Thoughts On Last Night’s Debate

I thought Fox News put on a very good show last night. They kept things moving, they had excellent questioners in Chris Wallace, Shannon Bream, Juan Williams and Bret Baier, the candidates got put on the spot with tough questions but not the typical lefty-slanted “gotcha” stuff the Tom Brokaws and Judy Woodruffs have ruined previous Republican debates with and the tone of the thing was less pretentious than normal.

And what’s more, the fact that the Romneys, Huckabees, Trumps and Gingriches weren’t there was a plus, in my opinion. I’m going to say that the nominee is probably not going to come from that group anyway, and at this early stage the best thing for the Republican electorate is to be exposed to as many potential candidates and points of view as possible.

Which is precisely what we got last night. Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are as good a cross-section of Republican politics as you’ll see despite the fact that so far none of them have ascended into first-tier-candidate status. Paul and Johnson represent the hard-core libertarian wing of the party, Paul and Cain the Tea Party small-government/economic conservatives, Santorum the social conservatives and Pawlenty a little of everything. You could even call him the Establishment candidate, though that’s not completely fair.

And all five did manage to effectively articulate their points of view.

With that said, here’s one man’s ranking of how the five did last night.

5. Johnson – Just being on the stage in one of these debates is a win for Johnson, whose campaign is a long-shot affair without a real constituency within the GOP so long as Paul is in the race. He got some national airtime and a chance to make his case, and any time you can get that you’ll win some support.

The problem is that while Johnson got on TV, he also put out some positions that make him unelectable. Johnson is pro-choice, and you can’t win the Republican nomination as a pro-choice guy even though abortion won’t be the driving issue of this election cycle. Economics will be – but in a crowded field like this, Johnson won’t be the only good economic candidate running. And while I thought Johnson did a good job presenting facts about the cost of what we’re doing on drug crime in this country – the amazing numbers of people in jail, the money being spent – and you can definitely agree that we’ve got to come up with a new strategy to deal with illegal drugs, there is simply no way you’re going to win a Republican presidential primary on legalizing drugs like Johnson advocates.

Since he’s such a long-shot candidate you can’t really call it gutsy for him to argue in favor of abolishing the corporate income tax, which he did last night, but I loved having somebody make that case. Corporate income taxes are stupid in an economic sense – all they do is deflate earnings for shareholders, which hurts average Americans’ ability to achieve an independent retirement (and makes more senior citizens reliant on the government), drive American companies overseas and force those corporations to build taxes into the price of their goods and services, making everything more expensive. Johnson calls that a double tax, and he’s right. While I think his pro-choice and pro-drug stances make him unelectable, and those are the two things people will remember about him, and they’ll establish a ceiling for his appeal that trap him in second-tier-candidate status forever, if he can plant the idea of abolishing corporate income taxes into the bloodstream he will have won in 2012 for that reason alone.

4. Paul – Johnson might have been the guy who looked like he didn’t quite belong on the stage, but Paul has been around for a while and he’s assumedly actually trying to win the nomination, not just build name recognition. And last night’s performance didn’t further that end at all. When Chris Wallace is telling heroin jokes at your expense, it’s a disaster. And when you get caught trying to make the point that you could have gotten Bin Laden on Sunday without being in Afghanistan, when the SEAL team who took him down based out of Bagram and staged out of Jalalabad, it’s a disaster.

Paul got big ovations for everything he said thanks to his brigade of college kids and whoever else who followed him to the venue, and he opted out of the post-mortem interviews to speak to a rally for them. Which is fine. But Paul has about 8-12 percent of the Republican base on his side, and he’s had them for four years. He doesn’t think he can win the nomination with that 8-12 percent, does he? And if he doesn’t, then what’s his plan to reach out beyond the choir? I didn’t see any evidence he has one. Paul did more building of his ceiling last night than his floor. His best line was when he talked about the deficit as a “philosophic” problem rather than an accounting problem.

3. Santorum – Unlike Paul and Johnson, Santorum was able to present himself as a guy who can actually win the nomination. And I thought he had some really good answers; asked about Newt Gingrich’s personal baggage Santorum made the point essentially that just because you may not be able to live up to your standards it’s not an argument for not having high ones. That’s good stuff, and it’s something more social conservative politicians should emphasize rather than being cowed by lefties yelling “Hypocrite!” every time somebody misbehaves.

