So voters in primaries are more enthusiastic and more principled than those in general elections (because the turnout is smaller and those who really care show up). That's even more the case in caucuses and more so still in straw polls. These facts explain why last night's Republican debate was all about candidates who could stay in character when defending their principles. That's why Michele Bachmann said time and again that what she did (almost always in defeat) was the right thing to do. And that's why she decimated poor Tim Pawlenty, when he tried to brag that he was a guy who was less about principles than results. (Poor Pawlenty has yet to do well in a debate, although he might well be the strongest available candidate in the general election. He also seems to have been a fairly able governor.)
Michele was strong on individual mandates in health-care coverage being unconstitutional, and so very much the wrong thing to do. Romney's attempt to explain why they might have been the right thing to do in Massachusetts seemed somewhat reasonable but finally kind of lame. And his attempt to explain that the 10th Amendment plus the Massachusetts constitution gave his state the right to experiment was emphatically shot down by Bachmann. In general, states rights and localism had a surprisingly bad night. The idea that the welfare state itself is unconstitutional was a fairly strong subtext.
All of the candidates agreed that tax increases were never the ticket--even if some compromise included a dollar's worth of cuts for every dime of tax increases. Tax increases are never the right thing to do. Michele did admit she once voted for some increase in the cigarette tax as a member of the Minnesota legislature, but only because the bill included some protection for the unborn. She very authentically and admirably explained that LIFE trumps MONEY. That still doesn't mean that raising taxes was actually right. (Pawlenty spend precious time apologizing for the ill-considered--yet surely insignificant--cigarette tax.)
So Michele is no consistent libertarian; her doctrine of freedom has a moral dimension. It is pro-life, pro-marriage, and actually sort of prudent when it comes to our foreign policy interventions. But in general she believes that the most prudent policy is to put principle first, and no candidate really was able to score points against her for that view.
(Michele's one moment of inauthenticity was in response to a question on her Christian worldview: She was reminded that she had said she had made a career decision against her own inclination but in (Biblical) submission to her husband. She was asked whether this principle of submission would govern her decision-making as president. Her response was that "submission," for her, really means "respect," which really evaded the issue embodied in the question. Admittedly, it was quite a disrespectful question.)
There were two other candidates who, in a way, were even more authentic than she was. Michele's principled position is that of the TEA PARTIERS that might well dominate the Iowa caucus and even Republican primaries. The other two have chosen principle over victory.
Ron Paul was the consistent libertarian. So he's very anti-militaristic and anti-interventionist, more about bringing the troops home than even George McGovern was. Let's just leave other countries alone! And it turns out he even wants to get government out of the marriage business. Let people just do what they want to! If they want to get married, let them go the voluntary associations called the churches. Paul was accused of being okay with pro-polygamy laws. He did seem to say that states have the leeway under the Constitution to pass such laws. But his preferred solution is to privatize marriage, and so to let, for example, polygamy be a private matter. Ron has carved out a niche for himself that might lead to a victory in the crowded Iowa straw vote field and maybe (well, probably not) in the Iowa caucus. But his kind of authenticity won't lead him to the nomination.
And then there's Rick Santorum, who whined he wasn't getting enough air time. Well, he got enough to make it clear that he's the candidate who's still for the George W. Bush freedom agenda, just as he's the candidate most alive to the "existential threat" posed by Iran. More generally, he made it clear that he's the candidate most about defending America's moral view of freedom everywhere. So he reminded us about how much rights-violating (including, he said, against gays) is going on in Afghanistan and that it's "the 10th Amendment run amok" to think that we don't need a consitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage as between one man and one woman. He also very tough and clear on the pro-life position being all about the protection of the rights of innocent life. Rick also ain't getting the nomination, but his performance in the debate might get him more notice. (He also deserves notice, of course, as the candidate who had the guts to say that Michele's position on the debt ceiling is mere showboating--a principle that, if consistently implemented, would have disastrous results.)
Comparatively speaking, Romney and Huntsman, by trying to be CEO/statesmen, and simply all about growth, looked weak and flip-floppy. That isn't to say they were really wrong. It's ridiculous to say, for example, that the debt ceiling never should be raised, and the principled candidates never seriously addressed the health-care issue. Bachmann never specified what really big-time cuts she would be for to balance the budget--or what really, really big-time cuts would be required right now not to exceed the debt ceiling without raising taxes. Paul, we know, would cut everything to free us up as individuals, but we don't really take him seriously as a possible president.
In my opinion, Americans are still looking for candor and prudence when it comes to what we have to do over the next generation to reform and in some ways trim our entitlement programs. Neither the president nor his current challengers are getting that job done.
Newt, by the way, had a good, constitutional moment: He slammed the new supercommittee as subverting the legislative process in a way that couldn't and shouldn't work.