Is It Debatable?

My takes on last night’s GOP primary debate (I saw all but the very end).
-Short answer? The debate reinforced, rather than changed, my impression of each of the eight candidates on stage. Which is usually what these debates do, but there’s always the odd night when somebody really makes a good impression or shoots themself in the foot.
-Globally, the bad news for Mitt Romney is that this debate really did not do anything to alter the current dynamic, which started to set in as Michele Bachmann’s poll numbers began tanking (she’s now trailing Ron Paul in the RCP poll average) and is likely to remain true unless Sarah Palin jumps in the race: we’re headed for a two-man race without any real competition for Rick Perry from the right, and that’s a fight Romney can’t win. He needs conservatives divided while he solidifies the smaller wing of the party.
-Two notes on MSNBC, which really should not be hosting a GOP debate (Ben Domenech aptly compared this to having Derek Jeter questioned by an audience of Red Sox fans). One, I made some jokes at first on Twitter, but the more I thought about it, the more offended I was at the use of Jose Diaz-Balart from Telemundo, who was brought out to ask an immigration question and then politely told by Brian Williams to go away once the immigration discussion was over. It’s really offensive to treat a presumably legitimate journalist as if he’s only allowed to care about one issue because of his ethnicity. We have long since passed the point where black journalists like Bernard Shaw and Gwen Ifill are treated as able to question candidates on the full spectrum of issues – but MSNBC was unsubtly pushing the assumption, much beloved by Democrats, that this is the only issue of interest to Latino voters. (Rick Perry, who won about 38% of the Hispanic vote in 2010 in a state with a huge Latino population, intends to challenge that assumption.) MSNBC should be ashamed of its treatment of Diaz-Balart.
The other low point came when Brian Williams Williams’ co-moderator asked Perry to name his favorite climate scientist, as an appeal-to-authority argument against Perry on climate change. Think back to all the times Obama and other Democrats have made arguments about science (climate change, stem cells, nuclear power, SDI, etc.) – have you ever heard them asked to name the scientists they relied on? (Presumably by next time, Senator Jim Inhofe – one of the first major federal officials to endorse Perry – can have him prepared with the list of some 700 scientists who have signed Inhofe’s report critical of climate change theories). The issue in the climate change debate is the evidence, not the names of the scientists – blind faith in scientists isn’t faith in science, it’s the opposite of faith in science.
-The contrast between the three Governors (Perry, Romney and Huntsman) and the other candidates could not have been more evident – it was obvious that they came off as presidential in a way that the non-executives did not. Huntsman put in a solid performance, but unfortunately for him, it was in pursuit of an inherently doomed strategy of irritating and condescending to Republican primary voters (this is why RCP shows him in ninth place with only half of Santorum’s support and a third of Cain’s or Newt’s, eighth if you don’t count Palin, who gets polled despite not being a candidate). He’s only missing the big eyeglasses to be John Anderson.
-Relatedly, the three Governors are the only ones on the stage who have ever won a statewide election, and Romney’s one win was nine years ago, by a plurality against a hapless opponent. Experience in appealing to an un-gerrymandered electorate does matter.
-Perry’s goal in the debate, it being his maiden voyage in this race, had to be not so much to win the debate as to win by not losing, and he did that. He didn’t do anything scary or have any terrible gaffes, although he was definitely rusty at times compared to the other candidates, who have been at this for a while now. His most controversial moment, of course, will be his jeremiad against Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (which is definitionally true) and a “monstrous lie” to young workers, but that was also stylistically his high point – Perry was vigorous and passionate and even a little eloquent. Romney obviously hopes that Perry’s candor will sink him, but at the end of the day, my guess is that what will matter is not Perry’s diagnosis of the problem (as Moe Lane notes, Ron Johnson did just fine in 2010 running on a similar theme in Wisconsin) but the solutions he proposes, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Most of the other things Perry said that would turn people off are pretty much the standard things that cause Democrats to not vote for Republicans. Given Perry’s moderate record on immigration, he probably helped himself by openly challenging whether the President knows better than he does the state of the border areas in South Texas.
-Romney’s assault on Perry over Social Security (which, as was pointed out on Twitter, was an echo of George Romney’s criticisms of Barry Goldwater back in the day) is not without risks of its own. If Romney wins this race by using the Democrats’ “Mediscare” playbook (something Karl Rove has been doing already), he’ll have fatally compromised his ability in office to do anything about entitlements, which in turn seriously limits his options in taking on spending and debt. Also my guess is that the more he pushes back against having an adult conversation about entitlements, the more he guarantees that he won’t get the support of people like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, none of whom want to be in this race but all of whom have flirted with it precisely because they want that discussion to happen.
-Perry is, for better or for worse, running on his state. Romney is running against his.
-Bachmann and Cain are strong presences on stage, but they sounded like exactly what they are – a backbench legislator and a businessman/activist/talk radio host – rather than like serious presidential contenders. Bachmann’s best moment in the debate, chiding Romney for overlooking the extent to which repeal of Obamacare requires legislation, made her sound like a legislator – and then she compounded that by stressing her introduction of a bill that went nowhere, a reminder that while Bachmann is a spokeswoman for a faction of the party, she has no actual accomplishments to run on.
-Newt sounded like he was running for RNC Chairman, or at least Chairman Emeritus. He’s a wonderful debater, and has earned his status as one of the party’s elder statesmen, but at this point, escaping this race with his dignity intact seems to be his main goal. Newt 2012 in a nutshell came with his answer to a question about writing the forward to Perry’s book: “If he wants to write another book, I’ll write another forward.”
-I found it sort of amusing that both Newt and Santorum were touting the job-creation figures of the nation in the 90s, essentially running the campaign Al Gore refused to run in 2000, when he ran away from a Clinton third term to run as a business-bashing populist.
-Ron Paul sounded like a crazy old man with batty ideas who thinks the 80s were “a bad scene.” Bogus.
-Easily the night’s biggest loser was Rick Santorum, who just has no reason to be there, and it shows. Perry didn’t even pretend to know who Santorum was, referring to him at one point as “that other person.”
-Even if I never did love the guy as a candidate, I still kind of miss Tim Pawlenty. This interview with Colbert captures Pawlenty’s low-key, self-deprecating demeanor, which unfortunately is not what people want in presidential candidates these days. And if we were going to have people on the stage with no chance, it’s a shame one of them wasn’t John Bolton, who would have elevated the discussion on national security. But eight candidates is really too many anyway.

