The GOP Debate: Quick Thoughts On Perry

I’ll have something more comprehensive on this in the morning, as the other candidates deserve some analysis – particularly Newt Gingrich, who can’t win this race but really scored some great points – but for now we’ll stick to what the frontrunner in the race did.

Which was win the debate at the Reagan Library tonight on MSNBC.

Perry didn’t need to blow the doors off all the rest of the candidates on the stage. All he had to do was survive the shots they were all going to take at him. He did that, and more. He had presence, he talked policy, though maybe he could have done more on that score, and he looked like a guy who could stand up to Obama and beat him.

There were some good performances, but nobody outshined Perry.

What follows will be a bit more critical than justice dictates. After all, this was Perry’s debut on the national stage, and by the standards I set for him he’d have had to put on a show Reagan himself would envy.

With that caveat – the good…

First, Perry hit a home run on Social Security. He’s the only politician in America with the balls to say what the American people already know, which is that it’s a Ponzi scheme and it needs to be fixed before it blows up. Perry didn’t back down from his statements that Social Security can’t survive in its current form; in fact, he said anybody who defends it the way it is or criticize him for making the statements he’s made on the issue – as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have done on the basis that he’s unnecessarily scaring people or being provocative – are telling lies. Perry said it’s time for some provocative language in this country. He also kicked Rove right in the onions by saying Rove has been “over the top for a long time” in some of his statements and that “I’m not responsible for Karl anymore” – which is a rolling-over of the guru-turned-pundit that lots of people have been pining for since 2006 and a clear signal that anyone who thinks Perry is a Bush clone simply isn’t well-informed.

Is it risky? Maybe so. But much less so than it would have been 10 years ago. Nobody under 45 believes Social Security will be around in its current form when they retire. There is great upside in a politician who actually comes along and says without fear “we have to change this or else we’re going to have major problems when it explodes on us, and we’re running out of time.”

Perry didn’t go beyond that to offer a plan to fix Social Security, and that’s also smart. There is no upside to doing that, which George W. Bush found out when he pushed a perfectly good plan to privatize some of Social Security a few years back. Instead, you have to set a predicate for a future plan – you have to build the narrative that something has to be done or else disaster looms. Once you get elected on that narrative, whether because of it or in spite of it, you then can zero in on a solution on the basis that it’s just a policy choice, not the Third Rail Of American Politics as it’s been portrayed ever since it was enacted.

That Perry understands this and it willing to act on it, unlike virtually ever other politician of either party who’s run for president, gives him gravitas and credibility. He has courage on the issue, and for that he gets our kudos. That he was willing to trash Rove, who has been sniping at Perry ever since he entered this race and working behind the scenes to deflate Perry’s fundraising, also shows that Perry both understands power politics and has the sand to employ them when it makes sense to do so.

And he nailed the global warming question. Perry said what everybody already knows when he flatly stated that the science on global warming isn’t settled and as such it’s indefensible to base American economic policy on it. Perry even threw in a reference to Galileo being in a minority for a while on science, which was a direct and well-deserved rebuke to Jon Huntsman’s smarmy statement that “98 of 100 scientists” back global warming theory. I’d like to have seen Perry talk about the recent research that has come out of CERN on cloud formation or how NASA data has destroyed the underpinnings of AGW, but most Americans aren’t interested in all that stuff so his refusing to answer that trap question about what scientists he follows, which was the way the moderator (I can’t recall if it was Brian Williams or the other guy from POLITICO) asked it, was the right move.

The best thing, though, was that beatdown Perry laid on Ron Paul. After Paul put out an attack on Perry about a note he’d sent to Hillary Clinton thanking her for her efforts on health care reform and asking her to keep in mind the plight of rural folks who struggled with access to health insurance – he was Agriculture Commissioner in Texas at the time – by way of trying to paint Perry as pro-Hillarycare, the response was devastating. Perry hacked Paul immediately, referencing a letter the congressman wrote to President Reagan in 1988 informing Reagan that Paul was quitting the GOP over his record (Paul actually ran for president as a Libertarian that year). In doing so, Perry baited Paul into a self-immolating and rude diatribe which criticized Reagan’s legacy.

