WASHINGTON — Wednesday's Republican "debate" in California will not resemble the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other responded for 90 minutes, and his opponent had 30 minutes for rebuttal. Still, today's debates ("What is the meaning of life? You have 30 seconds"; "One word answer, please: Keynes or Hayek?") can illuminate. So, some questions.
For Mitt Romney: One day recently you said, "I'm not for tax cuts for the rich. … I want to make sure that whatever we do in the tax code, we're not giving a windfall to the very wealthy." The next day you said you support the Bush tax rates. Would making the Bush rates permanent constitute a tax cut? Who is "rich" or "very wealthy"? Does allowing people who make lots of money to keep lots of it constitute a "windfall"? In 1996, you called a 17 percent flat tax "a tax cut for fat cats." Have you always used epithets like "fat cats"? What annual income or net worth defines "fat cat"? Are you one? Should economically successful Americans generally be stigmatized?
For Rick Perry: As an American anomaly — a hard money populist; the opposite of William Jennings Bryan — you fault the Federal Reserve for the promiscuous printing of money. It has indeed essentially promised a fourth and fifth year of very low interest rates. But someone or something must control the money supply. Should the Fed be independent? Of what? Is it not a creature of Congress, which could set the money supply? But would not Congress constantly dictate low interest rates? Would you solve the problems inherent in fiat money by returning to the gold standard?
In Texas, you supported a state version of the DREAM Act, giving in-state university tuition discounts to illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools, saying it would be unfair "to punish these young Texans for their parents' actions." By what logic is this right for Texas but wrong for the nation?
The 11 million illegal immigrants could fill a line of buses extending, bumper to bumper, from San Diego to Alaska. Which would be worse, some form of amnesty or the police measures that would be necessary to fill those buses?
Your Texas Emerging Technology Fund is, essentially, a government-financed venture capital operation to nurture infant tech industries and to lure some to the state. How do you square this form of industrial policy — government picking winners — with governmental minimalism?
For Michele Bachmann: You say that under President Bachmann gasoline will cost less than $2 a gallon. How? Will increased domestic drilling and oil shale production quickly and dramatically increase oil supplies and somehow sever the price of American oil from the world market price? Should politicians promise particular prices for global commodities?
After misidentifying New Hampshire as the state where "the shot heard 'round the world" was fired, and misidentifying John Wayne's Iowa birthplace, in South Carolina you misidentified Aug. 16, the day Elvis died, as his birthday. Incompetent staffers are feeding you false information. Has anyone been fired? Do you believe that when there is no punishment for failure, failures multiply?
For Jon Huntsman: You, who preen about having cornered the market on good manners, recently tweeted, "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." Call you sarcastic. In the 1970s, would you have trusted scientists predicting calamity from global cooling? Are scientists a cohort without a sociology — uniquely homogenous and unanimous, without factions or interests and impervious to peer pressures or the agendas of funding agencies? Are the hundreds of scientists who are skeptical that human activities are increasing global temperatures not really scientists?
Your chief strategist, John Weaver, says the "simple reason" the GOP is "nowhere near being a national governing party" is that "no one wants to be around a bunch of cranks." Do you share your employee's disdain for the party? Although you say the country is "crying out" for a "sensible middle ground," you have campaigned for three months on what you say is that ground and, according to the most recent Gallup poll, your support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents is 1 percent. Are the other 99 percent cranks? Should the cranks be cranky when the Democratic National Committee distributes your attacks on Republicans under the headline "Don't Take Our Word For It"?
For all candidates: Raise your hand if you believe string theory explains the origin and nature of the universe.
George Will's email address is email@example.com.