The Tea Party Presidential Debate

Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party debate in Tampa, Florida, was supposed to feature Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann tearing into Rick Perry on the Social Security issue.  The question came up, but it really wasn’t the centerpiece of the evening.  It turns out that just about all of the candidates feel varying levels of unease about Social Security. 

They might quibble about Perry’s use of the phrase “Ponzi scheme,” but there was little serious disagreement with his fundamental points: the program is insolvent, current workers are funding the benefits of current retirees, and young people should have some way out of the system before it crashes.  Everyone agreed that current retirees should keep their benefits, so no one is calling for the program to be “abolished.”

Perry called for “a slam-dunk guarantee” to protect benefits for current retirees, but insisted we “stop lying” to younger working people about the long-term health of the system.  Romney broadly believes the existing Social Security system can be “fixed,” but as always, offered few details.  Perry accused Romney of using “scare tactics,” and wondered why Romney was so eager to defend a program he described as “criminal” in his own book – a playful jab at the way everyone has been rooting through Perry’s “Fed Up!” to find material to use against him. 

Romney responded that Perry was misquoting him, and what he actually said was that the government’s raids on Social Security funding were the criminal acts.  Fair enough, but how do you prevent such raids on that great big honey pot of tax money?  Doesn’t that kind of thinking bring Romney into the realm of Al Gore’s “lockbox” fetish?  Decades of politicians have said Social Security should be fully funded and politically off limits, but that never actually happens.

Newt Gingrich slipped into the discussion of “scare tactics” to bring down the house with, “I’m not worried about Governor Perry or Governor Romney frightening the American people, when President Obama does that every day.”  He favors stabilizing entitlement programs like Social Security through robust economic growth, and giving younger workers some way to opt out of the program. 

This highlights the fatal flaw in Social Security that Rick Perry has been talking about all along.  The system doesn’t let people build up “retirement accounts” with their own money.  It taxes current workers to provide for current retirees – it’s a welfare program, not an investment plan.  Gingrich reasoned that increasing the number of current workers, by correcting Obama’s horrible unemployment numbers and GDP growth, will prop the system up long enough for younger workers to find a way out.

Herman Cain amplified that idea with specifics for Social Security privatization, including the Chilean model he mentioned at the previous debate.  Michele Bachmann was on that wavelength as well, holding to a strong theme of “the ownership society and personal responsibility” throughout the debate.

One illuminating comment popped out of the bubbling Social Security stew when Mitt Romney said he thought it was foolish to say Social Security was “forced” on us.  Do you recall getting a vote on whether to participate, at any point before you cashed your first paycheck?  Have you ever been given an option to leave the program?  No?  Then it was forced on you. 

It’s dismaying that Mitt Romney needs this explained to him.  He has trouble with the principled arguments against compulsory government programs, a point Bachmann later made when declaring him an unsteady champion against ObamaCare.  He offers only vague promises to “fix” them with his superior managerial skills.

Oddly, it wasn’t Social Security that caused problems for Perry, but the debate over his Gardasil vaccination executive order.  It began as a simple question about Presidential use of executive orders, but it quickly focused on Perry, and grew surprisingly furious.  There are basically three points at issue: the executive order Perry used to launch the program, the whiff of crony capitalism surrounding supply of the drug, and the transgression against the individual rights of girls and their parents by forcing them to have the injections.  Bachmann went after Perry hard on all three points, calling his vaccination program “offensive.”  Perhaps the intrinsic potency of these issues mixed with the scent of blood in the debate waters to make this exchange so lively.

When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Perry if his executive order requiring vaccinations was a mistake, Perry answered with refreshing humility and clarity: “It was, indeed.  If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.”  It’s hard to imagine what more satisfactory answer he could have given on that score… unless, of course, you don’t think he means it, and you expect him to take advantage of future opportunities to legislate through executive orders.  He actually did make a point of saying there’s one future executive order he can’t wait to write: the one that will “get rid of as much of ObamaCare as I can, on Day One.”

Perry went on to note that there was a simple method for parents to opt out of his vaccination plan, and defended the need for the program: “At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life.  At the end of the day this was about trying to solve cancer.” 

