Republicans Debate Economics

Democrat candidates’ debates are a zero-sum game. However much one wins, others have to lose by an equal amount. For Republicans, it’s not such an exciting exercise in forensic accounting. All of them — well, almost all — are growing on us. It’s not “The Waltons” or “MASH”, but we’re getting accustomed to seeing these guys in our living rooms.

In yesterday’s economics debate in Dearborn, Michigan Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson won, Mitt Romney lost and perhaps a few points were stolen from the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton.

If Republicans learned anything from the Dearborn debate, it’s that they have to prepare the media battlefield before every major event. The biggest problem they faced – MSNBC’s chief Clinton cheerleader, Chris Matthews — almost behaved like a professional journalist.

That result was obtained by embarrassing his cohorts into keeping him in line first, in this column on Monday and for more than an hour of Rush Limbaugh’s show on Tuesday. Both CNBC star Larry Kudlow and Matthews’ co-host Maria Bartiromo had publicly hinted that they’d keep Matthews in check.

And he was, for almost the entire show. When he cracked wise at Fred Thompson about a long answer (You should’ve stuck to “no”), Thompson gently smacked him down, saying, “That’s your opinion, Christopher.” It was enough. Let’s hope we’ll find analogous moments in future debates.

Though the debate was supposedly on economic issues, much of the two hours was spent on other topics such as the war, Iran, and how a nuclear crisis with Iran necessitating military action would be handled by each of the candidates. Huckabee homered, Fred hit a triple and Mitt managed to strike out on only one pitch.

Matthews did a good job trying to corner the candidates on a question that Hillary punted away in the last Dem debate: would you take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? Sen. Clinton huffily declined to answer because it was a hypothetical. The mere fact that every question in these debates is such didn’t faze her a bit.

Aiming at Mitt Romney, Matthews asked if the former governor would take military action against Iran and added a new wrinkle: do you need congressional authorization to do it?

Romney, flummoxed, reverted to corporate type and said that he’d convene a meeting:
you sit down with your attorneys and they tell you what you have to do. Making it worse, when Matthews repeated the question — do you have to get Congress’ approval — Romney said he’d let the lawyers sort it out. Fanning a third time on the same fastball, Romney retreated into the, “we’ll do everything possible to avoid that” crisis stuff. It was bad, and was made much worse when the other candidates sounded off on the same question.

Duncan Hunter, with more military expertise than anyone on stage (except for John McCain) didn’t hesitate. He’d take military action immediately if the targets were ‘fleeting’ (I presume he meant only briefly exposed) and go to Congress if there were time.

Sen. McCain, in his comfort zone, said that if time permitted he’d seek Congressional approval, but would do what the situation demanded. And, he added, such a nuclear crisis with Iran was a possibility much closer to reality than the discussion recognized.

Asked if he’d take military action against Iran, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.” He said the president, “…has to do what’s necessary to protect the American people.” When Matthews demanded of him whether Congressional approval was required Huckabee said that if there’s time to do it, Congressional approval should be sought. But Matthews raised the stakes, asking what he’d do if Congress denied permission. Huckabee took a full swing and hit it into the center field bleachers.

If Congress said no, Huckabee said, you have to do what’s necessary and suffer the consequences. Think about that: someone who — up front — is willing to take a personal risk to do the right thing. To say that Huckabee is, is not to say the others aren’t. But he is the one who said it, loudly and clearly. And he meant it.

Fred Thompson scored well on this question too, emphasizing that no one running for president should give up the President’s constitutional powers preemptively. Thompson, like Huckabee, Hunter and John McCain, agreed action should be taken and Congress consulted if time permitted.

The economic issues supposedly comprising the agenda gave the candidates the chance to ventilate some ideas, and — mostly — became Mayor Giuliani’s platform to chew up Hillary.

Most of the candidates — except for Duncan Hunter — didn’t seem to mind if foreign governments or companies bought American companies. Hunter insisted he’d object to the Dubai ports deal again because they allowed transshipment of nuclear triggers to (possibly) the A.Q. Khan network. The others said that if national security and safety concerns were satisfied, they’d not oppose such deals.

Giuliani took shot after shot at Clinton, deriding her remark that the free market was a destructive force, and engaged Mitt Romney in a knock-down over the line-item veto. Romney was still attacking Giuliani for suing to prevent the use of a line-item veto by Bill Clinton. Giuliani’s answer, delivered in best New Yawka style, pretty much ran over Romney by arguing — correctly — that the line item veto was unconstitutional and any strict constructionist would want to strike it down. And, the Mayor added, he “beat Bill Clinton” on it at the Supreme Court. (Constitution gadfly Ron Paul didn’t try to butt in on that one, apparently not understanding the issue).

All in all, Thompson had a good night, Romney lost ground and Rudy gained some. It was, as Thompson said at the end, just like home. For us, it was another episode in a familiar television series we are comfortable watching.

But Thompson was right. Asked by Bartiromo if he had waited too long to get in, and what he thought at the end of his first debate, the big man joked that, “It was getting a little boring without me.” Yes, it was. Welcome aboard, senator. Glad to have you in the mix.