Santorum also did a nice job of defending his record in the Senate and pointing out a lot of the things he’s led on. And he probably had the best substantive attack on the Obama administration, noting that what successes Obama has had in foreign policy have all come as a result of continuing policies left over from the Bush administration. And on new developments – Iran, Syria, Libya, Honduras – Santorum said Obama has blown it virtually every time. He’s right on in that assessment and it was good that somebody made that point.

But that being said, Santorum completely overplayed the social conservative position. He took a shot at Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is not yet in the race but will be soon, for the latter’s call for a “truce” on social issues while the federal government attempts to balance its budget. “Anybody that would suggest we call a truce on moral issues doesn’t understand what America is all about,” Santorum said, and that was a disaster of a statement in my opinion. You can disagree with Daniels on the truce question – frankly, I compare Daniels’ actions to his statements and I’ve come to the conclusion that the poor guy has hurt himself more with bad messaging than any legitimately good candidate in recent memory – but to accuse him of not understanding what America is all about when you got beat by 18 points in your last election while Daniels has won big twice in a conservative state just makes you look like a jackass.

I also didn’t think Santorum did a particularly good job in handling a question about a statement in his book equating women in the workplace with radical feminists. That’s not exactly what he said in the book – he was complaining that women who chose to stay at home and be moms have gotten branded by the NOW gang as reactionaries or slaves or whatever, and that it’s wrong for them to have done so. And he tried to explain that in answering the question. But he came off as defensive when he did so. Typical deer in the headlights response. And my guess is that women who watched that will have been totally turned off by it. It’s too bad Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin weren’t on that stage; we’d have seen some fireworks after that answer.

2. Pawlenty – Pawlenty legitimately helped himself more or less throughout the debate. I didn’t see any real mistakes he made, and he scored with virtually every answer he gave. Asked about labor issues, he noted that he was in a union for seven years and he comes from union people – but then he brought this out…

That was the second-best moment of the debate.

Pawlenty also deserves kudos for handling a question about cap-and-trade, which he supported at one time. He wiggled on the issue a little, but then he cut to the chase and said “I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. It’s ham-fisted, and it’s harmful to the economy,” which was what Republican voters will appreciate hearing. “I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it and bob it and weave it. I look the American people in the eye, and say, ‘I’ve made a mistake.'” He also said everybody on that stage has some clunkers in their closet and cap-and-trade was one of his.

Which makes Pawlenty, in my opinion, a better candidate than Romney. Until Romney can come up with a similar line on Romneycare, he’s unsupportable for conservatives in the primaries.

But all that having been said, Pawlenty still isn’t a particularly compelling guy. He’s smooth, he doesn’t make gaffes, he looks fine on TV and his credentials are solid. But he’s still kinda boring. Even when he launches a zinger, it doesn’t get your blood pumping. Consider this

Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who moderated the debate, first focused on foreign policy, pressing the contenders on whether the killing of Osama bin Laden bolstered President Obama’s foreign policy stature. He quoted Pawlenty as saying previously that Obama was “weak,” and asked “does he still look weak today?”

Pawlenty praised Obama for the raid that led to bin Laden’s death, but said it wasn’t a defining moment.

“He did a good job. I tip my cap to him in that moment,” Pawlenty said. “But that moment is not the sum total of his decisions on America’s foreign policy.”

He also implied Obama was a hypocrite, suggesting the same interrogation techniques Obama so harshly criticized in the 2008 campaign may have actually led to bin Laden’s capture and killing. “He should be asked about that,” Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty is precisely right in his points, but the rhetoric isn’t memorable enough to win points with. “He should be asked about that” doesn’t cut it. What he needed to say was that the Bin Laden takedown came from those techniques and that since they’ve been shut down we’re not going to be able to get Awlaki (who’s the guy posing the biggest threat to us now), that the intelligence pipeline we built off sweating these scumbags is drying up and that Obama refuses to do the dirty work necessary to win a dirty war.

