Random Thoughts On The Florida Tea Party Debate

I’m not going to put these in any particular order, nor am I really going to pick a winner. Perry kicked a lot of ass in the first half of the debate and then got piled on for the second half. Bachmann may have halted her slide while increasing her negatives, Paul continued to prove he’s nuts, Huntsman was obnoxious as usual, Newt gave great answers, Santorum did some good things and some bad things, Cain probably had the best night of the group and Romney had some high points and some really, really low ones.

More impressive than anybody? Believe it or not, Wolf Blitzer from CNN. Blitzer, who I had written off as a has-been and a media empty suit, actually did a nice job with the debate. Or maybe my standards have just been lowered after trying to tolerate John King’s incessant grunting at the candidates and Brian Williams’ this-question-will-be-phrased-as-an-accusation-but-please-don’t-be-offended-since-I’m-just-being-objective inquistions in the two most recent televised debates.

CNN’s format was pretty good. They took questions from Tea Party people and didn’t denigrate them until after the debate was over and it was time for their usual gang of conventional-wisdom Democrat propagandists to peddle their wares. I watched that part until they subjected me to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz with a microphone and then I found the Raiders-Broncos game.

One thing you notice in watching Perry in a debate – he’s not all that smooth; or what’s more to the point is you can tell he’s spent the last year governing a state rather than standing in debates like this one in sinkholes like Ottumwa and Portsmouth like Santorum and Romney and Bachmann have done. But while he doesn’t have stock answers to likely debate questions memorized like the more veteran 2012 hopefuls, one thing is for sure – Perry has stones.

Take Social Security, for example. Perry didn’t back down from previous statements. Nor did he shrink from the other candidates’ attacks. He seemed very happy to paint a target on his chest and dare them – particularly Romney – to shoot at it. Which Romney did, and promptly got popped for his trouble.

Perry said “The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something, slam-dunk guaranteed: That program is gonna be in place,” a little earlier in the debate than that clip picks up. The fact is, there really isn’t all that much difference between what Romney wants to do with Social Security and what Perry wants to do, other than that if state and local governments want to copy the Galveston Plan – which is what Perry is talking about in the clip and a few seconds later Cain specifically identified as a model  he’d replace Social Security with – Perry would be a lot more explicit in supporting them than Romney.

The big difference, though, is that Romney has bought into the media narrative that you can’t get any support from old people by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme like Perry is doing. He’s dead wrong, for two reasons. First, Romney actually came out and said last week on Sean Hannity’s show that “Ponzi scheme” is bad politics, and Mitt Romney is the wrong guy to make such a statement since the number one objection to him is that conservatives think he will say anything to get elected. When the voters you have to have think you lack a soul or core beliefs and you go around talking about what you have to say to get elected, you’re merely reinforcing their objection to you.

And second, he’s wrong about whether it’s bad politics. If this were September 2012 and Perry was debuting “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” as a talking point against Obama, sure – it would be bad politics. But it isn’t. It’s September 2011, and Perry is the frontrunner in the 2012 GOP race with the second-biggest microphone in the country behind Obama (and that’s only because Obama has the White House). And because it’s so early, what Perry is really doing is something few in the media elite have been sharp enough to pick up on – he’s driving a national conversation about Social Security by using a criticism of it that has been out there for a long time from some very smart people who nevertheless have not been in as prominent a position as he is currently in. And the more he says it’s a Ponzi scheme the more those media elite types have to analyze the statement. The more they’ll do that, the more the public will notice how hard it is to dismiss that statement without contorting themselves into pretzels.

And the more the arguments about Ponzi-scheme-or-no-Ponzi-scheme take hold and the narrative begins to dominate the political discussion, the less toxic or “provocative” Perry’s statements will seem six months from now. The CNN poll from earlier today that found Perry ahead of Romney 42-26 on the electability question was taken over the weekend, AFTER the back-and-forth on the subject in last week’s debate and Romney’s subsequent attempts at demagoguing Perry’s position.

