the wealthy than the middle class, Thompson quipped, “My goal is to get into Mitt Romney’s situation where I don’t have to worry about taxes anymore.”

But what would have been nice was any rebuttal from other candidates. When Thompson  was asked if there were any government programs worth running a deficit for, he cited military and security, infrastructure and research and development.  That’s a pretty wide latitude for an economic conservative, and it all went unchallenged.

Perhaps the fault isn’t so much Washburn’s, but the fact that this has been a long, long year, with the Register having the dubious distinction of coming last in the debate process. A well-intentioned attempt to raise the level of discourse instead ended in a wonkish whimper. The candidates looked tired and, when Alan Keyes spoke, just weary.

In fact, when Keyes answered the global warming question with a confusing rant about government in general and noting at all about the environment, Thompson couldn’t help but interject, “I agree with Alan Keyes’ position on global warming.”

What else, after all, was there to say?

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