Thoughts on Thursday's debate
Thursday’s Fox News/Google-sponsored Republican debate showed us a couple of important things despite the overly-loud and overly-frequent clapping by the audience.
Here are some brief thoughts on the performance of each candidate, saving Rick Perry and Mitt Romney for last, and otherwise going from screen left to right (from the viewer’s perspective):
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson will submit a balanced budget if elected president, as he told us in answer to every question. I admire his fiscal discipline, but nobody who proposes an instant 43% cut in defense spending is a credible candidate, and that would even apply to a Democrat. Despite living up to his reputation of having roughly the same stage presence as a cardboard box, Johnson had the best line of the night when he said that his “neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration", but the line had been on the radio earlier in the day. Gotta give him credit for using it, but not for writing it.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has been consistently good in these debates and he was last night as well, getting particular applause from the audience when he took on Rick Perry over the issue of illegal immigration. Santorum also had an interesting exchange with Jon Huntsman over whether we should be pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan; I scored that back-and-forth a draw. Santorum also got loud, persistent applause when replying to a video question from a gay soldier in Iraq about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Santorum’s answer is that he would re-institute that policy, though would not expel from the military any gay soldier whose sexual preference was made known while the current policy is in place. The crowd probably liked this answer better than any other by any candidate during the evening. Santorum is still too much of a moralizer for my tastes, but he is no doubt a smart guy.
Newt Gingrich was as wise as always, and less caustic than usual. He probably remains unelectable because of his personality and personal life. His references to how he actually did balance the federal budget always make me wish we had more talent in our government, not just in the White House, but even among Congressional Republicans. As usual he was the smartest guy on the stage, and as usual it probably doesn’t matter.
Ron Paul was, like Gingrich, predictable in his answers but less caustic than usual. He gave a few good answers, including arguing that abortion and “morning-after pill” policy should be determined and implemented at the state level. It was really the evening’s only question on the issue, and it was more about that pill than about abortion by the time Ron Paul was done answering it. Paul was also, as usual, solid on the 10th Amendment. Nevertheless, Ron Paul remains, for me, disqualified from the presidency for his view that we should have told Pakistan before getting Osama bin Laden and his view that Iran wants a nuclear weapon primarily for its own national self-esteem. Ron Paul is lucky that he didn’t get a question about Israel or he would have been booed off the stage.
Michele Bachmann didn’t get as many questions as usual. She was good enough in her answers, though often had a hard-to-describe look on her face, almost like she had just sucked a lemon. She was briefly on the defensive regarding her statement that linked a vaccine to mental retardation. Bachmann’s answer, which was technically correct if not really satisfying, is that she was directly quoting what someone else said to her, not making that charge herself. But that’s close to a distinction without a difference and it has done much to feed into the reputation of someone whose brain is not always engaged before her mouth is. Early in the debate, Bachmann gave a decent answer to the prior debate’s question of what percentage of a person’s earnings a person deserves to keep. Overall, I thought Bachmann had a less relevant and less visible performance than usual.
Herman Cain had a great night. If he had a chance, you might call him the winner. He had solid answers (even though I’m very wary of his 9/9/9 plan because it implements a national sales tax without eliminating the income tax). His answer that he would eliminate the current EPA and start over was in the top three most-applauded answers of the night. And we learned that he was a survivor of stage 4 liver and colon cancer. While Cain’s claim that he would be dead under Obamacare is probably over the top, I found it interesting that I didn’t know that part of history already. And clearly the audience didn’t know either. The point being that he hasn’t made an issue of it trying to get sympathy. And I think that’s part of the reason the audience reacted with such applause. Cain also came across consistently as having a sense of humor, almost always a little smile on his face, and just seemed likeable. Again, I think he’s our next secretary of Commerce.
Jon Huntsman had a better night than usual though I still find him annoying, patrician, and condescending. His back-and-forth with Rick Santorum over troop withdrawal highlighted a real debate within the Republican Party, and Huntsman held is own in that discussion. He spends too much time saying that “our core is broken". I continue to believe that overstates the case, and that it’s our president who is our problem, not a fundamental weakness with the American people or our principles. Huntsman was fairly strong when it came to the issue of job creation; it doesn’t hurt that the Wall Street Journal has endorsed his tax plan. Huntsman has had a small jump in his New Hampshire poll numbers, but they remain all but irrelevant, at about 10% versus 41% for Mitt Romney. At the end of the day, Huntsman strikes me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, as not a committed conservative, though his record in Utah is solid. It’s hard to know with this guy, and that’s part of what scares me.
Now to the main event: Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney. Thursday night it was no contest.
People from Texas whom I’ve spoken to have consistently said that while they don’t dislike Perry, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. With every debate, that has been proven clearer to me, with Thursday night the most egregious example of Perry’s intellect simply not being at the level of others on the stage. It’s no coincidence that Perry’s poll numbers have fallen after each prior debate, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mitt Romney recover the lead in various GOP polls over the next several days following Perry’s disastrous performance.
To be sure, Perry was being attacked from across the stage, though it seemed less than in the prior debate. His problem was two-fold: His answers were mediocre and stumbling, and his attacks on Mitt Romney were deftly thwarted by just two words from Romney: “Nice try.”
