Feisty GOP debate sets bad precedent

During this week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Ronald Reagan's dictum about the Eleventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican") was largely ignored.

During this week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Ronald Reagan's dictum about the Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”) was largely ignored. This time around, we really saw the gloves come off. The insults came flying from all over during the often combative, two-hour-long attack-fest.

Politics is a rough-and-tumble sport, to be sure. And with such a large field of GOP candidates during this election cycle, the need to differentiate oneself from the rest of the pack is essential. We all get that.

But the bile that was flowing in Tuesday's debate has usually been reserved for – and directed at – the other party's nominee, not at each other. The thinking is that by the time the Republican National Convention rolls around in August 2012, all (or most) of the candidates could have enough mutual respect to show party unity and rally around the GOP nominee in the mad dash leading up to Election Day.

That requires a deft touch – to be able to singe your intra-party opponents in debates without having to resort to verbally incinerating them. The Republican nominee will need all the political support he or she can get when the general election rolls around.

All of these candidates are in it to win it. I respect the toughness they need to bring to a long, grueling campaign – against foes both inside and outside of their respective parties. However, there was a real lack of decorum in the last debate that, if it escalates and goes unchecked, could really hurt the Republican Party's chances in 2012.

It wasn't all bad, though. There were some bright spots in the debate. Former Sen. Rick Santorum distinguished himself by doing a marvelous job of skewering some of his opponents' positions on such issues as healthcare (Mitt Romney) and taxes (Herman Cain). Even the old rabble-rouser himself, Newt Gingrich, did an artful job of drawing distinctions while being civil and even-keeled.

Jon Huntsman boycotted the Las Vegas debate altogether, citing an intra-party squabble over conflicts in the dates of the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries. Huntsman has made a strategic decision to put most of his campaign efforts into winning in New Hampshire – a move with a high-risk/high-reward aspect to it.

But the Mitt Romney-Rick Perry tussles were a distracting sideshow that diminished both candidates and, quite frankly, the majority of the debate.

There are many time-honored rules in campaign politics. Taking potshots at the front runner is one of them. In the September and October debates, Perry and Romney had the targets on their back. They still remain, but the surging Cain was the new focus this time around.

Another rule is letting no attack go unanswered (along with its analog – quickly acknowledging mistakes). This past debate saw plenty of attacks and counterattacks, and it was Cain's turn to admit he misspoke on a question about negotiating with terrorists. Time will tell if he was able to recover from that hiccup.

There are a lot more of these intra-party debates to go – eight to be exact. And that's before the general election debates between President Obama and the Republican nominee.

Between now and then, there will be lots more blather, bombast, and fireworks. But let's have a baseline level of decorum and civility. If they can't do that, can any of these candidates avoid a mortal wound by taking part in this circular firing squad?

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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