Impressions From the South Carolina Debate


The first debate between Republican presidential contenders was held in South Carolina Thursday night.  Not all of them were in attendance.  Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee were among the declared or likely contestants who didn’t attend.  The attendees were asked for their thoughts on the missing candidates, so we learned that Tim Pawlenty is very fond of Mike Huckabee, while Gary Johnson thinks Sarah Palin spends her time in Alaska crawling around ice floes on her hands and knees.

Donald Trump wasn’t there either, although I was hoping he would make a surprise appearance.  I envisioned a burst of flash powder and a column of gold smoke mixed with glitter, followed by a loud thump and some muffled cursing.  Trump would then stroll onto the stage, adjusting his tie and complaining that nobody had talked about screwing the Chinese yet.  Alas, it didn’t happen.

I doubt any of the candidates would have expected, two weeks ago, that so much of this debate would focus on foreign policy.  The shift in the national discussion after the death of bin Laden probably threw them all off their games – except for Ron Paul, who has been playing the exact same game for a long time, and wants the world to go away as much today as he did last year.  It’s good that all of the contenders found themselves on uncertain ground tonight.  We need to see what they do when the earth moves beneath them. 

I thought Herman Cain won the evening, an opinion shared by the Fox News focus group convened immediately afterward.  He’s the most commanding orator of the group, and the one best able to think on his feet.  His weakest answer was the first one, covering foreign policy and the war in Afghanistan.  It was clearly not something he really wanted to talk about, and when some of the energy drains from his performance, the effect is dramatic. 

During that exchange, Cain said he would trust “the experts” to advise him on a situation like Afghanistan.  Of course every President will have advice from experts, but right now the public is thinking that a galaxy of “experts” got us $14 trillion in debt… and that’s usually a feeling Cain is deeply in tune with.  In future debates, he should come armed with his own fully-formed opinions on all topics.  That’s hard to do.  So is running for President.

Cain was the best at planting rhetorical lawn darts in the memory of the audience, as when he said of President Obama’s bounce from the killing of Osama bin Laden: “One right decision doth not a great president make.”  When he said the word “outrageous,” I could see it hanging in the air, with hyphens in between the syllables.  He seemed far more prepared to defend the dramatic “Fair Tax” reform plan than Tim Pawlenty was to defend his gubernatorial record. 

Cain’s stance on energy policy, and the importance of American energy independence, was a textbook example of how powerful a simple common-sense idea can be, when presented with supreme confidence.

Pawlenty came alive a few times during the evening, especially when discussing the National Labor Relations Board’s crusade against Boeing for planning a production line in right-to-work South Carolina. Crank up the voltage on Pawlenty, and you’ve really got something.  I could believe that he honestly forgot he was standing in South Carolina when he had all that juice coursing through him, and would have given the same answer if the debate were being held in Washington State. 

I also liked Pawlenty’s takedown of ObamaCare best out of all the contenders.  It was both thorough and passionate – he knows why Obama’s health care boondoggle is both bad and wrong. 

Rick Santorum was also very good on ObamaCare, and was the biggest surprise of the night to me.  He can look strong and passionate in his best moments, anxious and twitchy at his worst.  He wandered off into some weird territory when asked about controversial statements from his past.  I appreciate his desire to be uncompromising, but recognizing that some ideas require extra polish to present to a skeptical public is not the same as compromising deeply held principles.  In fact, the ability to educate a nervous public about difficult ideas, with competence and wit, will be a vital skill for the next President.

Santorum needs to learn how to loosen up, and mix a little soothing, confident yin with his fiery, inspirational yang.  He also relies a bit too much on body language, as when he amusingly provided a pantomime demonstration of what “bullying” is, or allowed one of his answers to collapse into a mute smile and hoisted thumb.  A little of that stuff can keep a visual audience interested, but the early stages of a primary are fought in a media space that is more widely heard and read.   

The strangest aspect of the evening was Gary Johnson’s presence.  The former governor of New Mexico has a nervous, unsettling style that would be better suited to teaching a scrapbooking class at the local Jo-Anne’s craft store.  His fluttering hands made him look like he spent the evening under attack from a pair of “Alien” face-huggers. 

Johnson is charming when he’s funny, as when he complained about the lack of questions thrown to him from the panel, but he doesn’t seem like someone who could go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama, or possibly even Tim Pawlenty.  This is a season for warrior-poets, not nerds from poli-sci class.

The great truth that every Republican presidential candidate must accept is that tonight – and every night, until November 2012 – they dine in hell.  They will do battle with an incumbent who presents his re-election as a moral imperative, supported by a media culture of suicidal liberalism that does not want to be told America can no longer afford its appetites.  They must relish uneven playing fields, nervous voters, and the difficult process of fusing emotion and reason into inspiration. 

The ideal candidate must understand that America’s greatest days lie ahead of her… on the far side of the most perilous hours she has faced in a century.  They are battling for executive power over a system that will fight like mad to defeat them, and die of complications from its victory.  They will represent an electorate that is tired of apologizing for capitalism to people who want to kill it.

Herman Cain seemed to fit that description best on Thursday night.  He’ll face some different opponents in his next debate.  The smart ones will watch the tapes from South Carolina, and be ready for him.