Sen. Orrin Hatch is getting hammered for agreeing to just one post-convention debate with Republican primary challenger Dan Liljenquist, especially because Hatch wanted as many debates as possible when he was the challenger instead of the incumbent in 1976.
But debates would be fruitless for Hatch or any Republican incumbent in today's tea-party political environment. The incumbents could not say anything to defend their records in an arena that has taken such a dramatic shift to the right in just the past couple of years, even though the past votes that would hurt them today were considered the right thing to do at the time.
If Ronald Reagan were running today on his record as president and governor of California, he would be labeled as a traitor, a liberal, a RINO (Republican in name only), and probably wouldn't be able to survive a Republican convention ballot.
Yes, that Ronald Reagan, the one whose name is evoked reverently by modern-day conservatives who say they want to bring back the policies of Ronald Reagan.
Today's conservative politicians hate any hint of a tax increase. They hate deficit spending and say they won't tolerate it any more. They scream "amnesty" at any proposal on illegal immigration short of strict enforcement and deportation.
Yet their hero raised taxes several times during his eight years in office. He cut taxes, too, but his broadening of the tax base, tinkering with payroll taxes and cutting loopholes pretty much offset the tax decreases he proposed. Bills he signed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history, according to tax historian Joseph Thorndike.
During Reagan's eight-year tenure, the public debt rose from 26 percent of GDP to 41 percent of GDP. In dollar terms, Reagan increased the national debt three-fold from $712 billion in 1980 to nearly $2.1 trillion in 1988.
He also signed the bill in 1986 that gave amnesty to 3 million immigrants in the country illegally, explaining: "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally."
Oh, and when Reagan was governor of California, he signed the most liberal pro-abortion bill in pre-Roe vs. Wade America.
Those are all deadly sins in today's Republican Party. Yet Reagan is their patron saint.
Conservative politics today is driven by fiery libertarian rhetoric with no substance to back it up.
Reagan's policies, historians say, led to the second longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history, surpassed in duration only by the 1990s expansion when Democrat Bill Clinton was president. So conservatives are right to be proud of him and hold him up as one of their heroes. But the policy decisions he made to get there would politically kill any Republican today.
Which brings us back to Hatch.
In a debate, he would be eviscerated for past actions that were broadly supported at the time, but have become unforgivable in the current climate, just like many of Reagan's actions would be.
Hatch's bipartisan efforts made it easier for generic drugs to enter the market, lowering the overall cost of medications for millions. His work with Ted Kennedy provided health care for millions of low-income children. He was instrumental in creating a fund to compensate downwind victims of nuclear testing in the 1950s.
If those things now are derided as liberal bleeding heart causes, Hatch also has been a longtime sponsor of a balanced budget amendment and is at least partially responsible for the confirmation of some of the most conservative judges in the country.
But that wouldn't matter in a debate in today's frenzied right-wing echo chamber. It's only the rhetoric that counts.