What Perry is doing is a strategic move. He’s preparing the battlefield for a large-scale discussion on entitlement programs and he’s getting the public accustomed to the idea that Social Security (and Medicare) are going to have some remodeling done in the next administration.

That’s a win on lots of levels. First, it directly threatens Obama with voters under 30, who were the key to his 2008 victory, as better than 60 percent of them don’t believe they’ll get anything out of Social Security. Obama’s already bleeding support from that demographic – if Perry wins the nomination he’s going to have to address the program with an eye toward recapturing their support. And he does that, how? By promising them they’ll get every dime their grandparents are getting? They already don’t believe his promises based on his record and all that will do is solidify his reputation for fiscal irresponsibility. And the alternative is that Obama joins Perry in discussing changes to the program, but echoes Romney’s criticism about Perry’s characterization of it. There is no win there.

Oh, but Perry is going to be poison with seniors, goes the conventional wisdom. Obama can beat him by doing the old-fashioned “the Republicans are coming for your Social Security check” attack.

Problem there is, no group in the country despises Obama more than senior citizens do. They’re livid about the $500 billion he re-routed from Medicare into his health deform plan, they’re ticked off about his Apology Tour and all the spending and – this is something even the conservative media has done an absolutely lousy job with – they’re fuming over what Obama has done to the dollar.

Let’s remember that all those dollars the Fed has been printing have had a large inflationary effect. Let’s also remember that things like ethanol subsidies – in which the federal government is assisting in burning our food for fuel – and a fantasyland energy policy based on wind and solar power have the effect of driving prices for basic necessities like trips to the grocery or gas station through the sky. This affects seniors, who are more likely to be on fixed incomes, more than anybody.

So when Perry says “I’m gonna drill everywhere there’s oil and gas, and I’m gonna let the companies your kids and grandkids work for and you have stock in through your 401(k) or IRA build refineries and coal-fired power plants so your electric bill and the price at the pump go down, and I’m gonna stop those printing presses from putting out more useless dollars, and by the way your Social Security check – which is going to be worth more because the inflation is going to stop – is not getting cut,” that is a lot better narrative to seniors than anything Obama will be able to credibly say.

Perry obviously figured all this out before he got into the race. Romney has been running for president for five years and it doesn’t appear to have even occurred to him. He has the same general policy prescriptions Perry has – maybe the retirement age might need to go up, maybe this thing ought to be means-tested for retirees above a certain income, maybe we need to do private accounts – but he comes off as almost apologetic about reforming Social Security. And while Romney says Perry is the wrong guy to trust with Social Security reform because he thinks the program was unconstitutional and dishonest from the get-go (a clue: it absolutely was, though Perry even said tonight that it doesn’t really matter anymore), it can even more easily be said that Romney is the wrong guy to task with fixing the program because he doesn’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it.

Perry wins on Social Security, and so far in this race it’s THE issue.

But there were two other main things going on, and on both of them Perry wasn’t as dominant.

The worst of them, for Perry, had to do with this Gardasil business. Perry, of course, signed an executive order as governor of Texas mandating that 7th-graders get the Gardasil vaccine for the cervical cancer-causing HPV virus. That became a very controversial deal in Texas, and the legislature ultimately stopped that executive order. It was never implemented. And Perry has since said he was wrong to sign the order rather than have the legislature pass a bill to mandate the vaccine, maintained that it had a provision for parents who wanted to opt out and that he was trying to do something about people getting cancer.

He tried repeating those defenses tonight, but it didn’t come off against criticisms that a government mandate on the subject of a disease which is actually sexually transmitted is an affront to conservatism, specifically social conservatism. The primary tormentor for Perry on this one was Michele Bachmann, who accused Perry of signing that order because Merck gave him a $5,000 campaign contribution, and then Santorum came after him on a more substantive grounds – namely that a mandate involving vaccinations against an STD smacks of the nanny state. Perry’s response to Bachmann, that a governor who raises $30 million over the course of his various electoral races can be bought for $5,000 is an insulting accusation to make, was pretty good. But his response to Santorum was less forceful, and one gets the impression that Perry actually agrees with a good bit of what the former senator was saying.