23 thoughts on “Is It Debatable?”

  1. Dan,
    Small quibble, I believe the other guy (Not Williams) asked the question about Perry and the scientist.

  2. “The debate reinforced, rather than changed, my impression of each of the eight candidates on stage. Which is usually what these debates do, but there’s always the odd night when somebody really makes a good impression or shoots themself in the foot.”
    I didn’t see the debate, and this sentiment is mainly why I’m not too motivated to watch them. The president of the US does not need to be a debating champion, and rarely do these things get in depth enough on policy issues that you actually learn anything new, and many times the candidates are evasive on the tough questions anyway.
    As you mention, there are times when someone says something inappropriate or appears completely unprepared. But if someone does completely drop the ball, it’s all over the next day’s news, and I can read about it there in about 10 seconds. Otherwise, most of the news analysis is on who “won” the debate, which is subjective and largely beside the point.
    Trotting out a Latino journalist just for immigration does sound pretty demeaning, no question about it.

  3. Crank, I know your not a fan, but your comment about Romney’s gubernatorial win was unfair. His win in a heavily liberal state was an impressive electoral accomplishment even if it was against a “hapless” opponent. How are Perry’s wins in heavily-Republican Texas more impressive?

  4. To actually comment on the content. I think it is really silly to have Cain, Santorum and Newt on the dais at this point. They don’t serve a purpose. They have no chance of doing anything. You could say the same for Huntsman and Paul, but at least they have a purpose, in that they provide some different perspective.
    I prefer Huntsman because I differ from Generally Accepted Republican thinking on a few issues (namely the religion vs science debates). However, your analysis is spot on, Huntsman is an elitist (which I don’t think is a bad word but an apt characteristic) and this primary seems like a rejection of elitism more than anything.
    Agree completely on Diaz. Why wasn’t he give a seat at the table? Latinos are an extremely important part of our future (and present). They should feel represented.

  5. I agree it was an impressive win like Scott Brown’s win, and thought so at the time (although of course it was the GOP’s fourth straight win for Beacon Hill). My point is that one relatively narrow win nine years ago in a state Romney could not have won in since then, and against a really terrible opponent, is not that much evidence on which to base the premise that Romney will appeal to a general electorate in 2011.

  6. Perry missed a chance to knock one out of the park when asked about the global warming fiasco. I was just waiting for Perry to mention the new study from CERN regarding cosmic activity and climate change. He was woefully unprepared (as were all the others on stage) – that would have been an epic response and would have flabbergasted that douche from politico.

  7. No doubt, Perry’s 39% of the vote to win the governor’s race in Texas was really impressive. You crapped on Clinton for not taking 50% of the vote. At least he got 40%.

  8. Way too early for candidates to declare let alone debates to be held.
    Who decides which candidates are viable enough to include in debates? Why Jon Hunstman in and Gary Johnson out? Why Rick Santorum in and Thad McCottter out? Why Herman Cain in and John Bolton excluded? Include everyone who has officially declared and subject to Federal Elections reporting requirements. As far as the complaint about the number on the stage I agree it’s too many for an effective debate. So what? Break the crowd into groups of 3 or 4 and hold multiple debates. More than 4 candidates results in time limits that require sound bites instead of substantial answers. I’m not a big fan of Gary Johnson, but he is a two term Republican governor and should get a chance to make his case. Thad McCotter may not have much name recognition, but he is very intelligent with a quick wit and would add something to the process. Before anyone responds that the folks I mentioned have no chance I would say that neither do Huntsman, Paul, Santorum, etc. We’re over 4 months from first primary, there is time for them to convince voters.