He’s going to have to step things up and become more memorable if he wants to move up from a second-tier candidate to the first tier.

1. Cain – While Pawlenty took baby steps forward toward relevance last night, Cain’s performance was more of a pole vault. Frank Luntz’ focus group of South Carolina voters nearly unanimously declared Cain a winner…

…and his victory was echoed by Jazz Shaw at Hot Air, who had this more or less correct…

I’ll confess that I still hadn’t seen enough of Cain before last night to fully grasp all the buzz going on around him, but now I’ve got a fair inkling of where it’s coming from. Even compared to T-Paw, Cain was a picture of self-confidence without being smarmy. He put on a lengthy display of being warm, engaging, charming and, where appropriate, demonstrating a great sense of humor. He’s well spoken while retaining a kind of down-home, sensible “every guy” persona.

With that said, while his answers were delivered in top form, the substance was often on the thin side. He seemed to have five or six prepared talking points which he went back to over an over, framing every question with a kind of Ross Perot style, “Here’s how I identify this problem. And now we have to fix this problem.” I was dreading whether or not he was going to break out some flow charts and a Powerpoint presentation. But for all that, I couldn’t identify a single gaffe during the entire event.

If the first three candidates came off like a lost cause, Cain was the person with the most to gain in this debate and he certainly looked like he took full advantage of the opportunity. A much wider audience who had never heard of him got a chance for an introduction and that all important first impression. And Cain made sure it was a very good one.

I’m going to go further than Shaw does. I’m going to say that Cain put on the kind of show that will vault him into the first tier – mostly at Trump’s expense. Cain is the same businessman-sick-of-politicians candidate Trump is, but without all the goofy bombast Trump brings to the table. And when he was hit with the question of why he’s not a waste of time since he’s never run for anything (which isn’t true, by the way; he ran for the Senate in Georgia in 2004 and did pretty well with 30 percent in the primary), he delivered the best line of the night by far by noting that Washington is lousy with professional politicians, and “How’s that working out for you?”

Cain was also terrific on energy, laying down a strong stance in favor of domestic production driving oil prices down and demonstrating an understanding of the role speculators actually play in the market. Given that oil and gasoline prices are the single most likely factor leading to Obama’s political demise, it’s my theory that whoever can most intelligently articulate energy policy on the GOP side will not only win the nomination but be the next president. Of the five on last night’s stage, Cain was the one performing the best in that regard.

What’s more, Cain showed off a simple, succinct style reminiscent of Ross Perot without coming off as kooky like Perot did.

If there’s a criticism to be made about his performance, he came off as a little weak on national security. Asked a question about releasing a photo of a dead Osama Bin Laden, he said he wouldn’t release one. Then he was given a question on Afghanistan, where we’ve been for 10 years, and he offered up a response which, while it was perfectly reasonable in the abstract, amounted to a dodge. Cain said he would want to revisit our mission and goals there and noted that as a private citizen he doesn’t have all the information he would need to evaluate those things as president. That’s cool, but he knows enough to have an opinion on the big picture in Afghanistan and he’s made much stronger points than that on foreign policy to date. What it came off as was Cain knowing he was going to win big on economic issues and not wanting to go out on a limb one way or the other on foreign policy.

After the debate, Cain was interviewed on Fox News by Sean Hannity and got far more aggressive

“He sat on the [Afghanistan] surge decision for months,” Cain said. “We don’t know how many men and women might have been killed while he was waiting. We don’t know how much it jeopardized this latest mission to get bin Laden because he waited 16 hours to make the decision. When you’ve got a mission that is that precise, down to every little detail, a president that procrastinates puts people’s lives in jeopardy.”

While Obama’s GOP rivals haven’t shied from taking shots at his foreign policy, Cain’s comments made him the first to fire off such a pointed critique of how Obama orchestrated the mission itself. His remarks were particularly striking considering that, just moments earlier while sharing a stage with four likely rivals during the first Republican debate, he declined to offer up a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, saying he doesn’t have enough information to provide specifics.

All in all, though, Cain showed the best mix of small-government, economic literacy and personality. That’s why he won. And that’s why of the five candidates on stage last night he’s the one whose star is now on the rise.



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