Perry has a huge problem on the issue of illegal immigration. He is credible when it comes to the issue of border security, but his opponents talking points on “bi-national health insurance” and subsidizing Texas’ public universities for illegal alien residents of Texas are devastating. Yesterday was the first I had heard of the bi-national health insurance thing, and based on a little bit of reading it seems like a reasonable idea – basically allowing private insurance policies to cover treatments in either country, which could be very useful for people who live on one side of the border and work on the other, of whom there are many in southern Texas. Nevertheless, just the term “bi-national health insurance” will sound terrible to many GOP primary voters who won’t dig any further into what it means.
And that’s the defensible one. Subsidizing education for illegal aliens, even if they were brought here by their parents, is bad policy. It is a magnet for illegals with children to move to Texas. Furthermore – and I can’t believe that two debates in a row no other candidate has mentioned this – an illegal with a college degree is still an illegal, and not permitted to work here. So until our immigration or work visa system were to change to allow that person to work here, the argument for providing a subsidized education to him or her is extremely weak. Perry also made a huge mistake by saying that people who do not support his efforts to help these illegals are “heartless.”
Conservatives are rightly sick and tired of being called things like heartless, much less by a Republican presidential hopeful. After all, it’s the left’s oh-so-heartfelt policies which have sentenced large segments of America to poverty through the chain of the welfare state. That single statement may eventually be looked back on as the death knell of Rick Perry’s campaign.
It’s also worth noting that Perry had the dumbest line of the night: When debating border control with Rick Santorum, in particular the question of a fence versus patrols, Perry said he would “put…the aviation assets on the ground.” I don’t think I need to explain to you why that’s such a poorly worded statement and made me think “moron” the moment he said it.
Perry and Romney went back and forth about what each of them has said or written in the past about Social Security and health care. While it’s hard to put a finger on it, it felt like Romney got the better of those two exchanges. The substance of the charges against each other was fairly similar, but one couldn’t help believing that Romney was probably right in what he said about Perry’s book, with Perry less certain to be right on the facts in his claims about Romney. Romney’s answers were quick, crisp, and confident, and he seemed usually to be looking at Perry when he spoke to him, a move which viewers would take (even if subconsciously) as the behavior of a confident person. Perry on the other hand seemed to have rambling, nearly incoherent answers, and rarely looked at Romney whether criticizing or responding to him. It was the pose of someone unsure of his own words, unsure whether he was in the same league as his competition.
Romney did a fairly good job, for the second time, convincing the audience that Romneycare is different from Obamacare, and that Romney firmly believes that his measure was a state solution only and is not appropriate to be implemented in any similar form at a federal level, in short that health care is not the province of the federal government. He also did something new (at least new to me) when he said that “Our plan in Massachusetts has some good parts, some bad parts, some things I’d change, some things I like about it.” Taking responsibility for a mistake is so different from anything our current president does that it probably struck a strong positive note with GOP voters even while he was admitting a mistake.
Overall, it was Romney’s style that helped him as much as the substance of his answers. He was distinctly presidential, and it was a sharp contrast to the dark and often downward-looking Rick Perry, who looked and sounded overwhelmed. And on the substance, Romney dealt with criticism very well, not just from Perry, but parrying a question from Fox’s Bret Baier about the Wall Street Journal’s criticism of Romney’s tax plan as timid. And indeed it is timid, and Romney stuck with it, arguing for tax cuts for interest, dividends, and capital gains, for people earning under $200,000 a year. This is, at least at where he places the dividing line, something too close to what we might hear from President Obama and plays too much into the left’s class warfare rhetoric, offering comfort to the enemy.
It is part of Romney’s obvious strategy to avoid moving too far to the right to win the primary and then have to swing hard to the middle for the general election. He’s going to play this as close to the middle as possible from the beginning, hoping that he’s conservative enough and perceived as electable enough to win the nomination, leaving him in a position where it’s slightly harder for Barack Obama to call him a right-wing nut or accuse him of flip-flopping (as Romney is already vulnerable on that charge.) Also, Romney probably knows that if his policy actually gets to a Republican-controlled House (and likely Republican-controlled Senate), that they would strip out that threshold and allow him to sign a bill that offers tax relief to everyone, which is to say to include the people who pay the majority of income taxes in America.
Among the people who can’t win the nomination, Herman Cain was probably the debate winner. But there is no doubt that the real winner of Thursday’s debate was Mitt Romney and the real loser was Rick Perry.
In political betting at Intrade.com for who will be the Republican nominee, Rick Perry has dropped more than 5% in the last 24 hours, from nearly 36% to just over 30%, his lowest betting odds since officially entering the race. During that same 24 hour period, Mitt Romney has gone from trading just over 38% to about 41%. This represents a new betting high for Romney, and obviously the biggest gap between the two candidates of the whole campaign. Yes, it is very early, but as we say in the trading business “the trend is your friend” and as of today you’d certainly rather be Mitt Romney than Rick Perry when it comes to achieving your political aspirations.
[UPDATE: As of mid-day Friday, Romney is trading near 44% and Perry is down to 28%. It’s sort of funny that the biggest post-election betting gainer other than Romney is Chris Christie, who I really don’t think is even slightly considering running, and who is now trading 5%. It’s also amusing that the third and fourth place positions in the betting for the GOP nominee are held by people who are not in the race, with Sarah Palin at about 7%, just ahead of Christie. Jon Huntsman is in 5th place at 4.5%, and Michele Bachmann is melting away, now below 2%.]
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