They assumed the stance of the Seven Dwarfs, not as a matter of physical but rather intellectual stature. Not one of the candidates for the GOP presidential nomination who debated Monday night rose to a point of seriousness in addressing the nation's grievous problems. Instead, they ever so playfully thumbed their collective noses at any possible meaningful government reaction to the mess that we are in. It was Herbert Hoover warmed over, leaving Barack Obama secure in the mantle of FDR whether he deserves that tribute or not.
Obama, who has been inconsistent and weak in reining in the Wall Street greed that got us into this deep economic morass, is now under no pressure from the opposition to improve his performance. The Republican knee-jerk reaction -- government bad, big business great, and don't dare say that the Wall Street scoundrels who created this crisis need a timeout -- gets Obama off the hook from legitimate criticism he needs to hear. As The Wall Street Journal headlined the non-debate: "Candidates Run Against Regulation."
It's as if the sound government regulation of the financial industry implemented in response to the Great Depression -- not its polar opposite, the radical deregulation fueled by Republican free market zealots -- was the source of our banking meltdown.
How dare these Republican candidates en masse ignore the truth that it was precisely the legislation that their party pushed through Congress, and that Democrat Bill Clinton shamefully endorsed, that launched the era of unregulated credit default swaps and mortgage-based securities that came close to destroying the entire economy. The failed policies involved are the cause of the 50 percent run-up of the national debt, 9.1 percent unemployment, an all-time high in poverty and the prospect of 50 million people being driven from their homes.
The Republican debate dashed any expectation that some populist candidate would rise from that side of the aisle, and in an honest way tap into voter resentment over the deep hurt that the Wall Street super-rich have put on ordinary Americans. Instead, the candidates made regulation the enemy, rather than the misdeeds that responsible legislation is intended to curtail.
And their target was not just legislation to control the financial community. Indeed they offered, to a person, an across-the-board assault on the very idea of the power of the government being used in a forthright way to protect the rights of the individual citizen in any arena. As The Wall Street Journal summarized the New Hampshire debate:
"Republican presidential hopefuls on Monday pressed for the dismantling of government regulations drawn up over 40 years, using a candidates' debate here to call for the scaling back or elimination of environmental, labor, financial and health-care rules."
The stakes in the next election couldn't be more important, and the danger for Obama and the country is that he might continue his practice of compromising instead of courageously challenging entrenched corporate power. If the choice is between him and any one of the Seven Dwarfs, it will be no contest as to who is the lesser evil. If Mitt Romney, the current front-runner by a wide margin for the GOP nomination, represents the best chance the Republicans have of putting up a sensible leader, Obama will be under no stress to improve his performance. Romney won't even defend the very minor health-care reforms that the Republicans deride as "Obamacare," even though those reforms are based on a state program Romney championed when he was governor of Massachusetts.
The only candidate who has had the temerity to concede that the Republican vision of health care is "right-wing social engineering" was Newt Gingrich, and he has been backing away from that assertion ever since he made it in May. At Monday's debate, Gingrich felt the need to balance that earlier bit of reason with an absurd call for abolishing the National Labor Relations Board, as if it is the unbridled power of trade unions rather the mammoth corporations that is responsible for the downsizing and outsourcing of once well-paid American jobs.
The smug arrogance of these Republican candidates, preening with their concern for the masses of Americans oppressed by the chains of Social Security, minimal rights to health care, and environmental protection, leaves Obama as the only serious adult in the room. These folks even want to reverse the Sarbanes-Oxley law, designed to prevent the accounting fraud associated with the collapses of Enron and WorldCom that cost so many their jobs and savings.
With the president facing opponents such as these, the danger is that our national politics will once again be traumatized by a lesser-evilism, in which Obama will be given a free ride relieved of the pressure to perform better in dealing with an economy that is in deep trouble. It would be all too easy for him to make the case that he inherited rather than created the economic debacle, and that his palliatives, including the stimulus and mild regulation, may have not solved the problem but it would be a lot worse if the do-nothingness -- that traditional bane of the GOP -- had been the order of the day.