In Monday night's Iowa Republican debate, God (in his various incarnations) got 21 mentions. Al Gore got two.
This is odd. After all, the candidates on stage were not running for House chaplain. And they will most likely be running against Al Gore. (Bill Bradley, it might be noted, got precisely one mention.)
But it is more than odd. Such ostentatious religiosity is unseemly. Public religiosity is bad enough. Public religiosity in pursuit of political power is even worse.
For those who take religion seriously, it is sacrilegious. For those who are secular, it is scary. You watch these debates, brimming with God talk, and you catch a whiff of the Taliban.
America has its sacred texts (the Declaration, the Constitution). We have our sacred days (Memorial Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day). We have our civic rituals (elections, inaugurations). And we have been able to accommodate people of extraordinarily diverse religious, political and cultural inclinations because we demand allegiance only to this civic religion--and leave the other kind to the churches.
The flip side of this religious parochialism is political parochialism, the weird insularity of the Republican argument in campaign 2000. In the Iowa debate, for example, Christie Todd Whitman got more mentions (all negative) than Al Gore. Whitman may be the poster girl for Republican deviancy on social issues, but Al Gore is the real enemy. The Republicans don't even have him in their sights.
Hence, a second problem with the Republicans' God/Gore ratio: the absence of any serious attention to the Democrats. The Democrats have been in office for seven years. In New Hampshire, Arizona and now Iowa, the Republicans had the floor to themselves for four hours. You'd have thought they might have had a lot to say about the Democrats. What was astonishing was how weak and scattered the criticism was.
They have little to say about Clintonomics. (Admittedly, it is hard to argue with 4 percent unemployment and 2 percent inflation.) They snipe at Clinton foreign policy, but only at the margins--Kosovo, Chechnya and the WTO hardly top the list of voters' concerns.
What else is there? I suspect that the ritual invocation of religion points to a Republican strategy of campaigning on the moral decline of America. But at a time when crime, welfare, even teen pregnancy rates are declining, running on the corruption of the culture is a pretty risky line of attack.
What about the corruption of the Clinton-Gore administration? The Republicans appear loath to bring it up, fearing an impeachment-like backlash. That may be a correct political calculation, but it leaves Republicans with very little to talk about as an opposition party.
In one way or another, all the Republican candidates are running against Washington. John McCain, for example, is running against campaign-finance corruption in both parties. But they cannot quite figure out how to run against the Democrats. If there is a case to be made why eight years of Democratic rule should be ended, not a single Republican on that stage in Iowa made it.
The Republicans' problem is one of policy and ideas. It is not, as the conventional wisdom has it, a problem of personalities. Candidates arrayed on a stage in silly chairs always look diminished. But this is not a bad field.
Sure, you have your flakes, Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes. But after 1992--when Jerry Brown was, apart from Bill Clinton, the last Democratic finalist--one is obliged to ask, "compared to whom"?
Then you have your serious men who happen to be unserious candidates. Orrin Hatch, a solid and admirable senator, is running a hopeless campaign for no apparent reason other than, one supposes, that every senator is entitled to one presidential campaign. Gary Bauer, a devoted and effective lobbyist/advocate for the religious right, has as much chance of being elected president as Hatch.
Which leaves serious men who are also serious candidates: John McCain, hero and heavyweight, and George W. Bush. Bush, governor of Texas, is being pummeled as a lightweight by the same press that in 1992 saw great possibilities in a small-state governor with zero foreign policy experience and a very checkered past.
As fields go, the Republicans' is par for the course. Two-thirds serious people, one-third serious candidates. Now if only they can articulate a reason why they can run the country better than Clinton-Gore.