The Big Story is there probably isn’t one. Nobody ruined his/her candidacy tonight; in fact they all probably helped themselves at least a little.
But one thing which seems quite clear after watching this event – this business of the Republicans having a weak field this year has been proven to be a fraud. Which isn’t a surprise – the purveyors of that notion come primarily from the ranks of the legacy media, the overwhelming majority of whom are invested in Obama’s re-election.
On stage tonight was a former Speaker of the House, a pair of governors, a Senator, two members of Congress and a prominent businessman who was a Federal Reserve Bank chairman. Compare that to the Democrat field in 2008 which produced an elected president – essentially three senators (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards) of very junior tenure and minimal accomplishment. So the idea that this field isn’t good enough to beat Obama is bilge. It’s canal water.
Another thing which jumped out was that John King, the moderator, sucked. King grunted incessantly while the candidates were trying to give their answers, and if that was off-putting to watch one has to think how irritating and distracting it must have been to try to give answers to questions with the moderator making stupid noises while they’re trying to talk.
As for the candidates themselves and the results of the debate, while other blogs will anoint winners and losers we’re not really going to do that here. We – at least I – didn’t see a particular winner. There were strong points for all of them and there were some answers that weren’t so strong.
So from left to right, impressions…
Rick Santorum – Santorum came off well, and he helped himself a little more in this debate than he did in the first one down in South Carolina. He didn’t really land any haymakers, though his proposal for a five-year capital gains tax rate of zero for manufacturers was at least interesting – it sounds good, though it does look like it makes the tax code even more complicated. Santorum was good on unions, came off as the most pro-life candidate in the group (which he usually does) and managed to talk about his record this time without coming off as defensive like he did in South Carolina. And his defense of the Ryan plan on Medicare, as he tied that model to Medicare Part D and its performance relative to budget projections, was a real highlight and he had the best answer on the same-sex marriage question – asked whether to have a constitutional amendment or totally leave it to the states, he said you can’t pass a constitutional amendment unless three-quarters of the states ratify it. But while he acquitted himself well, Santorum didn’t particularly distinguish himself from the group. At this point he perhaps doesn’t have to, but if Rick Perry gets in before Santorum has been able to break loose a little, he’s done for.
Michelle Bachmann – Lots of folks seem to think she won the debate, and she did do a nice job touting her record in Congress and attacking Democrats. She made the same kind of move toward first-tier status in this affair that Herman Cain did in South Carolina. Her answers were well-articulated, passionate and unapologetic. The best moment for her was probably when she talked about TARP and her objections to it, but she also did a sensational job defending the Tea Party as one of the legs on the conservative tripod of Reagan fame. And her strong stance against the Libya war was excellent – though it was surprising that neither Bachmann nor anybody else brought up the fact that going into Libya and staying there without Congressional authorization is flat-out illegal. She also did a great job in thoroughly eviscerating Obama on the debt ceiling question, quoting him as opposing raising it back in 2006 and damning him with those words. Bachmann is a lot more polished than Sarah Palin is as an extemporaneous speaker, and that fact really came to the forefront tonight.
Newt Gingrich – After the implosion of his campaign late last week, Gingrich needed to wipe the floor with the other six candidates and he didn’t do that. But he did offer a few moments where GOP voters would remember why they like having him around. Gingrich managed to get a putback slam dunk on a question originally asked of Herman Cain about comfort level with Muslim appointees, as he stated that it was controversial in the past when America treated Nazis and Communists with suspicion and subsequently had that suspicion confirmed. He also had a good answer on the space program where he touted the use of private companies as the next driver of space exploration and really did well when he took issue with King’s attempt to say that since the U.S. is a “developed” economy unlike China and Brazil five percent growth isn’t possible by saying that America is by no means finished developing and technological innovations make for endless possibilities. And he was great on the border and immigration. But he also came off as the pissed-off guy; even more so at times than Ron Paul.
Mitt Romney – Romney was probably the smoothest and most relaxed of the candidates on the stage, and for that reason he might well have been the biggest beneficiary of the event. He also managed to win the much-ballyhooed conflict with Tim Pawlenty over the latter’s quip on Sunday about “Obamneycare,” largely because Pawlenty refused to press the issue when King tried to get him to drop the hammer on Romney. Come to think of it, what was expected – namely, that the other six would spend two hours sawing away at the “frontrunner” – didn’t happen at all. Nobody took any shots at Romney at all. The debate moved pretty fast and it perhaps didn’t lend itself all that well to the candidates beating up on each other, but you’d have expected something. Romney’s answers were all typical Romney – no gaffes, no mistakes, nothing objectionable and nothing memorable. He hammered Obama repeatedly, including his talking directly to the president during the Obamneycare thing and suggesting that Obama would “eat those words” that Obamacare was designed after Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan (which upon reflection is sort of a stupid answer unless you think MassCare is working out well, which it isn’t), but considering everybody on the stage can’t stand Obama that was hardly noteworthy. Perhaps the best thing Romney said, and it really did make him come off as a nice guy and maybe even gave him some leadership cred, was that all of the candidates in the race would be better than the guy in the White House now. Romney’s slick and even when it seems like he’s saying something objectionable he manages to make it taste good. But that’s the reason he hasn’t been able to cement his position as the frontrunner the media wants to make him out to be – he’s simply too generic and risk-averse.
