Ronald Reagan successfully portrayed the Republican Party as the party of hope and optimism, as the party that created "morning in America."
But was that the party that was on display in St. Petersburg, Fla., Wednesday night at the Republican debate?
If you were a Martian and had watched the first 30 minutes of the debate, you would have thought that illegal immigration was the chief problem facing America, and that by sealing its borders America could end its woes.
One of those woes, by the way, is not a lack of affordable, dependable, effective health insurance that you can retain for life.
Americans must already have that. Because not a single question was asked about it in the entire two hour-plus debate.
In fact, much of the questioning was more like baiting than real inquiry.
There were two questions about guns, a question about whether every word of the Bible is true, and whether the Confederate battle flag "represents the symbol of racism, a symbol of political ideology, a symbol of Southern heritage or is it something completely different?"
Gosh, I am glad that we are getting to the really important stuff, what with the primaries starting so soon and all.
The serious issues directly affecting the daily lives of ordinary citizens were barely touched upon at all.
But, heck, people can always go online to find out about that stuff. This was television.
Since all debates produce winners and losers or at least the media insist that they do my impression was that Mike Huckabee and John McCain did the best by being the least mean.
Both Huckabee and McCain refused to be mean-spirited about immigration Ronald Reagan sure wasn't. And McCain admirably continues to stand up to those who believe torture is justifiable and effective. (As the only person on stage ever to have been tortured, he knows neither is true.)
Fred Thompson's performance reminded me of when Dr. Frankenstein looks up from the operating table and says: "It's alive!" We are just so surprised that Thompson can show animation that we don't really care what he says. If you can do well by not doing badly, then Thompson did well.
I thought Mitt Romney had a bad night. Time and time again, he came off as Mr. Mean. He was mean about immigration, mean about Huckabee, mean about Giuliani. This is not the Smiling Mitt we see on the stump. Do his handlers really think mean is better?
But the questioners were the real stars of the show. And not always in a good way.
Why did CNN choose a video in which the questioner chambers a round into a shotgun to threaten the presidential candidates answering on stage? Even though it was done in a mocking way, was it really funny?
Rudy Giuliani, who I thought had a pretty good night, said it was "reasonable" to deny guns to those with "a criminal background" and a "background of mental instability."
Fred Thompson said the Second Amendment "is not a choice thing," however, and he apparently believes the right of the people to keep and bear arms is absolute. So why can't citizens own machine guns? Or bazookas? Or mortars? They are all "arms."
If one gun question was not enough, there was this: "Any of you all want to tell us about your gun collection, roughly how many you own, what your favorite make, model and caliber is, if any of them require a tax stamp?"
McCain replied coolly: "For a long time I used a lot of guns, including carrying a .45 as a pilot flying in combat over Vietnam. I know how to use guns. I don't own one now."
Translation: Real men don't need guns to prove they are real men.
From guns we went to the Bible, with a questioner who held one up and asked: "How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?"
But is it true that the answer to that question tells us "everything we need to know" about our potential presidents?
I don't think it does. But nobody challenged the premise of the question. Instead, those who answered fell all over each other to show how much they believe in the Bible. (Isn't the presidency a secular office, by the way? Did they change that?)
And then there were questions about the Confederate battle flag, whether Ron Paul believes there is a conspiracy to merge the United States with Canada and Mexico and the obligatory, wearisome Red Sox vs. Yankees question.
I don't want to suggest that there were no important questions. There were a few.
But, in general, the evening was meant to be politics as entertainment. Because that's what politics is, isn't it?