We tweaked the president the other day for so often expressing optimism when it turns out none is warranted. If last night's CNN/YouTube debate is any indication, the Republicans who would succeed him suffer from exactly the opposite problem.
The word of the day is "scared."
Maybe it's the questions CNN selected: Again and again, we saw slightly creepy folks in badly lighted videos asking questions rooted in fear. It was supposed to be Peoria talking, but it seemed more like Paranoia. In two videos -- only one involving a cartoon character -- questioners brandished weapons. A kid with a Confederate flag in what looked to be his bedroom demanded to know what the Stars and Bars meant to the candidates. Joseph from Dallas insisted on knowing whether the candidates believe that every word of the Bible is true, then almost literally rammed the Good Book in their faces.
Were these people for real? Or were they sendups, liberals with webcams acting out their own paranoid parodies of the right-wing fringe?
Honestly, it was sometimes hard to tell.
The candidates? We're pretty sure they were serious. There was no "morning in America" for this bunch. There was no "pony in there somewhere." The plain blue rug on which they stood definitely didn't say "optimistic person comes to work." Indeed, the word "optimistic" was mentioned about as often as the word "Bush," which is to say, pretty much never.
At one point, we tried to make a list of all the things the candidates fear:
Illegal aliens. Illegal aliens at Mitt Romney's house. Having to check whether your painter or roofer has hired illegal aliens. Illegal aliens who want to cut in line. Amnesty for illegal aliens. "Special deals" for illegal aliens. Aliens -- legal and illegal both -- who make it "difficult for us to assimilate" and "take jobs" from the Americans already here.
The Council on Foreign Relations -- hello, Ron Paul! -- and the Trilateral Commission and the European Union and a NAFTA highway and international government.
Out-of-control spending. A tax on cigarettes. The costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Department of Education. The IRS. "Most people in this country are more afraid of an audit than they are of a mugging, and there's a reason why," Mike Huckabee explained.
Isolationism. Defeatism. Appeasement. Another World War II coming out of Iraq. Hitler! Taxes. Tax increases. Having to make a pledge not to veto tax increases. A world without farm subsidies. Not having a "secure source of food." Hillary Clinton.
When Anderson Cooper asked Rudy Giuliani why obscure city agencies were forced to pay for his security detail while he visited his mistress in the Hamptons -- Cooper left out the mistress part -- Giuliani said he needed security as mayor because people were after him. "There were, you know, threats, threats that I don't generally talk about," he said. "Some have become public recently; most of them haven't."
Oh, yes, there were threats: Hillary Clinton again. China. China selling us poisonous toys. China buying weapons. Immigrants again, only this time maybe they're from China?
"You should never throw a gun to a person," Duncan Hunter warned; then he said that the "right to keep and bear arms is an important element of community security, home security, and national security. I think it is a tradition of the American soldier ... It is also a large part [of] family tradition."
Mitt Romney said his son buys guns.
"I own a couple of guns," Fred Thompson said, "but I'm not going to tell you what they are or where they are."
Murder, burglary and "one other category of violent crime," Giuliani said. Abortionists. Thompson said that overturning Roe v. Wade "should be our No. 1 focus right now."
Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorists. The Democrats. Withdrawal. Surrender. Muslims and others who are insufficiently grateful for all the United States has done for them. Romney said he wouldn't close Guantánamo because he doesn't want "people that are carrying out attacks on this country to be brought into our jail system and be given legal representation in this country."
The ACLU. Islamic terrorists again. "They would like nothing better than to kill millions of people as they bring us down," Thompson explained.
Iran. Expensive oil. "A scenario of defeat." Another Vietnam. Not another Vietnam. "After we left Vietnam, they didn't want to follow us home," John McCain explained. "If you read Zarqawi, if you read bin Laden, if you read Zawahiri, read what they say. They want to follow us home. They want Iraq to be a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks against the United States. Their ultimate destination is not Iraq. Their ultimate destination is New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Phoenix, Arizona."
"We are living in a world where we are threatened," Tom Tancredo said. "It is radical Islam."
Judges who would outlaw religion. Homosexuals who would serve in the military. "We're in the middle of a war," Romney explained. Yes, Hunter said, and "most kids who leave that breakfast table and go out and serve in the military and make that corporate decision with their family, most of them are conservatives" with "conservative values ... Judeo-Christian values," and they shouldn't be forced to serve with homosexuals.
The "entitlement tsunami." "We also face tough new competition coming from Asia," Romney said. "We face global jihad, which we just talked about very briefly. We face a whole series of extraordinary problems -- overuse of oil, entitlement is out of control."
Hillary Clinton. John Edwards. Two Americas. Bridges we're blowing up overseas. Bridges that are falling down at home. Bridges to nowhere.
Throughout the grueling and ghoulish two hours, Huckabee was the only one who came off as even halfway hopeful. He talked about the importance of education, about not punishing kids for the sins of their parents. And when Joseph from Dallas asked about the Bible, the new man from Hope was sunny enough to pick out the nice parts: "'Love your neighbor as yourself,' and 'As much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me,'" Huckabee said. "Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated. And as the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their God is too small."
As soon as Huckabee finished speaking, Cooper cued a 30-second video from the Romney campaign: "It's an election like no other," it began. "An enemy lurks, waiting to strike. Our Main Street economy is competing with mainland China. Legal versus illegal doesn't seem to matter. Basic values like marriage are suddenly open to debate. For these challenges, ordinary isn't good enough."