Bachmann’s defense of parental rights will find traction with those who have good reasons to worry about the gigantic social laboratories schools have become, as well as those generally concerned about the government compelling us to do things “for our own good.”  She overplayed the horrors of HPV vaccination, but Perry didn’t handle the assault as well as he could have.  That should play to the advantage of Bachmann’s campaign.

It was the evening’s longest sustained erasure of Perry’s confidence and good cheer, although he took a few bruises when the subject of granting in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants came up.  His line about how it “doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is” has absolutely nothing to do with indulging lawbreakers, or providing illegal aliens with benefits unavailable to legal citizens.

The candidates were at their worst during the ritual display of their resumes, with Romney deploying his odd talking point about how Texas is such a magical place that being a successful governor there is relatively easy.  The new mutation of this narrative involved him telling Perry, “If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player.”  This will provide a fine backup slogan if Texas wants to augment its status as “The Lone Star State” with “The Four Aces State.”  I wouldn’t be surprised to find bumper stickers already rolling off the printing presses.

They were at their best answering the questions the appalling MSNBC and Politico moderators were very careful not to ask at the previous debate: job creation and deficit reduction.  Romney had his best moment of the night here, firing off a list of solid bullet-point action items to get the economy moving again.  Herman Cain once again touted his “9-9-9” idea (flat 9% corporate and personal taxes, plus a 9% national sales tax.)  He also delivered a killer line about his “outsider” status and lack of political experience: “People keep saying I don’t know how Washington works.  Yes, I do.  It doesn’t.” 

Gingrich earned applause with, “The American people create jobs, not government.”  He put great emphasis on balancing the budget by attacking waste, fraud, and abuse.  Perry also noted that he’d eliminated $5.3 billion in waste from the Texas government, and “I’m thinking there might be even more in the federal government.”

I can’t remember a major political candidate who failed to declare his deathless hatred for waste, fraud, and abuse, but we always have them, because they’re an inescapable feature of Big Government.  Gingrich accurately noted that government waste is tantamount to stealing from the taxpayers.  Since gigantic government programs are invariably wasteful, this is equivalent to saying Big Government is theft.  That wouldn’t be a bad campaign theme for all of the Republicans to hammer.

The moderation from Wolf Blitzer was far, far better than what we got last time, although Blitzer did have a weird obsession with touting the latest Obama “stimulus” bill as some kind of devastating political bombshell the Republicans needed to take cover from.  He also spent a bit too much time goading Romney and Perry into fighting, which is exactly the sort of thing Newt Gingrich was threatening to crack heads over at the Reagan Library debate. 

A young man offered an extraordinarily perceptive question that didn’t get enough play from the full field of candidates: “Out of every dollar I earn, how much do you think I deserve to keep?”  That’s a killer, because the correct answer is that government should not be in the business of deciding how much people deserve to keep.  Taxes should be collected to fund the essential operations of the government, not redistribute wealth according to a politician’s notions of “fairness.” 

For some reason, Blitzer quickly decided that most of the candidates should not have the opportunity to answer that question, and started badgering Gingrich about corporate tax breaks.  Gingrich promptly slammed Obama’s tax-avoiding buddies at G.E. right back into his face.

It didn’t take much goading to get everyone to pile on Rick Perry, which is likely to cement his status as front-runner.  The big dog is the one everybody else barks at. 

 Bachmann generated some much-needed fireworks, climbing back into the ring as a major alternative to Perry and Romney.  As an avowed lover of the Constitution, she should become more comfortable with explaining that some ideas can be bad without being unconstitutional, a term she repeatedly and incorrectly applied to Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan.

 Gingrich continued his winning streak of superb debate performances, while Cain was both personally engaging and solid on matters of policy.  Cain’s idea to staff a regulatory reform commission with people who have been victimized by the EPA sounds like the most fun you could have in a subcommittee chamber.  It’s hard to see how Gingrich or Cain can go the distance to the Republican convention, but they’d both have a lot to offer a new Administration in 2013. 

Now that we’ve had two debates in which everyone got a chance to unload on Perry, and he’s still standing, it would be nice if future debates became a competition to see who can most effectively destroy Barack Obama.