The four remaining Republican candidates for president took part in their last debate before Super Tuesday, in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. As someone who has been supporting Rudy Giuliani, I did begin watching the debate with a strong bias between McCain and Romney, but over the course of the evening I came to believe that Rudy endorsed the wrong man.
After a boring first few minutes, Mitt Romney was asked whether John McCain was a mainstream conservative. Romney’s answer was a laundry list of the many issues which have conservatives uncertain at best about whether they would support McCain if he is the eventual nominee. Not only did Romney mention McCain’s initial opposition to the Bush tax cuts, but he also took on McCain’s positions on free speech, immigration, and energy policy by (accurately) naming the hyphenated bills on which McCain has allied himself with liberal Democrats: McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman.
McCain responded with his usual line of being “proud of (his) conservative record”, then fired off some economic criticism of Romney, almost all of which was effectively rebutted by Romney who told McCain twice that “facts are stubborn things”. Indeed, Romney’s retorts again made McCain look like he was willing to say things which are either highly misleading or outright false…more on that later.
An interesting moment was McCain’s naming some of the impressive economic advisers he has, including Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp, and saying “I will rely on people to judge me by the company I keep.” I could not help but infer that McCain would prefer people not judge him based on him or his record. Indeed, dodging his record on everything but supporting the surge was par for the evening’s course for McCain.
In a question about the current “mortgage crisis”, John McCain said he thought “efforts so far are laudable” but that there are “some greedy people on Wall Street who perhaps need to be punished”. He suggested that “we ought to adjust the mortgages of people who were eligible for better terms, but were somehow convinced” to get worse mortgages. In other words, McCain remained true to his very tenuous grip on an understanding of the importance and value of free markets, and the danger of moral hazard.
On immigration, Romney emphasized “no amnesty” and said that what he found “so offensive” about the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill was the ability of all illegal aliens to stay here permanently with a $3,000 “Z-visa”. One of the most interesting questions and answers of the evening came when Senator McCain was asked whether he would vote for his own immigration bill if it came up for a vote now. He said multiple times that it wouldn’t come up for a vote, but, when pressed, quietly said that he would not vote for it because he “knows now that the American people want the border secured first.” Interesting that he somehow missed that fact earlier.
Bringing up the dispute of the last week, Romney was asked whether he had supported time tables for withdrawing from Iraq, Romney said that McCain’s assertion that Romney had done so was “a lie”…with McCain smiling uncomfortably in the next seat. Romney also called McCain’s timing of that assertion, just before the Florida primary, the type of “dirty trick that Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible.” Romney’s harsh words brought the loudest applause any candidate received during the evening. Strangely, even though media outlets across the political spectrum have backed up Romney’s position, McCain started his response with “Of course, he (Romney) said he wanted a timetable.” Romney interrupted McCain asking him “How is it that you’re the expert on my position?”, again getting loud applause. McCain’s persistence in the face of Romney’s convincing rebuttal and even the moderator’s implication that McCain was wrong earned McCain the only boos of the debate.
One of McCain’s few bright spots came when he replied to Romney’s charge of “old-style Washington politics” by noting that Romney has been the primary source of negative ads in the Republican contest so far, and saying to Romney of the millions of dollars Romney has spent on such ads “a lot of it is your own money. You’re free to do what you want to. You can spend it all. But the fact is that your negative ads, my friend, have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign.”
Ron Paul said he finds the argument between McCain and Romney “rather silly, because they’re arguing technicalities of a policy they both agree with….We should be debating foreign policy, whether we should be intervening or not, whether we should be the world’s policeman or not….and you’re arguing about technicalities of who said what when?!?” Paul then went into his usual rant about the Iraq war being a mistake and unconstitutionally undeclared war, having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or 9/11, and bankrupting the country. Mike Huckabee said that we must leave as soon as we can, but with victory and with honor. McCain then made an important point that the question of how long we might have troops in Iraq must not be “about American presence, but about American casualties.”
John McCain was asked why he was better suited to manage the economy than Mitt Romney to which McCain gave a rather generic “because I’m a leader” answer and then proceeded to talk about his leadership in the war against Islamic extremism, rather than actually address the economic issue raised specifically by the question. He then emphasized his military record and his time as a POW, all of which was true but which did not answer the question. Romney, after saying that he respected McCain’s service to our country, noted that Americans tend to turn to governors rather than senators because governors as executives “are actually leading something. Senators and Congressman are fine people, but they’re legislators. They sit in committees. They’re committee chairs. And they call that leadership.” Romney then described his 25-year successful career in the private sector and turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics. “In order to have someone strengthen our economy, you’ve gotta have somebody who’s actually done some work in the private economy, who understands how it works.”
Ron Paul typically noted that “the constitution is very clear that the president is commander-in-chief of the military, but the president is not commander-in-chief of the economy or of the people”.
Mike Huckabee emphasized his executive experience, also noting that “Washington doesn’t know how the states work, but the states know how Washington works”, mentioning unfunded mandates destroying states’ budgets. Huckabee also took a jab at legislators “who have the luxury of specializing in an issue” whereas governors “have to be able to handle on any given day several dozen different issues.”
The debate ended with the candidates being asked “Would Ronald Reagan endorse you, and if so, why?” Romney and McCain said “Yes”; Paul said “I don’t know”. Huckabee ended with a great line: “I’m not going to pretend he would endorse me. I wish he would…but I endorse him.”
Of those two candidates who believed Reagan would endorse them, Romney was the more convincing. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul got little time during the debate as most of the questions were about arguments between John McCain and Mitt Romney. To this viewer, Romney had a much better performance than McCain; indeed, had this debate happened just a few days earlier, I would not have been surprised to see Romney win Florida.