Is America In Decline -- Debate Reveals Deep Hunger for Leadership

People watch debates, especially the foreign policy debates, like they watch reality TV – to see who screws up and gets voted off the island. The big story of the latest foreign policy debate was that no one did. All the candidates have done their homework and it showed. Everyone had a moment to shine, even those who’ve had bloopers in the past. And so they get to stay on the show for another week.

None of them "won" or "lost" and they’re all getting better it debating. Come the election season, anyone of them will fare well against Obama because the dirty little secret is that while Obama may deliver a great TelePrompter speech, he’s a lousy debater.

The big picture story is the nature of primary campaigning has changed, probably forever. In years past candidates ran state-by-state campaigns. They raised money, built ground teams, and camped out in the early primary states. If they won, donors sent in checks and the candidate could on going to the next primary state. If not, he had to quit. No money, no campaign. No ground game, no votes.

This time around retail campaigning, has given way to America’s newest reality TV series, the weekly Republican debates. Because candidates have to be sharp and well-rested or risk ridicule on "Saturday Night Live," they’ve not had much time for chicken dinners in Iowa or diners in New Hampshire. Instead they’re running national campaigns by going on Fox News Channel and showing up at the debates. They’re reaching far more voters on national TV than they could at the pancake house in Cedar Falls. Which also means they don’t have to raise tons of cash. And that levels the playing field -- all a candidate needs is a plane ticket and a hotel room and snappy debate performance. Will this translate to votes in the states? We won’t know if this strategy works until the primary states head to the polls starting in a few weeks time

There are not a lot of foreign policy differences between the candidates – except for Ron Paul. Sure Romney and Huntsman disagree on Afghanistan. Perry and Bachmann disagree on immigration. Gingrich disagrees with everyone about amnesty.

The biggest contrast will be later, between Obama and the GOP standard bearer. They will disagree on issues like how to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, how to end the Afghan war, and defense cuts. But at the core, Americans want to know which candidate can restore America’s faith in itself.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009 America was the undisputed leader of the world. That’s no longer the case today. Friends no longer seek our advice, foes are willing to challenge us, and worst of all the American people no longer think we’re just going through a temporary bad patch, but that we’re in an inevitable and permanent decline.

President Obama is fond of saying we’ve never been through such perilous times. He’s wrong. We’ve been in far worse places before and survived and thrived. Think of Lincoln trying to hold the Union together by having to sacrifice 600,000 lives. Or FDR dealing with the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II. In spite of the crises they faced, they never doubted our ability to get through it and climb to even greater heights. And we knew they believed it, not just with pretty speeches but at the core of their beings, and so we believed it too. Lincoln talked about preserving the ‘last best hope of earth.’ FDR said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Reagan talked about that shining city on a hill.

Obama believes in global solutions, and that American exceptionalism is no different from British exceptionalism or Greek exceptionalism. He prefers to lead from behind and thinks America should just be one among many. He says the problem is we’ve become lazy. And because he doesn’t believe in us, we’ve started to doubt ourselves, too.

In the end this is the only issue that matters.

Most Americans believe deep in their hearts that we have something special here and we’re in danger of losing it. We think Washington is broken, and the country is on the wrong track. We can’t understand why there are no jobs, we’re looking for the candidate that can get us to believe in ourselves again, the one who believes deep in his heart that we are different from every other country in the history of the world; that we have been blessed by God and our founding principles like freedom and self reliance and equal rights have made us unique and exceptional.

But to believe it is not enough, we yearn for someone who can show us the way back. We’ve been here before, with President Carter. It took Ronald Reagan to get us to believe in ourselves again, and we went on to revive a stagnating economy and win the Cold War, and lead millions out from under the rule of dictators into freedom. We know who this generation’s Carter is, but where is our Reagan?

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.