The second big Republican debate, held by CNN in New Hampshire on Monday night, probably played much differently for political junkies versus the average viewer. At this stage in the primary, the impressions of both groups are important.
For someone who settled into the debate with expectations built from the last few weeks of political news, it was all about Pawlenty getting his shot at Romney, Cain trying to sustain his momentum, Bachmann making her debut, and Gingrich fighting for survival.
From this perspective, it was a tale of missed opportunity for Pawlenty, no matter how often the host and questioners tried to slam him and Romney into a steel cage. Pawlenty made a point of saying he wouldn’t bring up his pointed “Obamneycare” barb, then seemed genuinely surprised when moderator John King brought it up. I’m surprised that he was surprised. Pawlenty did a lot of homework and provided detailed answers to every question – he hit a grand slam on the question about religion and politics, going so far as to quote from his state’s constitution by memory – but I really hate that “deer in the headlights” look he got when the media decided to talk about something he didn’t want to talk about. Note to all candidates: that’s going to happen a lot during the campaign.
It doesn’t speak well of Pawlenty that he backed down from such a strong criticism of Romney. It is not good for a challenger to let the front-runner look like the alpha male of the pack. There was no concerted effort to tear into Romney at this debate, as the other candidates made it clear they came to do battle with Obama (and Joe Biden, in a hilarious round of responses to a question about the 2008 vice-presidential selection that seemed designed to encourage them to rip Sarah Palin.)
Gingrich did about the best he possibly could have, carefully playing a tough hand. He swung for the fences and said some things that will make the news over the next few days, such as calling for Congress to de-fund the National Labor Relations Board. He made the powerful assertion that Republicans shouldn’t just be planning what to do with the White House in 2013, but should be taking pro-active steps to begin repairing the damage from Obamanomics now. He made a telling point about Obama’s uninformed and reckless foreign policy, emphasizing the need for greater intelligence about topics like the Libyan rebels, about whom we know virtually nothing.
Gingrich also made a solid point about the need to build a Senate majority for the GOP, in addition to taking the White House, which played up the value of his own congressional experience. He was the first candidate to cut through the silly false choices which the moderator and questioners kept throwing out. For example, as Gingrich put it, the choice facing us on immigration is not between instantly deporting 20 million people, and giving them all amnesty… or, as a later question implied, between unrestrained government spending and doing away with disaster relief.
On the down side, Gingrich doubled down on his “right wing social engineering” talk, which will delight Democrat campaign operatives who look forward to pummeling other Republicans with it. He continues to make the strange argument that Rep. Paul Ryan is somehow trying to “impose” his Medicare proposals on an unwilling and uninformed populace, when Ryan has been running himself ragged trying to persuade and inform them. Don’t those video tutorials Ryan has been producing about his “Path to Prosperity” budget count for anything?
Herman Cain seemed to run out of gas in this debate. The short answer format kept him from building up the stem-winding energy that serves him best. Casual viewers might have been put off by the way his answers were filled with more philosophical generalities than specifics. He gave some good, solid answers, especially when he talked about solving the Social Security crisis with private accounts, and cited success with a similar program in Chile. He made a tremendous point when he explained his support for right-to-work laws by saying “no one should be forced to join any organization.” At other times, the consummate outsider status that has served him so well to date seemed like a liability.
Part of Cain’s problem is that Michele Bachmann entered the race. She made a solid debut, answering her questions with passion and unflinching determination. I wonder if some pundits underestimate how impressed the average viewer might have been with her forthright and uncompromising style, given how weary the nation has become of Obama obfuscation and spin. I suspect even people who don’t entirely agree with her ardently pro-life stance might nevertheless be impressed with how passionately and directly she delivered it, backed up by the example of her remarkably large family and foster children. People respond positively to someone who walks the walk, as well as talking the talk.
Bachmann also had a good point about the TARP bailouts: it seems like everyone is against them now, but she can prove she was against them then. She called for a “mother of all repeal bills” to pull the government’s boot off the neck of small business, and declared the EPA should be known as the “Job Killing Organization of America.” Where others fumbled a bit while offering their feelings about the Tea Party, Bachmann is the Tea Party.
There is a great hunger among Republican voters for someone who can fearlessly carry their ideals through a tough campaign, while displaying a mastery of the issues. Bachmann bid for that position tonight. She sounded more like a passionate conservative than a populist, which is great. In the process of taking that position, she ate a good deal of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain’s lunches.
It seemed to me that Bachmann got the worst dose of John King’s awful moderating skills. He had a nasty habit of grunting and humming through the candidate’s answers, sounding a bit like Twiki the robot from the old “Buck Rogers” TV show. At one point he was barking at Bachmann like a seal. I got the impression he was trying to make the Republican candidates look like a circus, with himself as the ringmaster. That was unprofessional and uncalled-for.
I don’t know if I hate the rapid-fire pace of the questions and answers, however. It’s not a bad idea to see if the candidates can think on their feet, and pack a lot of punch into a short answer. This is a social media age, and tonight was a Twitter debate.
Ron Paul had a few great lines, including an insistence that we must begin “unraveling the Keynesian bubble,” an image that will stick around for a while. He also made a profoundly important point about how we don’t really have “private property rights” when the government can tell us what to do with our property, or seize it through abuse of eminent domain, leaving us as essentially renters on our own land. Not enough people appreciate the importance of this point.
This was a big night for Mitt Romney, and it went well for him. I personally find Romney’s style a little too… processed, and find myself reflecting often upon his history of changed positions. He had a nasty habit of disappearing at crucial moments over the last few years, such as when ObamaCare was tumbling to passage in a shower of bribes, or Sarah Palin was being called out as an accessory to murder in the Tucson shootings.
Looking at Romney tonight without my own preconceptions, I think most viewers will be favorably impressed. He does a good job of synthesizing what the other candidates are saying, and looking magisterial when he agrees with them – a not inconsiderable asset when running for President. He conveyed a good focus on his differences with Obama, skillfully using every opportunity to press the federalist theme he’s building his campaign around. Notably, the other candidates appeared to officially absolve Romney of all flip-flopping charges on his pro-life position tonight.
I thought Romney used the grim phrase “bankruptcy process” once too often, but the point he was making about letting the private sector pass judgment on failed business models was sound. He made an important and timely point about the danger of our looming inability to sell any more Treasury debt. He put some steel behind his determination to repeal ObamaCare, and spoke strongly in praise of free-market power, and government restraint. He acted like a prohibitive front-runner who is already loading his rhetorical guns for the general election. That’s a good image for him to project.
I think Gingrich, Romney, and Bachmann can count tonight as successful. It seems like the primary race is suddenly becoming Romney versus Bachmann. They’d be an interesting pair if they wound up on a ticket together.