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The Challenge of Entitlement Reform

Here are some impressions of last night’s GOP presidential debate:

Mitt Romney is a much better candidate than he was four years ago. He seems much more sure of himself, more authentic, more in command. He projects confidence and competence, basic decency, and has the ability to reassure more than inspire. He certainly has the ability to defeat the current occupant of the White House. In most years that would be enough. Whether it’s sufficient this year, with a primary electorate that is more ideological than it has been in the past, is an open question.

Most of the attention, however, was focused on Rick Perry’s maiden voyage, and I found his performance to be somewhat uneven. He was strong at certain points, most especially on his response to the question about the use of the death penalty in Texas. But he also came across as a bit unsteady at times, brittle at others, and somewhat unprepared on issues ranging from global warming to (surprisingly) matters having to do with Texas. In addition, he mishandled his response on his decision to mandate HPV vaccinations for school-age girls.

Perry possesses a strong, forceful personality; he was easily the most dominating presence on the stage last night. The question is whether he can leaven his personality with charm, (self-deprecating) humor, and a touch of winsomeness. That doesn’t seem to be his natural disposition. Bluntness, even aggression, does. And my hunch – and it’s only a hunch at this stage – is he won’t wear terribly well over time.

Unlike many conservative commentators, then, I believe Perry emerged from the debate in somewhat worse shape. He certainly wasn’t out of his depth – but I doubt many people who thought poorly of Perry came away convinced they were wrong; or those who are inclined to support him came away more enthused. To be fair, the expectations for him were quite high, and he’s still the frontrunner. But he lost a bit of ground last night and opened himself up to future attacks.

My main worry is rooted in my belief that the major non-security threat to America is health care entitlements. Our crushing, coming debt crisis cannot be averted unless health care costs are brought under control, and that cannot be done unless the basic structure of the Medicare program is reformed. If we ignore Medicare, we ignore the debt problem. Which brings us back to Messrs. Romney and Perry.

I wonder if either man, if elected, is up to this challenge. Based on his campaign so far, one senses that Romney has little heart for entitlement reform, especially Medicare. We’ll see where Perry ends up on this matter (most of what he’s had to say about entitlements so far have to do with Social Security, which is a problem but not a lethal fiscal threat to America). The danger regarding him, though, is two-fold: Perry avoids Medicare as much as possible even while his rhetoric becomes increasingly “provocative” (to use his word), with the effect being that even if he wanted to, people won’t trust him to reform entitlement programs he seems to want to blow torch.

It seems to me conservatives need a standard bearer who speaks about entitlements in an informed, measured manner while carefully laying the groundwork for reforms that will fundamentally restructure our health entitlements. That person has yet to emerge.

It’s still early, of course, and this was Perry’s first presidential debate. He’s shown impressive political skills in the past, and he may well improve during the course of this campaign. That’s what long primary seasons are for.

In any event, John is correct. From here on in, it’s a Perry-Romney cagematch. Unless Chris Christie throws his considerable mass into the ring. That possibility shouldn’t be discounted. Not yet, anyway.