The Washington Post

Republican candidates at the first debate for the GOP contenders in the "First in the Nation" primary state of New Hampshire. (Darren McCollester/GETTY IMAGES)

Primary debates are usually watched for what they say about the candidates, but they’re generally important for what they say about the party. This one was no different. With the notable exceptions of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, the candidates didn’t disagree over policy. They disagreed over fealty to policy.

Bachmann didn’t attack Pawlenty’s policy proposals. She attacked him for past statements suggesting he might believe in other policy proposals, like the individual mandate and cap-and-trade. Palwenty’s assault on Romney took the same form. This debate wasn’t about what policies the candidates believed in. That was largely a given. This debate was about which of the candidates believed in those policies the most.

The best policy in this debate wasn’t the policy most likely to work, or the policy most likely to pass. It was the most orthodox policy. The policy least sullied by compromise. A world in which the GOP will not agree to deficit reduction with a 10:1 split between spending cuts and tax increases is a world where entitlement reform can’t happen. It’s a world where the “supercommittee” fails and the trigger is pulled, and thus a world in which $1 out of every $2 in cuts comes from the Pentagon. It’s not a world that fits what many in the GOP consider ideal policy. But it is a world in which none in the GOP need to traverse the treacherous politics of compromise.

Perhaps no candidate is better suited for that world than Michele Bachmann. But tellingly, the candidate who is best on the politics also proved worst on the policy.

Over and over again, Bachmann misstated basic facts. She said that Tim Pawlenty “implemented” cap-and-trade in Minnesota. He did no such thing. She said “we just heard from Standard Poor’s,” and “when they dropped our credit rating what they said was we don’t have an ability to repay our debt.” Simply not true.

S&P has never questioned our ability to repay our debt. That’s why we remain AA+. They have questioned whether political brinksmanship will stop us from paying our debt. The downgrade “was pretty much motivated by all of the debate about the raising of the debt ceiling,” said John Chambers, head of S&P’s sovereign ratings committee. That is to say, it was motivated by political brinksmanship from the likes of, well, Michele Bachmann.

It’s fitting that the candidate best able to resist compromise is the candidate who seems least able to correctly explain the policies at issue and the choices we face. It’s a lot easier to take a hard line if you don’t understand the consequences of your actions, and a lot simpler to belt out applause lines if you’re not slowed down by the messy complexities of the issues. But where Bachmann is leading, the other candidates are following. Mitt Romney knows perfectly well that a deal with $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases is a great deal for conservatives. What he probably doesn’t know is how he’s going to explain why he pretended otherwise when he was vying for the nomination.

After the debate, the punditry immediately turned to who won and who lost. Pawlenty, most said, was the clear loser. Romney, Bachmann, and maybe the absent Rick Perry were the possible winners. I would look at it more broadly.

The losers in tonight’s debate were anyone who wants to see the sort of compromise necessary for the political process to work, and anyone who has been convinced that they can achieve their goals simply by restating their convictions. As for the winners? Well, I didn’t see too many of those.


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