Can we stop calling these curious cattle-calls among presidential candidates the TV news channels insist on broadcasting "debates"? Whatever it was that took place in the serene surroundings of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last night, it wasn't a debate, something most of us would understand to mean an exchange of political opinions designed to advance an argument about the nation's direction.

Heaven knows, Republicans need a debate. They need to have a serious discussion about what has gone wrong with their party in the last few years. They need to have a real debate about whether it is an excess of conservatism or a deficit that has caused their current crisis. They need to ponder what the 2006 debacle actually meant. Was it just the result of an unpopular war? A repudiation of a corrupt Republican party in congress? Or did it represent something more, something that might require a wholesale re-examination of the philosophical underpinnings that have held sway for the last 15 years or so?

No one is expecting a modern-day equivalent of Lincoln-Stephens. But you'd think that with such a long run-in until the first votes are cast in the presidential election, they'd have a chance to get some consideration of these issues. With ten or more candidates in the field it ought to be possible to make some headway and ensure a pretty broad range of views is represented.

But the show last night didn't even scratch the surface. As I watched it, and even more as I listened to the spinners in the spin room afterwards it became clear that none of the candidates was even remotely engaging in a real debate. They simply decided instead to talk past each other with lengthy recitations of talking points and stump speeches. Whether they were talking about the war, abortion, the Democrats, religion or anything else I don't believe anyone said anything that he had not already said dozens of times on the stump in the last few months. (Rudy Giuliani's one bright moment — his well-informed answer to the question about the difference between Shia and Sunni Moslems was about the only moment of real spontaneity.)

To some extent you can blame the format. The ten candidates standing in line looked like a string of untrustworthy hawkers selling their wares in a bazaar, not people really interested in an interchange.

You can also blame the ridiculous MSNBC operation that was responsible for last night's waste of time. The overbearing Chris Matthews once again succeeded in making his mark rather than letting the candidates make theirs.

Instead of asking genuinely searching questions about where Republicans need to go next, Mr Matthews chose to pursue his quixotic pet peeves . His questions betrayed his now familiar obsession with grand theories: silly forays into Karl Rove ("Would he serve in your White House?" - what kind of a question is that supposed to be?) and Scooter Libby ("Should he be pardoned?".)

The mainstream media so little understands conservatives that it tends to regard them all with the sort of mixture of fear and contempt you'd display towards a line up of mad dogs or hardened criminals. Debates among Republicans should surely be conducted by a proper moderator from outside the mainstream media who at least vaguely understands what the party's members are thinking. It was striking in fact that the most intelligent questions came from the members of the public, contributing to the Politico's website.

But you can't blame it all on the organizers and their overweening representatives.

The candidates themselves seem reluctant to have a real debate.

Not that they are not capable of it. In fact between them Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, have as much intellectual candlepower and real political experience as any set of leading candidates in either party in recent history.

Even the lower-tier candidates such as Ron Paul and Tommy Thompson can contribute to a thoughtful discussion of the party's future.

The problem seems to be an excess of caution. The Big Three know they are all, for different reasons, regarded with much suspicion by the party's conservatives. It's easier and avoids risk to refuse to consider the deeper problems and challenges the party faces.

But Republicans can't recover from their current funk unless they know what they really want to do with their government and their country. We didn't learn anything of value about that last night in California.