Ron Paul – Paul still didn’t appeal to anybody outside of his little cult of personality, so he didn’t broaden his support tonight. That said, he had some outstanding answers at times. For example, in the midst of an otherwise-forgettable rant about how our troops in Afghanistan are hurting our national security, Paul stumbled on a terrific retort to the boilerplate “I’d listen to our commanders on the ground” non-answer many of the candidates offer on Afghanistan by saying “No, I’m the commander in chief and I make the decisions.” Precisely correct – the “listen to the commanders” answer is a cop-out and it’s a way to avoid being held to a substantive geostrategic position. Paul also did a great job on housing by saying that the government has to get out of the way and let the market clear, which might not be the best political answer out there but it’s correct – and he clearly articulated the libertarian positions on marriage and Austrian economics. Still, it’s Ron Paul – he’s there to promote a brand of Republicanism, but he’s not going to win this race.
Tim Pawlenty – The big takeaway from tonight was the Obamneycare deal, and Pawlenty simply wouldn’t stick the knife in. King pressed him to do it and he didn’t go there. That was a mistake. Whether it was as big a mistake as the media will make it out to be is a question we’ll find out the answer to over the next few days, but Pawlenty’s reputation as the nice guy who lacks punch just solidified as a result. Sure, it’s an easy answer to say that the genesis of Obamneycare is that Obama said he modeled Obamacare from Romneycare, but when invited to expound on the statement Pawlenty should have said something like this…
Look, the basis of both plans is the government telling you that you have to buy health insurance. That is nanny-state tyranny at its worst regardless how you dress it up – and I know Gov. Romney won’t agree that the fundamentals are the same but there’s a reason he’s got so much trouble from conservatives as a presidential candidate. I didn’t create this issue for him – it’s been there all along. And the fact he didn’t respect the basic right of ordinary folks to be left alone with that individual mandate makes this a trust issue for conservatives. Right now we’re all looking at the government and we need to get some assurance that there are real limits to what it can properly do, and this speaks to a bedrock issue of his qualification to lead this party. Romneycare is a problem, and as a Republican I’m concerned that it’s a fatal flaw for Gov. Romney in the event he’d be our party’s nominee. How do you beat Obama when you can’t articulate real differences between the worst abuse of his presidency and your signature accomplishment in elected office?
Had Pawlenty said that, he would have won the debate hands down. To show how lousy the answer was, Pawlenty’s spokesman Alex Conant said after the debate “There are real policy differences. Governor Romney thinks the individual mandate was a good idea. Governor Pawlenty doesn’t.” But the candidate didn’t go there – and it’s too bad. Because for the rest of the debate he was very good, I thought. He was good on same-sex marriage, he was good on economics and even got kudos from the other candidates about the economic plan he put forth, he was good on abortion, he was good on gays in the military and he was absolutely awesome on right to work even though there were good points made by Gingrich and Cain that competition between the states could handle that issue without federal legislation. None of that will resonate – the missed opportunity on Obamneycare is the only thing he’s going to be remembered for was wimping out when he had a chance to rip Romney.
Herman Cain – Cain wasn’t really on his game like he was in the South Carolina debate, though some of that was the fact he was stepping up in competition a bit with Gingrich, Bachmann and Romney on the stage in place of Gary Johnson. Some of it was the fact that Cain also has made a little news since the first debate and thus got asked about some of the things he’s said – most notably the question about his comfort level in hiring Muslims for his cabinet. You get the impression that Cain’s in a hole with his previous statement that he wouldn’t be comfortable hiring Muslims, and he really shouldn’t be; he’s right to point out that sharia law is completely incompatible with the American constitution and our system of individual liberties, and Muslims who believe in sharia can’t fulfill an oath to defend the constitution. CNN’s after-action crew tore him to shreds for referencing that answer, but while Americans aren’t particularly comfortable with what might smack of discrimination they’re even more uncomfortable with Muslims – something the media (and CNN being a perfect example) is completely oblivious about. Otherwise, Cain’s performance was good and bad. He did a great job on economic questions, particularly in offering the metaphor of the economy as a train and the government as the caboose rather than the engine. But his answer on Afghanistan, in which he trotted out the “I’ll listen to our generals” answer that didn’t work for him in South Carolina, wasn’t good; Cain has to bring out something better than that if he wants to be taken seriously on foreign policy. He could get some folks who’ve fought in Afghanistan to brief him on the issue and come up with some specifics there; so far that’s a weakness of his campaign, though as the non-politician in the race that’s to be expected.
In all, though, the seven candidates showed well. It’s a good field, and the debate proved it. Whoever comes out of this group can beat Obama – even if it’s Romney. The guess here, though, is that if the other candidates wouldn’t hit him tonight they’ll start hitting him tomorrow. Particularly if the public expresses in polls what the pundits did in writing tonight about Romney winning the debate when he didn’t get hit.