The Reagan Library Debate


The Republican presidential field gathered at the Reagan Library tonight, assembling upon a weird red stage that looked like the conference room aboard a Klingon battle cruiser.  Thad McCotter wasn’t present, which is too bad, because he’s the one most likely to have brought a Gibson guitar.

This was supposed to be an act of political fusion, in which the primary field would collapse into a nucleus of Perry and Romney, orbited by either a not-Perry or not-Romney particle.   It didn’t quite work out that way.

Perry had high expectations to meet, as the recently announced heavyweight contender who shot to the top of the polls.  His much-anticipated duel with Romney was the least interesting part of the evening.  They threw resume bullet points at each other for a while, until Jon Huntsman slipped in a jab about his state outperforming both of theirs in job growth.  Perry’s line that Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than Romney would have cut deeper if more voters remembered who Michael Dukakis is.  It all felt like a ritual we had to get out of the way before the debate could truly begin.

One of Romney’s defenses against Perry’s superior job growth record involved pointing out that Texas is a better business environment than Massachusetts, because it doesn’t have an income tax or a strong union presence, and it’s got the oil and gas industry.  I wonder how many viewers immediately began thinking how it would be nice if the rest of the country had those advantages, too.  It won’t be Mitt Romney’s face they see during those moments of reflection.

This illustrates one of the dangers inherent in dwelling too strongly on past records, pro or con.  When Romney boasts that he’s an expert in health care because of “what he went through as governor of Massachusetts,” he’s raising the much more important specter of what the people of Massachusetts have gone through because of RomneyCare.  Instead of talking about how ObamaCare is wrong because it’s a federal program, he should be talking about how it’s wrong, period. 

I suspect voters will respond more strongly to the candidates’ understanding of the Obama disaster, and their plans for the future, than the statistics printed on their gubernatorial baseball cards.  In an hour such as this, we are more impressed by vision than memories.

Perry was most seriously tested with questions about his use of an executive order to require vaccinations in Texas, and his stance on Social Security.  The former is an important point of limited-government principle for conservatives.  Both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum made strong points about the importance of respecting parental authority in such matters.  Perry was admirably humble in conceding he might have been mistaken in how he circumvented his state’s legislature, but also firm in defending his reasons for requiring the vaccinations.  I don’t know how many of his critics on this matter will be satisfied with the answers he gave, but his deportment in delivering those answers showed he appreciates the gravity of the issues involved.

As for Social Security, Perry hit a powerful grand slam, but he was swinging at a political hand grenade.  He didn’t back off one inch from his remarks that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” and amplified the point by calling it a “monstrous lie.”  It’s not easy to stand by strong positions guaranteed to invite relentless attacks, and Perry seemed fully aware of the stakes.  He’s absolutely correct that the system is dying – nobody wants to “take your Social Security away” more than the people who oppose fundamental reform of the system. 

By contrast, Mitt Romney’s meaningless non-answer about how he’ll “save” the existing system was politically safe, but deadly in practical terms.  We should be far past the point where anyone can get away with platitudes, instead of specifics.  This election will be held in 2012, not 1992.

Romney was much stronger when directly criticizing President Obama, slipping in a crack about “granting a waiver to all 50 states” that has the staying power to linger in voters’ imaginations.  It felt like his strategy was to audition for best Obama opponent, rather than competing directly with the other candidates.  That’s not a bad strategy, really, but it works better when you’re the undisputed front-runner.

In his worst moments, Perry came off as a little under-prepared, which is especially surprising because these moments were entirely predictable attacks on his record.  He has a habit of falling silent, as if his thoughts are being transmitted via satellite.  It’s better than Obama’s mumbling and stammering during unscripted remarks, but people tend to associate smooth delivery with clarity of thought, and silent pauses break through their stream of consciousness like jagged rocks.  In a head-to-head contest, I’d have to give Romney the edge on poise and polish, which is not faint praise.  Those are important qualities for a presidential candidate.

