McCain unappealing as ever in debate
In my blog posting for yesterday, I asked "What's a libertarian/conservative supposed to do?" in terms of whether to support John McCain, if he's the eventual nominee, simply in order to avoid having President Hillary or President Barack.
In last night's Republican debate at the Reagan Library, McCain offered good reason to go with what I've said earlier on these pages: If John McCain is the GOP nominee, I'll vote Libertarian. While there are still more than 9 months to the election, plenty of time for McCain to try to change the minds of people like me, he took a giant step down the wrong path in last night's debate.
McCain's performance was a repetition of one note: That he's "proud of his conservative record", which, as far as I could tell extends as far as supporting the surge in Iraq. He also looked petty and foolish in his attacks on Mitt Romney who gave much more conservative, particularly fiscally conservative, Reagan-like answers and who seemed much more in touch with a wider range of issues than did McCain.
Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul were both understandably distressed with how little time they got to speak, but both gave the answers we've come to expect when they had the chance.
The following is a longer version of an article I submitted to Human Events about the debate. You can read the Human Events article, titled "Rudy Endorsed the Wrong Man" here:
The four remaining Republican candidates for president took part in their last debate before Super Tuesday, in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, in front of Reagan’s Air Force One. With the Gipper’s legendary rhetorical ability as well as his consistent adherence to true conservative principles, it’s hard to imagine the debate would have made him proud, particularly with regard to the GOP’s current front-runner, John McCain.
After a routine question about whether we are “better off than we were eight years ago”, to which each candidate gave an entirely predictable answer, a questioner from the LA Times then asked Mitt Romney whether John McCain was a mainstream conservative. Romney’s answer was a laundry list of the many issues which have conservatives uncertain at best about whether they would support McCain if he is the eventual nominee. Not only did Romney mention McCain’s initial opposition to the Bush tax cuts, but he also took on McCain’s positions on free speech, immigration, and energy policy by (accurately) naming the hyphenated bills for which McCain has allied himself with liberal Democrats: McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman.
McCain responded with his usual line of being “proud of (his) conservative record”, then fired off some economic criticism of Romney, almost all of which was effectively rebutted by Romney who told McCain twice that “facts are stubborn things”. Indeed, Romney’s retorts again made McCain look like he was willing to say things which are either highly misleading or outright false, much as he was accused of doing regarding Romney’s position on Iraq “timetables” at the end of last week.
An interesting moment was McCain’s naming some of the impressive economic advisers he has, including Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp, and saying “I will rely on people to judge me by the company I keep.” I could not help but infer that McCain would prefer people not judge him based on him.
All four candidates said they supported California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s right to impose stricter emissions standards in California. Huckabee had the best answer, saying that if the Governator was right, others would copy him. And if his plan failed, other states would recruit the jobs they lose in California. Along the same lines, regarding the McCain-Lieberman “cap and trade” proposal, McCain gave the worst answer, along the lines of Pascal’s Wager: “Suppose the governor and I are wrong and there is no such thing as climate change…then all we’ve done is give our kids a cleaner world.” Romney rightly attacked the plan as a massive tax increase on Americans and likely to cause energy-intensive industry to leave the United States for places without such plans, doing nothing for global climate change.
On the question of the stimulus plan, the LA Times questioner asked Mike Huckabee why he suggested using the money to widen Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida instead. Romney made Huckabee look rather silly by pointing out that infrastructure plans take years to implement whereas the stimulus plan is something aimed to be completed in six months. Huckabee made himself look even sillier by saying that his initial proposal was made when he was in Florida, so “today we might look at a western highway”. Ron Paul’s comment on infrastructure was a reprise of his usual line: “We have a foreign policy where we blow up bridges overseas. Then we tax the people to go over and rebuild the bridges overseas, and our bridges are falling down….We have a trillion dollar foreign operation to operate our empire.”
In a question about the current “mortgage crisis”, John McCain said he thought “efforts so far are laudable” but that there are “some greedy people on Wall Street who perhaps need to be punished”. He suggested that “we ought to adjust the mortgages of people who were eligible for better terms, but were somehow convinced” to get worse mortgages than they could have received. In other words, McCain remained true to his very tenuous grip on an understanding of the importance and value of free markets, and the danger of moral hazard.
Another constant for McCain was his general refusal to answer difficult questions about his record, such as why he opposed the Bush tax cuts initially. Instead, he said again that he was “proud of his conservative record” and of having been “a foot soldier of the Reagan revolution”. He also said that “lower- and middle-income Americans need more help…which is part of the reason we’re giving them rebates.” In other words, McCain gladly accepted the liberal turn of a tax rebate to a redistribution plan.
When Senator McCain went into his usual rhetoric about controlling spending (one of the few areas in which he and most conservatives agree), Romney emphasized that the majority of our budget problems come from entitlements, and noted that no (other) candidate is talking about addressing those programs.
