The Republican presidential candidates, their sinews stiffened and their blood summoned up, may rightly dread Wednesday's version of what are inexplicably called debates. The candidates have some explaining to do, particularly regarding two subjects that deserve more searching examination than is possible in 60-second bursts on a stage cluttered with eight contestants. But perhaps certain candidates can be compelled to expand upon, and improve upon, what they have been saying about foreign policy, and about the role of the judiciary in American democracy.
Most of the candidates have disparaged President Obama's decision that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq this year. (Ron Paul considers the withdrawal of U.S. assets insufficiently thorough; but, then, he might favor U.S. withdrawal from territories of the constitutionally dubious Louisiana Purchase.) What is the candidates' objection to Obama implementing the status-of-forces agreement that his predecessor signed in 2008?
The candidates should answer three questions: How many troops would they leave in Iraq? For how long? And for what purpose? If eight years, 4,485 lives and $800 billion are not enough, how many more of each are they prepared to invest there? And spare us the conventional dodge about "listening to" the "commanders in the field." Each candidate is aspiring to be commander in chief in a nation in which civilians set policy for officers to execute.
Regarding domestic affairs, most of the candidates -- Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney have admirably refrained -- have been barking about courts, and especially about the Supreme Court, aka "nine oligarchs in robes" (Rick Perry). Rick Santorum wants to "eliminate" the often liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, although it is not clear why that is necessary, given that the Supreme Court has made the 9th Circuit the most frequently reversed appellate court.
Newt Gingrich, never one to miss an opportunity for rhetorical flamboyance, says "one of the major reasons" for his candidacy is the 9th Circuit's opinion, nine years ago, that said the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment proscription of the "establishment" of religion: "That decision to me had the same effect that the Dred Scott decision extending slavery to the whole country had on Abraham Lincoln."
Really? It took four years of war and 625,000 dead to settle the slavery question; it took a unanimous Supreme Court a few minutes to swat aside the 9th Circuit's silliness. Michele Bachmann and Paul think Congress should restrict the jurisdiction of federal courts. The common theme of the candidates complaining about the courts is that, in Perry's words, "activist" judges "deny us the right to live as we see fit."
Indeed, courts sometimes do that. And conservatives sometimes applaud, vigorously and rightly. Perry did when the Supreme Court, properly enforcing the Second Amendment, said that the elected representatives of the residents of Washington, D.C., and Chicago could not do as they saw fit, and as a majority of their constituents probably favored, regarding gun control. Perry, Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum and Paul ardently hope that five Supreme Court justices will be active enough to declare unconstitutional the individual health insurance mandate enacted by majorities in both houses of Congress.
Because the very idea of an eight-sided debate is absurd, and because such a televised event is survival of the briefest, the format discourages the drawing of sensible distinctions. But presidential duties demand this, and it would be helpful if the mad proliferation of debates at least tested this aptitude regarding issues as large as war and the judiciary.