Newt Gingrich turned in a remarkably strong performance.  He called out the absolutely awful moderators from NBC and Politico, sternly informing them that he was “frankly not interested in your efforts to get Republicans fighting each other,” when the focus of the evening should be a competition to best diagnose and treat the symptoms of chronic Obama failure. 

Later, when the moderators engaged in a bizarre, insistent demand that Rick Perry name some climate scientists to prove he’s qualified to criticize the global warming fraud (a demand that will, curiously enough, never be made of global warming true believers) Gingrich looked like he was chewing nails.

Gingrich’s answers displayed confident mastery of facts and policy details.  He also showed real leadership in the way he interacted with other debate participants.  Whatever the fate of his campaign, he had a good night tonight.

Herman Cain was also excellent, largely shaking the unfortunate impression of trying to bluff his way through a foreign-policy test he didn’t really study for.  He had a Big Idea to promote: his “9-9-9” tax reform plan, which calls for a flat tax of 9% on both business and personal income, plus a 9% sales tax.  He’s been a proponent of the “Fair Tax” (a straight national sales tax replacing all others) in the past.  In response to a question about certain corporations legally evading taxation altogether, while others pay high rates, Cain made the excellent point that a plan like his would prevent the government from choosing “winners and losers.”  Cain displayed a thorough understanding of why it’s crucial to strip the government of that power and arrogance.

Michele Bachmann was serene and focused, with tight and punchy policy-oriented answers to every question that came her way.  She didn’t seem to burn as hot on the debate stage as during previous appearances.  It felt like she was receding into the background – although she was, once again, strong and sharp on the importance of repealing ObamaCare.

Jon Huntsman spent a lot of time early in the debate singing hosannas to states’ rights, then flushed it all down the global-warming toilet during the last few minutes.  He also made an appalling comment about the importance of “nation-building in the United States.”  He couldn’t be more wrong-headed.  The last thing we need is more central planners treating us like a laboratory experiment.  This arrogant government needs to step away, and let a nation of builders get back to work.

Huntsman also had a talking point about rebuilding America’s “core,” which he repeated several times.  He even maintained servicing our “core” would improve our relations with China.  He didn’t really expound on the theme, but it sounds like a pilates program designed to give Uncle Sam killer abs.

Ron Paul spent the evening falling into various moderator traps designed to make him look like a circus act, from weird rants about air conditioners for Iraq to drug legalization.  His positions aren’t entirely wrong or illogical, but they’re far too theoretical, a word he actually used during his first answer.  This is the problem with Paul’s strong-form libertarianism: he sounds like he’s designing a laboratory experiment that not even the most desperate grad student would sign up for. 

Rick Santorum made a graceful last hurrah, as the rationale for his candidacy dissolved around him.  He delivered a nice line about coming from an “industrial-strength state,” and he displayed strong flashes of both charm and insight.  He gave the impression of a man learning many useful lessons for his next campaign.

Overall, Perry, Gingrich, and Cain left the strongest impressions with me.  Perry joked about serving as a piñata for the other candidates.  He didn’t burst, but he bounced around a bit more than he probably wanted to.

One thing is certain about tonight’s debate: John King of CNN doesn’t have to worry about being chided as the worst moderator of the primary season any more.  Brian Williams of NBC and John Harris of Politico were comically awful, asking so many loaded questions that a bomb squad should have been called in.  Besides the bizarre global-warming hectoring, their low point was asking Perry how he can sleep at night after authorizing so many executions.  They looked rather taken aback when their grim tally of Texas executions drew applause from the crowd.  MSNBC also saw fit to overshadow the current candidates with a Reagan montage… set to the gloomy tinkling piano of “Bittersweet Symphony.” 

None of this is surprising – it’s what you get when you let partisans with press credentials run your debate – and perhaps it’s even useful, as it conditions candidates for the media treatment they’ll get in the general election.  It’s still jarring to be reminded of just how far we remain from anything resembling “objective” media.  It will be fun watching them try to defend the Obama record.  I’m sure they’ll get around to asking him how he sleeps at night after executing so many jobs.