He probably should have said so. A response like this would have worked better. “Look, you make good points. We’ve got lots of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in our public schools in Texas and as such it’s not so easy to just assume an absolutist position on abstinence is going to work, but as a matter of conservative philosophy you’re correct – this was a departure from it. We were trying to offer a pragmatic approach and it didn’t work as well as we’d have liked. Lesson learned.”

Perry also could have explained one of Santorum’s charges – that Perry’s order should have been a parental opt-in rather than a mandate with an opt-out. He might have had to break into another question to do it, but the answer to Santorum is that if Gardasil had been optional, it wouldn’t have been covered by insurance in those public schools but because it was mandatory it was, and that saved the parents of those kids some $300 or so. Now, Santorum’s response would have been “Yeah, so what? If they want to pay the $300, that’s their business and if not, that’s their business too.” Which is a valid response. But the debate then becomes one in which Perry’s case is that this is an example of what you have to deal with when you’re actually running things rather than having a good ol’ time on Capitol Hill, where you spend your time taking positions on issues and chattering about them on C-SPAN or Fox News. We have a veteran of that daisy chain in the White House right now, and he flat-out stinks at the job.

Perry will want to get stronger on the Gardasil issue. It won’t kill him with conservative voters and it might actually help him with moderates and independents who will be more sympathetic to the idea that he was trying to help people even if he made a hash of it. But he still needs to explain it better. And Gardasil is without question a smaller hill for Perry to climb than Romneycare is for Romney.

The other knife-fight Perry got himself into involved the Texas DREAM Act, in which illegal immigrant kids who had been in the state for three years and were trying to become citizens could get in-state tuition at public colleges in Texas.

Perry needed to stress that there was – and is – a fairly wide consensus in Texas that the in-state tuition plan is a good idea since it helps develop talent. He mentioned, though it’s not included in the clip above, that all but four votes for the bill in question were yeas in the Texas legislature, and he framed the question as one of whether to subsidize in-state tuition for people whose families were at least paying sales and property taxes (either directly or indirectly since property taxes are built into rent) in that state for four years or to subsidize those people for a lot longer given the general effect higher education has on income. The “regardless of what your last name sounds like” reference was a fairly naked play for the Latino vote, and while it grates a little it certainly will come off better with its intended target than Bachmann’s attack will with those folks. After all, the thing about the in-state tuition thing is it’s directed at kids – Bachmann’s idea that we should be out to punish them for decisions their parents made comes off as shrill. More about that in a bit.

And then there was Huntsman, who called Perry a “traitor” – which was an in-my-heart-I-know-I’m-funny attempt at a joke about what Perry said about Ben Bernanke a month or so ago – because Perry expressed a doubt that building a 2,000-mile fence from Brownsville to Tijuana would secure the border. That was an idiotic statement and Huntsman was rightly booed as a jerk for making it, particularly since what Perry said was that rather than building a fence you need 4,500 Border Patrol agents and 1,500 National Guardsmen complete with air assets and yeah, fences in the metropolitan areas to effectively control that border. That crack was one more piece of evidence that Huntsman is simply too smarmy and self-important to even waste our time on; the more he plays the teacher’s pet in these debates the more we wish one of these networks would tell him to pound sand and give Gary Johnson, who is far more interesting, his spot on stage.

But Perry looks like this field’s best hope to attract Hispanic voters. He’ll likely pay something of a price for that with the conservative base, but then again I come back to something Gingrich said in one of the first debates, which is that the GOP should not be forced to make this Hobson’s choice between amnesty for 10-20 million illegal aliens on one hand and trying to deport all of them on the other. The absolutists in the field like Santorum and Bachmann, who not surprisingly come from Capitol Hill rather than any sort of executive background, are perfectly happy with trying to deport them all. But the candidates with a more practical resume for the job at hand aren’t making those kinds of statements. Perry, who as governor of Texas has more relevant experience in dealing with the immigration issue than anybody in the field, is likely going to take shots on this issue like he did tonight for the rest of the campaign. But the fact is Republicans are going to have to find a way not to come off as hating Mexicans or else the Left is going to trap them on the same political plantation they’ve trapped the black community. A successful governor of a heavily-Hispanic state probably ought to be given some latitude with this issue, though he won’t be.

