Opinion

The GOP presidential field is four times larger than the Democrats' — and four times as boring

It ain't a debate if everyone agrees

What if 16 candidates showed up and a debate didn't break out? The Republican 2016 field is well-stocked with warm bodies, but the number of ideas between them is actually shrinking as we approach the first debates and primaries. It's almost boring.

On immigration, the Republicans are in agreement, even when disagreement might profit one of them. All of them want some kind of increased border security, and a path to citizenship for some large number of illegal immigrants still living in the country. There's only debate about finer details and which candidate has credibility on the issue. Even Donald Trump's immigration policy ideas fit within the consensus. The only difference is that he expresses his views with contempt.

On foreign policy, each candidate has attacked the deal President Obama made with Iran. They debate the 'tone' of their own rhetoric instead. Foreign policy is precisely where candidates could draw contrasts. Rand Paul was elected to the Senate as a major critic of Bush-era foreign policy and his own party's hawkishness. But whenever a live foreign policy issue comes up, like the nuclear deal, or the rise of ISIS, he temporizes. He could make a strong case that Obama has been promiscuous and reckless in the use of U.S. military force, but instead he sidesteps into the GOP consensus that Obama is somehow weak-willed.

Paul isn't the only candidate emphasizing points of agreement, to the detriment of providing a distinct rationale for his campaign. Rick Santorum could be emphasizing his unique interest in pocketbook issues for the lower-middle class, the kind of voters the GOP would love to find in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. Instead all of his recent headlines have been about foreign policy. Sample: "Santorum: 'Governor Huckabee is absolutely right [on Iran].'"

Speaking of Huckabee, he could be talking up his suspicious views of free trade or his disagreements with the Wall Street wing of the party. But like Santorum, he's making headlines for his overheated analogies on foreign policy.

On social issues, there are only differences of intensity. Jeb Bush promises to stand with the Little Sisters against Big Brother. The only real outlier here is former New York governor and farmer George Pataki, who has always been pro-choice. But even he would support the Hyde Amendment, which forbids federal funding of abortion.

There isn't even a signature gimmick policy of the campaign, something along the lines of Herman Cain's attention-grabbing 9-9-9 tax plan. The Republicans share the same diagnosis of the country's political problems, the same general principles for solving them, and to a large degree share the same style of outlining them. (Trump excepted.)

Meanwhile, the Democratic side of the debate, though dominated by a single figure and joined by fewer candidates, has real contrasts and interest.

Hillary Clinton feels like a poll-tested, consultant-class candidate. But her challengers do voters the service of disagreeing with her. Bernie Sanders is an unapologetic American-style socialist, a real political idealist who wants to change the political economy of his nation. He's for a single-payer health care system. He strongly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal on which Clinton has been cagey. And yet, historically he has been a firm supporter of gun rights.

Jim Webb is an honest-to-goodness conservative Southern Democrat with populist views on the Confederate flag and real military experience. He also does the field a service by giving Hillary Clinton some strong disagreement on foreign policy issues, particularly her support for America's war in Libya in 2011.

Martin O'Malley complains about Clinton's fealty to Wall Street, and promises to reintroduce Glass-Stegall laws that the last Clinton presidency ended. He hints at a plan for abolishing the electoral college. He attacks her on the Keystone Pipeline.

Yes, Democrats have their orthodoxies, too, particularly on social issues. But left-leaning voters at least have a choice among different visions for their nation, different assessments of the national needs.

The Republicans have an ever-growing number of candidates saying the same thing: The problem with the country is the Democratic Party and the solution is conservatism. Expect the most frequent three-word response at the first Republican debate to be: "I agree with...”

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