On immigration, Romney emphasized “no amnesty” and said that what he found “so offensive” about the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill was the ability of all illegal aliens to stay here permanently with a $3,000 “Z-visa”. One of the most interesting questions and answers of the evening came when Senator McCain was asked whether he would vote for his own immigration bill if it came up for a vote now. He said multiple times that it wouldn’t come up for a vote, but, when pressed, quietly said that he would not vote for it because he “knows now that the American people want the border secured first.” Interesting that he somehow missed that fact earlier.
Mitt Romney was asked whether the Republican Party was better off than it was eight years ago, to which he responded that it wasn’t, but that it wasn’t primarily the fault of President Bush, whose agenda was diverted by 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. He noted that “even discretionary spending has gone up by more than inflation”. Romney had one of the better lines of the evening: “It’s important that we, as Republicans, stay in the House that Reagan Built. If we want to take the White House again, social, economic, and foreign policy conservatives have to come together.”
Bringing up the dispute of the last week, Romney was asked whether he had supported time tables for withdrawing from Iraq, Romney said that McCain’s assertion that Romney had done so was “a lie”…with McCain smiling uncomfortably in the next seat. Romney also called McCain’s timing of that assertion, just before the Florida primary, the type of “dirty trick that Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible.” Romney’s harsh words brought the loudest applause any candidate received during the evening. Strangely, even though media outlets across the political spectrum have backed up Romney’s position, McCain started his response with “Of course, he (Romney) said he wanted a timetable.” Then McCain described how he (McCain) was strongly supporting the surge while Romney said he “didn’t want to weigh in” because he was a governor. Romney interrupted McCain asking him “How is it that you’re the expert on my position?”, again getting loud applause. McCain’s persistence in the face of Romney’s convincing rebuttal and even the moderator’s implication that McCain was wrong earned McCain the only boos of the debate.
One of McCain’s few bright spots came when he replied to Romney’s charge of “old-style Washington politics” by noting that Romney has been the primary source of negative ads in the Republican contest so far, and saying to Romney of the millions of dollars Romney has spent on such ads “a lot of it is your own money. You’re free to do what you want to. You can spend it all. But the fact is that your negative ads, my friend, have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign.”
Congressman Ron Paul’s answer on Iraq was interesting and amusing. Paul said he finds the argument between McCain and Romney “rather silly, because they’re arguing technicalities of a policy they both agree with….We should be debating foreign policy, whether we should be intervening or not, whether we should be the world’s policeman or not….and you’re arguing about technicalities of who said what when?!?” Paul then went into his usual rant about the Iraq war being a mistake and unconstitutionally undeclared war, having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11, and bankrupting the country. Mike Huckabee said that we must leave as soon as we can, but with victory and with honor. McCain then made an important point that the question of how long we might have troops in Iraq must not be “about American presence, but about American casualties.”
John McCain was asked why he was better suited to manage the economy than Mitt Romney to which McCain gave a rather generic “because I’m a leader” answer and then proceeded to talk about his leadership in the war against Islamic extremism, rather than actually address the economic issue raised specifically by the question. He then emphasized his military record and his time as a POW, all of which was true but which did not answer the question. Romney, after saying that he respected McCain’s service to our country, noted that Americans tend to turn to governors rather than senators because governors as executives “are actually leading something. Senators and Congressman are fine people, but they’re legislators. They sit in committees. They’re committee chairs. And they call that leadership.” Romney then described his 25-year successful career in the private sector and turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics. “In order to have someone strengthen our economy, you’ve gotta have somebody who’s actually done some work in the private economy, who understands how it works.”
Turning the question around, Romney was asked why he would be better than McCain as Commander-in-Chief. Romney said that he didn’t believe you had to have served in the military to do a good job in that position, and that his leadership experience would serve him well. McCain attempted a ham-handed jab at Romney’s business when responding, mentioning that sometimes people lost their jobs when Romney bought and sold companies; Romney just laughed. Then McCain argued that this is not the time for on-the-job training and named the many military endorsements he has received, such as Norman Schwarzkopf.
Ron Paul gave another interesting answer to those questions, noting that “the constitution is very clear that the president is commander-in-chief of the military, but the president is not commander-in-chief of the economy or of the people”. He said the question shows “a lack of understanding” of the economy and the proper role of government. “We don’t want to manage the people and tell them how to live.”
Mike Huckabee emphasized his executive experience, also noting that “Washington doesn’t know how the states work, but the states know how Washington works”, mentioning unfunded mandates destroying states’ budgets. Huckabee also took a jab at legislators “who have the luxury of specializing in an issue” whereas governors “have to be able to handle on any given day several dozen different issues.”
The debate ended with the candidates being asked “Would Ronald Reagan endorse you, and if so, why?” Romney and McCain said “Yes”; Paul said “I don’t know”. Huckabee ended with a great line: “I’m not going to pretend he would endorse me. I wish he would…but I endorse him.”
Of those two candidates who believed Reagan would endorse them, Romney was the more convincing. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul got little time during the debate as most of the questions were about arguments between John McCain and Mitt Romney. To this viewer, Romney had a much better performance than McCain; indeed, had this debate happened just a few days earlier, I would not have been surprised to see Romney win Florida.
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