But it’s not so much the issue of illegal immigration, because there is a significant piece of the Hispanic electorate that doesn’t march to the media’s drumbeat on that issue – if anything, it’s pretty close to a 50-50 split among voters in that community on the immigration question depending on how the questions are asked. The issue is whether Hispanics think Republicans are looking at them as beaners and wetbacks, and when they see folks like the Minutemen and Tom Tancredo, they freak out. An overly theatrical treatment of the immigration issue gives Democrats an opening to paint the GOP in that vein. Perry’s been around the block with the Latin community and he has a clue how to win votes there. Santorum, Bachmann, Romney and the other more critical candidates don’t have a clue, and as such one dynamic going forward is whether the GOP primary electorate which at this point is mainly concerned with which one of these guys is going to get rid of Obama will see his governance on the issue as an asset rather than the liability it was painted as tonight.

Back to Bachmann for a second, though, because while she comes off as a bulldog and she’s fairly effective in these debates one thing that is very clear is she’s the Republican version of Obama. Certainly we like her a lot more than Obama, so this isn’t the perjorative criticism it might appear on the surface. But her attacks don’t contain any semblance of “I know what you were trying to do there, but you needed to go about it another way,” and that’s of a piece with her absolutist positions on the debt ceiling and a lot of other issues on the Hill. Is she a solid, doctrinaire conservative? Yes, she is, and we like her for it. But it’s an argument for keeping her exactly where she is, not making her president. The fact is, just like Obama Bachmann has never run a large organization – and her candidacy is showing that she just hasn’t learned any of the requisite skills for running something like the U.S. federal government. Bachmann doesn’t pick her battles, she fights all of them. She doesn’t look for workable solutions, she says “it’s my way or the highway.” And what’s more, she’s all politics, all the time.

That is Obama to a T. Actually, it’s not a terrible description of Nancy Pelosi, either. And while Bachmann is certainly more in tune with normal Americans than those leftists are, dogmatic ideologues of any stripe usually have a really difficult time trying to run complex systems. And this job involves running perhaps the most complex one of them all.

The guess here is that the public has perceived this, which is why Bachmann’s star is falling. She may have arrested her decline with a forceful performance tonight, but in doing so she probably drove up her negatives and lowered her ceiling as well.

As an inquisitor for Perry Santorum scored better, both on immigration and the Gardasil question. His critiques were more substantive and better thought out. But Santorum sounds like a senator who’s been on Sunday talk shows for two decades rather than an executive, and that’s not an asset. He probably helped himself in the debate, but the folks who didn’t like Santorum before won’t like him now.

And then there’s Ron Paul, who just seems to get nuttier and nuttier as time goes by. Tonight he gave us this…

Paul’s griping about how his taxes are going up is horribly disingenuous. He knows that Texas has no state income tax – even Romney knows that and said so tonight – and that a major, and growing, proportion of the property taxes in that state comes from things local government does. If the school board where Paul lives keeps getting millage increases and passing bond issues, that has nothing to do with Perry’s policies.

And the Vatican-in-Baghdad stuff is stale, particularly when even Perry, who Paul’s followers have derided as a neo-con, said it was time to start drawing down troops in Afghanistan. Paul also said we have 900 military bases in 130 countries, a statement which only seems to be true if you count the Marines at the embassies as military occupying forces. Nutball statements like that only serve to prove a theory we’ve had about Paul – namely, that while most politicians will see themselves getting some public traction on a given issue or two they’ll respond by finding other issues to move toward the middle on and thus begin building coalitions and becoming electable, Paul is the opposite. If some of his policies find some purchase – like for example, everybody asked about the subject tonight agreed that auditing the Fed is a good idea – Paul immediately runs for the fringe on something else. It’s more like a target marketing campaign than an electoral effort, and because of that it seems pretty clear that what he’s doing isn’t trying to get elected so much as building a brand and a mailing list.