At the Reagan Library.

In front of Reagan’s widow.

That moment will be talked about for years as a classic example of how to turn yourself into a villain on national TV. And Perry put Paul in the position to do it.

Perry’s back-and-forth discussions on job creation with Mitt Romney didn’t really produce a clear winner, though Perry did get a great zinger in on Romney when he said that Texaas had created more jobs in the last three months than Romney had in four years as governor of Massachusetts. But by merely holding his own, Perry won. He defended his record in Texas nicely from the other candidates on the stage.

The not-all-that-good…

But I’ve got a criticism of Perry’s defense of his record in Texas from the moderators. Perry was hit by Williams on both health insurance (“you have the highest rate of uninsured in the country, Gov. Perry”) and education (“your high school dropout rate is awful, Gov. Perry, and why is it so bad?”) and he waited until the second question before he finally identified the fact that his state is covered with new and illegal arrivals from a Third World country just to the south as a major driver of those numbers.

Perry should have talked about it the first time. He should have said something like “Hey, you know that line about your tired, your poor, your huddled masses? Guess where they are now. They’re in Mexico, and they come to Texas. I want to do the best I can for these folks but they’re not coming here with Ivy League degrees and a robust portfolio. And when we’ve got over a million people living among us who are illegal aliens, it’s going to make us look like we don’t insure or educate anybody. But I’ll have you know that white kids in Texas schools outperform white kids in Wisconsin, just like our black kids and Hispanic kids outperform their peers in Wisconsin and the national average to boot.”

That would have been the answer he needed to give. He could have then said “You put Romneycare down in Texas or you ship some of our new neighbors up to Massachusetts and then you’ll see some real chaos.”

And while I suspect I’ll be in the minority here I also wasn’t crazy about Perry’s death penalty answer, though what was worst about it was the fact the question was put to Perry in the first place – one wonders why Williams thought the fact that 230 murderers have been executed since Perry has been governor in Texas has much to do with the 2012 election. His answer, which was that Texas has a well-designed process to provide ultimate justice to his state’s worst criminals, was OK, but then Williams tried to scold the crowd for applauding the fact that 230 murderers have been executed in Texas through a follow up question, Perry should have given the moderator what-for. He should have said “we’re in front of a crowd full of conservatives who are looking for strong leadership and the willingness to make tough decisions. What did you expect them to do when you talked about how Texas handles murderers? Throw things?”

Perry also weaseled a little on the question about his old statement that he doesn’t want military adventurism. Instead of refusing to assess any particular conflicts he probably could have said something like this:

“Yeah, the Libya thing is military adventurism we don’t need and doesn’t serve our interests. You can argue about Iraq and Afghanistan all you want, but what Obama did was go into Libya without Congressional authorization, which as far as I’m concerned makes this thing illegal, and we attacked a guy who for better or worse we had normalized relations with under the last president with no provocation. I’m very concerned about the future implications of such a rash move.

“And for our billion dollars in deficit spending doing that we get a new government over there which looks like it’s going to be made up of Al Qaeda types. You tell me where the upside is in doing that.”

On the whole, though, for a first bite at the debate apple Perry did well. All he had to do was fend off attacks from the other candidates on the stage, and he did that. If he didn’t knock anybody out tonight – other than Paul, of course, who won’t be going anywhere but who was marginalized more by what Perry did to him tonight that anything else in this campaign – that’s OK. Perry will outraise the minor candidates, and while Romney mounted a pretty good effort (that he is now ruining by putting out an after-the-debate release vowing not to abolish Social Security, something Perry didn’t advocate), it was nowhere near enough to stop his momentum.

A good season opener, and a victory. He needs to sharpen things up for the second game (Sept. 22 in Florida on Fox News), but Perry remains the frontrunner in the GOP field and perhaps overall.

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