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Some Thoughts on Last Night’s GOP Debate

1. This was the most lively, entertaining and personally contentious debate we’ve seen. Just about everyone was bloodied a bit. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was a target for much of the night, and he once again proved to be the best debater
in the field, not only in his command of the issues (and the record of his opponents) but the best on his feet as well. He stood his ground without losing his cool. And while he absorbed blows from several of the other candidates, some of which were effective, Romney proved to have a powerful counterpunch. He got much the better of the exchanges with Texas Governor Rick Perry on immigration, Herman Cain on 9-9-9, and Newt Gingrich on the individual mandate. And among the highlights of the evening was Romney’s defense of legal immigration and his response on the role of religion in American politics, which was sophisticated and true to the spirit of the founders.

My greatest concern regarding Governor Romney is that he did not mention reforming Medicare a single time in nearly two hours, including in the five points he listed when it came to cutting the budget. This is worrisome; any individual who fails to tackle the reform of Medicare cannot claim to be in favor of limited government and fiscal responsibility. None of the other candidates mentioned Medicare reform either, even as they cheerfully went after foreign aid (some of which is effective and, in any event, the entire foreign aid budget comprises only a tiny fraction of federal spending). It’s hard to imagine any of the candidates would, if they were elected president, put their shoulder to the wheel on Medicare reform if they never make the case for reform as candidates. There’s still time for this to happen, but the early indications are not encouraging. It’s in the area of health-care entitlement where Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Representative Paul Ryan are most missed.

2. Governor Perry was more energetic than in past debates. Yet he remains stiff and unsure of himself, prone to recite stale talking points (many of which are distant or disconnected from the question), and at times came across as petty and just plain mean. His attack on Governor Romney over an illegal immigrant who worked for a firm hired by Romney years ago was a sign of desperation. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, a smart political observer, wrote that the debate allowed Perry to “show off some natural Texas charm.” We must have different interpretations of what charm is. My guess is that more people came away from the debate disliking Perry than ever before. He continues to strike me, on substance, as the shallowest of all the people on the stage.

3. Herman Cain had some good moments in this debate and he remains a likeable figure. But his defense of his centerpiece program, the so-called 9-9-9 tax plan, was vague and weak even as the criticisms of it were specific and effective. If Cain is able to explain in any depth the merits of his plan, he has yet to show it. I’ve said before I doubted Cain’s tax plan will withstand scrutiny; I’m more confident of that prediction than ever.

Cain also denied comments he made to Wolf Blitzer earlier in the day regarding hypothetically trading Guantanamo Bay prisoners for hostages taken by al-Qaeda. In the afternoon Cain told Blitzer, when asked if he would free all the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one American hostage, “I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer. I would make sure that I got all of the information, I got all of the input, considered all of the options. … I could make that call if I had to.” That evening, during the debate, in response to a critical comment by Michele Bachmann, Cain said, “No. I said that I believe in the philosophy of we don’t negotiate with terrorists. I think — I’ve been saying — I would never agree to letting hostages in Guantanamo Bay go.” This was yet another awkward walk-back by Cain.

4. Newt Gingrich helped himself more than any other candidate, and his standing in the polls will rise. He was for the most part strong and self-assured, especially in his answer on national defense. He scored some good points against Romney on health care and against Cain on 9-9-9. And he avoided getting roped into the most acrimonious exchanges. Still, he came across as peevish when Romney reminded him of his past support for an individual health care mandate. His complaints about the media/debate moderators are becoming predictable and tiresome. And probably more than most of the people on the stage, Gingrich needs to be careful about being too emphatic when emphasizing religion, morality, and one’s prayer life.

5. Former Senator Rick Santorum was substantively strong; he’s clearly a knowledgeable and principled person. But he hurt himself by sounding petulant and aggrieved at times, especially in insisting to Governor Romney “you’re out of time” during their exchange on health care (one of the reasons time ran out on Romney was Santorum kept interrupting him). The effect of this is Santorum’s personal bearing detracted from his grasp of the issues. And Santorum was simply wrong to defend Ronald Reagan on the matter of selling arms for hostages.

A few other thoughts: the attacks on the TARP program are simplistic and exaggerated. While certainly imperfect, TARP achieved its primary purpose, helping to stabilize our financial system when it was on the edge of collapse. And the vast majority of the TARP money has been repaid. It ended up costing the federal government very little, yet it’s somehow become a symbol of failure. Even the candidates who supported TARP at the time are afraid to speak out in defense of it.

This is the kind of debate which people like CNN’s David Gergen hate because of the “bickering” and intense back-and-forth we saw. And there was an unscripted and slightly ragged element to the debate. But these are the kind of debates which will make the eventual GOP nominee stronger.

I’m probably in a minority when it comes to conservatives, but I thought Anderson Cooper did a fine job moderating the debate. And the fact that Jon Huntsman didn’t grace us with his presence last night made the evening that much better.

 



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