Toeing the party line

The event was pegged as the first major debate among GOP presidential hopefuls in 2012, but Monday night's gathering turned out to be less a clash of competing ideas than a rote recital of hoary political nostrums that Republican primary voters have made a litmus test of ideological purity. The candidates dutifully repeated the mantra of tax cuts and touted their conservative credentials on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and immigration. But there was little real passion in the give-and-take, which by the end of the event seemed more like polite dinner-party chatter than a discussion of matters of grave national import.

At a time when the country faces enormous problems in a changing world, not one of the candidates seemed able to offer a single new idea about how to fix them. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the putative front-runner in early polls, strove mightily to fit the round peg of his pragmatic, essentially moderate views into the increasingly rigid square hole of Republican orthodoxy. In his effort to focus on the failings of the Obama administration, he practically twisted himself into knots trying to distance himself from the Massachusetts health care plan instituted on his watch, which served as a model for President Obama's national health-care reform law.

The spectacle of Mr. Romney trying to distance himself from his own greatest accomplishment in office was painful to watch, and it became even more so when the debate's moderator, CNN's John King, asked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to respond. In the run-up to the debate, Mr. Pawlenty had ridiculed Mr. Romney as the author of "Obamneycare" — a coinage intended to discredit Mr. Romney's conservative bona fides by conflating the Massachusetts plan with the president's health care law. But Mr. King's question prompted Mr. Pawlenty to go through his own contortions. Pressed several times to repeat his verbal barb in Mr. Romney's presence, Mr. Pawlenty finally begged off with the lame excuse that he was only referring to how Mr. Obama himself had described the Massachusetts plan. Perhaps he was just being Minnesota-nice.

The other candidates on stage seemed just as determined to avoid substantive debate. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, may have made the only real news of the evening when she announced her formal entry into the GOP primary race. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered predictably grand generalizations about American exceptionalism and the need to put the country's house in order, but he was maddeningly short on specifics and utterly silent on the subject of his national campaign staff's sudden implosion over the weekend. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum volunteered a laundry list of conservative bromides but ventured even fewer policy details. Perennial presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain chimed in with spirited, if not always coherent, rationales for their long-shot campaigns.

It's tempting to dismiss the importance of this early debate, especially in light of the fact that there's a strong possibility the field of candidates may grow over the next month or so. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who recently completed a stint as President Obama's ambassador to China, is said to be seriously considering a run for the presidency, as is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Both men could pose a challenge to Mr. Romney's front-runner status as the GOP candidate most likely to defeat Mr. Obama in 2012. Meanwhile, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin recently tooled around the country on a bus tour that had all the earmarks of a national campaign, but whether she ultimately will enter the race is still anyone's guess.

It's unusual for the GOP field to be so unsettled. But the lack of original thinking among the candidates we've seen so far may be partly responsible for that. By trying to become Ronald Reagan reincarnate, the Republican candidates are precisely failing to be what Reagan was — a fresh voice in American politics. The Obama administration will surely try to make the 2012 election all about America's future. If the GOP hopes to be successful in countering that theme, it could surely use a few more fresh ideas to offer.