Iowa Debates Give Substance, Not Show

Why can't the rest of the country be more like these friendly Midwesterners?
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Wednesday and Thursday saw the Democrats and Republicans hold back-to-back presidential debates in Iowa that were sponsored by Iowa Public Television and The Des Moines Register. The close comparison teaches us something about Iowa.

Based on observations from this debate, Iowans have little interest in confrontation but do care quite a bit about the substance of what politicians have to say. The national media will call it boring; I call it informative as we gained insight into the candidates' views on the economy, global warming and more.

The debate moderator and editor of the

Register

, Carolyn Washburn, made an excellent decision in the debates. Rather than retread the rhetoric expressed on issues covered in past debates like immigration and Iraq, she looked to some of the less-answered questions, including important topics like the economy, environment, and leadership.

The answers were revealing.

The first question in both debates centered on the economy and in particular how candidates would handle the budget. We have not only a deficit but a serious problem with present and future debt obligations.

Republicans and Democrats display fiscal responsibility differently. Republicans always have to start out saying they will cut taxes, and then claim it will raise tax revenue (I have

written how this isn't really true). Rudy Giuliani was the first Republican to get the rhetoric started on tax cuts. Giuliani went on to propose across the board domestic cuts and a plan to not replace retiring federal employees.

Mitt Romney offered the most optimistic answer: "We shouldn't wring our hands because the future is bright." The former Massachusetts governor hopes economic growth will resolve problems. Fred Thompson suggested entitlement cuts. This rates to be popular in a Republican primary, but it will doom his chances in a general election.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stepped out of the GOP mold. He argued the United States can't afford our foreign policy bringing our troops home would save money and allows us to refocus on making America stronger. Paul would also make drastic cuts in the size of government.

The Democrats want to go back to the future of the 1990s. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) said it best: "We have to get back to taxation levels of 1990s." Democrats favor tax breaks for the middle class and want to raise taxes on the wealthy back to the 39% level of the Bill Clinton administration.

Democrats also want to cut out what they call wasteful defense programs. These included programs like "Star Wars," new nuclear bombs, and the F-22 fighter. Furthermore, all of the Democrats plan to save money by ending the war in Iraq. Bill Richardson has the most drastic plan of getting all troops out as soon as possible.

The funniest moment in both campaigns came when the environment was mentioned.

Washburn asked the Republicans to raise their hands if they accept the idea of global warming and that is exacerbated by human actions. A revolt ensued. Led by Fred Thompson, the GOP contenders refused to raise their hands and preferred to qualify any answer. It probably worked out well for Thompson. He showed that he wasn't totally comatose and he was able to challenge an unpopular idea amongst the GOP.

The Democrats proved less reluctant on the environment. All of the candidates have energy plans with big reductions in carbon usage and incentives for renewable energy. After they all discussed their plans, Clinton chimed to the moderator before the next question could be asked: "Aren't you going to ask us to raise our hands if we believe in global warming?"

I thought there were two opportunities in the debates for candidates to demonstrate their leadership. All of the candidates were allowed a 30-second speeches and a chance to describe their plans for the first year in office. These were make-or-break moments.

The Republican responses reinforced recent developments on the campaign trail. The two outstanding candidates were Huckabee and Romney. On the emotional side, Huckabee showed why he's the candidate that talks his way into your heart, while Romney spoke strongly on leadership and a strong vision for the future.

Giuliani continues to disappoint. He fails to find his footing and stand forward with a show of leadership. Sen. John McCain (R. -- Ariz.) showed his mettle but continues to miss on the issues. Thompson showed some spunk, but still lacks a coherent argument for why he should be our president.

If you like returning to the constitution and small government, then you liked Rep. Paul's performance. (I still can't figure out why Rep. Tommy Tancredo, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes were on the stage at all.)

For the Democrats, Clinton gave the strongest performance. She combined her grasp of the issues with humor, humility and years of experience showing Iowans why they should caucus for her. Sen. Barack Obama (D. -- Ill.) gave his usual speech on hope and change but didn't distinguish himself from Clinton.

John Edwards tried to made the case that he would be a fighter and try to change the entire system. I think this plays well with some folks, but it also brings forward the lesson Clinton learned in 1994 with health care reform.

Fighting lobbyists and other special interests can be hard if those players don't have some representation at the table. Edwards sends notice that they won't. While his message moves some, it will bring any hope of political progress to an end during an Edwards' administration.

Senators Biden and Dodd, and Gov. Bill Richardson, remain part-time players who have a hard time finding the spotlight that could vault them into the top tier.

Neither of the debates had an earthshaking moment, which was just fine for Iowans. They got the straight answers they need to make a decision in the caucus on Jan. 3.