  9. You’d have a point if that four-way race was the only election Perry ever won. He won 58% in 2002 and 55% in 2010, plus 50% in the statewide Lt. Gov race in 1998, 62% in the statewide Ag Commissioner race in 1994. I don’t have the numbers handy but he also won a close race for Ag Commissioner in 1990. Obviously the question is how Perry plays outside Texas, but there’s no debate that he is a guy who knows how to win general elections.

  10. Well, Bolton announced yesterday that he’s officially not running.
    I agree that McCotter and Johnson are not really any more implausible than some of the folks onstage. McCotter’s a sitting and somewhat influential member of the House, and Johnson a two-term Gov, albeit a rather flaky one.

  11. Crank,
    Yes Perry won subsequent statewide elections, and Romney may not have (although I don’t think that is a given, he certainly would have struggled against a Patrick campaign that eerily foreshadowed the Obama campaign two years later), but Perry won with the wind at his back in a heavily Republican state. I’m not sure that the evidence that Romney can win general elections isn’t more impressive than Perry’s. That being said, I haven’t decided which candidate I will support yet, I don’t dislike Romney, but I’m not completely convinced yet either. I’m willing to consider Perry, but don’t know enough about him to be sure.

  12. This is a fabulous website — found you coming across my Twitter and checked like your topic so here I am!! I love your postings above on the debate. I agree 100% with your assessments.
    I will now be following you…..not that that is any big deal, it’s not like you’ll get a toaster or anything…..

  13. If you haven’t read Governor Rick Perry’s book “Fed Up” then do it sooner rather than later. It’s not intimidating – it’s easy to read and you’ll learn all the stuff about Federalism and the government that we should have been taught in the 4th grade.

  14. Except that you dished on Clinton who won multiple elections with over 50% of the vote in Arkansas (yes, he lost as well). The point is Perry got well less than the majority of the vote in Texas in his last go round which may speak more to what is his current appeal than what he did in 1990 (good lord, really?) I could give a rat’s ass who the GOP nominates. My point has been that your support of Perry seems to be based upon the utter crap fest the other “legitimate” candidates happen to be. Why Santorum is on the stage is a mystery. He’s a one issue gay basher who couldn’t win re-election in PA as a senator. Support Perry away but don’t gloss over the fact that he’s a sub-40%er last time out.

  15. Uh, jim, the 2010 election in which Perry got 55% of the vote, after defeating a sitting Senator by 20 points in the primary, was his last go-round. Not 2006.

  16. As for Santorum, while I agree that his resounding defeat in 2006 makes him a silly POTUS candidate, he’s never been a single-issue guy by any means, and was a member of the Senate majority leadership for a number of years. It’s just that the left-wing blogs focused only on his views on one issue.

  17. Right and wrong, Crank. Mis-spoke on the Perry 2006 v. 2010. Doesn’t change the fact that he got less than 40% of the vote which you have harshly disparaged other folks for.
    Second, Rick Santorum is a one note anti-gay guy. He’s a joke. Clearly, yes, he talks about other things but when the rubber hits the road he is a gay-basher with nothing else in the holster. He is a dis-service to public service and you should be embarrassed that he is a GOP POTUS candidate. There is a reason when you Google “Santorum” you get what you get. Good ridance to that freak.

  18. Your continued hatred and disregard for Paul (and concomitant love for the Fed) has frankly become kind of hilarious.

  19. I’d be shocked if I’ve written more than a sentence or two in favor of the Fed in the decade I’ve been writing this blog.
    I used to think Ron Paul served a useful purpose in Congress. I came to despise him in the last election primarily for his foreign policy/national security positions, and also the nasty stuff in his newsletters. But that stuff last night about using the border fence to keep Americans in was just daft.

  20. Romney this time around has done a fine job of acting Presidential and somewhat conservative, and if I didn’t know his record of flip-flopping and back-stabbing I’d favor him on the basis of his debate performances so far.
    Perry makes a great attack dog and counter-puncher but demonstrated both a lack of intellectual heft and a confused political philosophy. I wasn’t too thrilled about him before, and this performance hasn’t helped.
    Why anyone is impressed by Huntsman is beyond me. It doesn’t take a wealth of insight to detect a BS artist in action, filling the air with generalities, self-praise and snide remarks about his competitors.
    As for the others, particularly Santorum, if they ever were to get their chances at center stage and an equal share of meaningful questions our opinions of some of them might be higher. Besides, what’s this idea that homosexual activists are somehow above criticism?

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