Sitting in the back of the room for Monday's GOP forum (more on that here, here and in this week's column) it was easy to see the trends of the evening's discussion.
The candidates harped on smaller government, less spending, lower taxes, sticking by the Constitution as the founding fathers intended and needling "free-spending," "liberal" Democrats.
None of this comes as a surprise. It was a GOP forum mostly geared to GOP primary voters -- of course there would be lots of red meat for the base, and it was pretty standard red meat, at that.
However, it was also very general. At times painfully so. The candidates focused mainly on philosophy rather than delving into specific policy.
Again, this is early-season campaigning, so no real surprise that vagueness was in vogue, especially the pledges to interpret the Constitution as the framers did. I mean, did the framers intend to set it in stone? Was it meant to evolve along with the country? Are any of these folks constitutional scholars or lawyers?
(Also, as a somewhat-related aside, it's hard to take seriously those who argue for strict constitutional interpretation -- which classically means granting as much personal liberty and as little government power as possible -- and who also support constitutional amendments to limit marriage to heterosexual couples and prohibit flag-burning, amendments several of the candidates said they'd support.)
Furthermore, many answers seemed to be based on presuppositions rather than keen policy observation. Again, this is no surprise in the world of modern politics, and it plays in Peoria, but it means many answers should be taken with a grain of salt. Especially those heaping blame for the recession on the current crop of Democrats. The causes of the Great Recession are pretty complicated, and Republicans and their policies deserve at least as much, perhaps more, of the blame as the Democrats. (In fact, both parties have been complicit in the fleecing of America's middle class.)
One other thing that was notable -- candidates were most effective when they tapped into the populist discontent that many Americans, including yours truly, are feeling at the moment.
Many people are angry with bankers and Captains of Industry who, right after plunging the country into financial chaos and getting the taxpayers to get their companies off the hook, proceeded to pretend they weren't responsible and reward themselves with more lavish bonuses. The politicians who approved those bailouts -- rightly or wrongly -- are also taking a lot of heat for "rewarding" financial irresponsibility, letting the Captains take the profits and letting the taxpayers take the losses.
This is a sentiment that reaches across party lines. In fact, I'd bet that assertions against private and government entanglement would draw cheers from a progressive audience just as easily as it did from the mostly conservative one Monday night.
If the Republicans are to make significant gains in this midterm election -- and swing the dead-neutral 11th Congressional District back into GOP hands -- they'll have to tap into this sentiment and let it carry them through the fall.