Which is fine, but Paul is wasting our time in these debates if that’s what he’s up to. In the last two debates Paul has served as something of a foil for the media types to use against the more realistic GOP candidates. That’s not a big deal, necessarily, but at some point it’s going to get old.

If anybody helped himself most in this debate it might have been Cain, who re-emerged as the engaging personality and likable outsider he showed himself to be in the very first debate. In the final fluff question to finish things up, Cain answered a question about what he’d bring to the White House if elected (the Obamas brought a vegetable garden, for example) perfectly, by saying he’d bring a sense of humor because “America’s too uptight.” He was also excellent on domestic energy, did a terrific job on the question of business-vs.-labor, which in this day and age is an outdated notion clung to only by the unions and had one of the best quips of the night when describing naysayers who tell him he doesn’t know how Washington works: “Yes I do – it doesn’t.” Cain also leveraged his experience as a chairman of the Kansas City Fed to recognize, as others did, that it needs a single mission of sound money rather than full employment. On Social Security, Cain picked up a rebound from Perry on the Galveston Plan (Perry just mentioned a Social Security alternative was tried in Texas) and noted its superior performance to the national system, and he doubled down by mentioning a market-driven idea has been successfully implemented in Chile. Of course, he could have strengthened his case there if he’d mentioned that Chile’s retirement system was originally designed by a group of American economic gurus led by Milton Friedman. Any time you can drop Friedman’s name in support of one of your policies, you do it.

Cain is a major asset to the field, and he ought to be running ahead of everybody but Perry and Romney. The guess is he likely will before all this is over, unless he decides to drop out and get behind one of the two majors in an effort to back a winner and perhaps pick up a role in a cabinet. A President MacAoidh would have him as Fed Chairman as soon as Bernanke could be forced out; Cain knows the Fed and understands what needs to be fixed there. But most of all, Cain comes neither from Wall Street nor the Ivy League, and those are the things which have more to do with that entity’s failure than anything else, because the chummy insider dealings between the old-boy club from Harvard, Princeton and Yale and the old-boy club at Goldman Sachs have virtually destroyed any faith regular Americans had in the people who run the financial system. Appointing more Goldman Sachs veterans with sheepskins from East Coast snob factories will only compound the problem the Tim Geithners and Bernankes and their predecessors created.

Gingrich is an asset as well, despite the hopelessness of his cause. Because Gingrich can present answers like this, which America needs to hear…

And then there was Romney, who had the best answer on that fluff question at the end by saying he’d go get that bust of Winston Churchill back. That answer was of a piece with his whole campaign, in which every opportunity to trash Obama has been met with gusto, regardless of how partisan or tinny it may have come off. In this case, it was more witty than petty. And Romney continues to be a polished debater who can turn a great answer, though he doesn’t exude the passion Perry does.

Other than the Social Security debate, in which he’s getting beaten fairly badly by Perry, Romney’s other major exchange with the frontrunner came on the jobs front. Here he did a little better but still wasn’t able to score a lot thanks to Perry’s nice comeback (caveat – the second half of this clip contains the Ron Paul stuff from above).

Romney simply didn’t appear to have said a lot in the debate, which isn’t a major departure from previous debates since he tends to be fairly unmemorable. He defended Romneycare and said he would repeal Obamacare, which he’s been saying for months and it’s never resonated. He also said he’d build a border fence, which puts him to the right of Perry on immigration – or at least it will be reported that way.

In previous debates, before Perry got into the race, that close-to-the-vest style was fine. But unless Perry fades badly, and he won’t for no other reason than that he’s right on the Social Security issue, Romney is going to need more.

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