The Orlando GOP Debate

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney spent a good deal of time at the Fox News/Google debate in Orlando arguing about each other’s books.  I haven’t seen that many books thrown around since the FBI raided Solyndra.

It was a fairly transparent attempt for them to make each other look insincere.  It probably also kept their campaign staffers busy reading each others’ books and working up attacks over the past week.  I don’t know how well such an attack plays with an audience that might not have actually read those books, and therefore has no way to easily evaluate the claims.  Perry and Romney used each other’s shifting positions to argue that America was confronted with multiple copies of each candidate.  By my count, that left three Perrys and six Romneys on the stage, which might explain why there was so little time given to everyone else.

For what it’s worth, Perry’s firm insistence that he stands by everything he’s written probably won him a narrow victory in the full contact book club competition.  Once the book fu sparring match was behind him, however, Perry sailed into more dangerous waters.  After studying the last debate, everyone zeroed in on illegal immigration as Perry’s obvious weakness… and they’re right. 

The problem is that Perry has to defend the indefensible.  Romney put a dollar figure on the Texas DREAM Act, and said it amounted to a “$100,000 discount for illegal aliens to attend college.” 

Perry countered with straw man arguments, asking “If you are saying we shouldn’t educate children brought into our state by no fault of their own…?”  No, Governor, nobody’s saying that.  Romney said that illegal aliens shouldn’t get $100,000 discounts unavailable to legal citizens.  Perry didn’t want to answer that question, so he invented one he felt more comfortable with.  He fumbles and stumbles when his straw men are taken away – a very pronounced contrast to how confident, and even inspiring, he can be when he works within his comfort zone.  He’s not accustomed to arguments continuing after he says, “Dammit, I CARE!”  A lot of Republican voters are tired of being lectured on their moral obligation to subsidize others.

Perry retains his strength when he steers clear of emotional appeals.  Even on the immigration issue, when he talks about his experience with physical border security, and his support for Arizona during its legal battle with the Obama Administration, he holds his ground.  He stressed how many businesses have been relocating to Texas, even joshing with Florida governor Rick Scott (who was in the audience) over how the two states have been competing to attract new residents.  He knows how important it is to “create an environment for risk and investment to flourish,” and boasted that in Texas, “opportunity is the word of the day.”  He remains particularly strong in his support for states’ rights, in areas ranging from regulatory controls to education.  But, somewhere during the immigration exchange, his front-runner mojo slipped away.

Romney continued a strategy of trying to minimize damage to his credibility with independents by taking bold stands that might spook them.  When the others talked passionately about school choice and abolishing the Department of Education, Romney said “the best thing for education is great teachers,” and promised to “stand up to national teachers’ unions,” tossing in a slam at President Obama for cutting off the Washington, D.C. school choice program.  He still addresses entitlement crises with vague promises to make Social Security “solvent for the next 75 years.”

Romney still isn’t budging in his support for the RomneyCare debacle, but he did promise not to inflict it upon the rest of the nation (yay!) and vowed to repeal ObamaCare.  His most aggressive moment came during the foreign policy discussion, when he angrily pointed out that “Obama chastised Israel about settlements, but he didn’t say a word about Hamas rocket attacks.”  He also did a fine job of slapping down class warfare: “I don’t try to define who’s ‘rich’ and who’s not.  I want everybody to be rich!”

Romney has an interesting tendency to respond to early questions with specific proposals, ticking them off on his fingers like bullet points – he even joked about refraining from going through all 59 points of his economic plan – but later in a debate, when others are busting out their Fair Taxes and talking about which government departments they would shut down, Romney starts offering more indefinite promises of “leadership” to solve economic problems.  I wonder if this is deliberate tactic to get specific points on the table early, when the audience is fresh, and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste of generalities at the end.

Herman Cain, who has run into a bit of foreign-policy trouble in the past, made a very penetrating point: “If it was clear to the Palestinians where the United States stood, they might not have made their move” for statehood at the United Nations.  He deftly expanded on a famous Ronald Reagan quote by advocating “peace through strength and clarity.

Cain had a great night.  He made no obvious mistakes, and effectively promoted his “999 Plan” tax reform as a cure for Obama’s malaise (a term Newt Gingrich actually dragged out of the Jimmy Carter mausoleum.)  He called for the elimination and ground-up rebuilding of the EPA, which he said had “gone too far” when introducing regulations for dust.  He repeated his endorsement of the Chilean reform model for Social Security, a highly specific answer to a profoundly important issue.

Cain’s biggest moment, the show stopper of the evening, came when he described his experiences as a cancer survivor, and explained how ObamaCare would have killed him.  “Getting treatment on my timetable, not the government’s timetable, saved my life,” he declared.  “We need to get bureaucrats out of the business of trying to micromanage health care.”  So powerful was this statement from Cain that Romney went out of his way to applaud it later in the evening.

Jon Huntsman said that Cain’s “999 Plan, mixed with my tax policy, would be the most competitive thing this nation could achieve.”  Cain also had the signal honor of being the prospective father of Rick Perry’s ideal vice-presidential nominee, as Perry suggested “mating” him with Newt Gingrich to genetically engineer a super-veep.

Cain’s biggest problem in previous debates was that he projected great managerial expertise, without quite seeming presidential.  He went a long way toward changing that tonight.  The other candidates spent a remarkable amount of time praising his positions.  When you’ve invested in something as heavily as Cain’s “999 Plan,” it’s very rewarding to see several of the other candidates run it up the flagpole and salute it.

Bachmann seemed like she was packing up her campaign, fatally wounded after she flew off the rails on vaccinations last week.  She was scoring some effective points against Perry during the last debate, but journeyed into a netherworld of anti-vaccination delirium afterward.  She made a point of raising the subject one more time on Thursday night, saying she was “only relating a story” she had been told when talking about HPV injections causing autism.  That’s really not a good answer, because it makes her sound gullible and intemperate – qualities not attractive to either Republican primary voters or the general electorate. 

When Bachmann repeated her assertion from the last debate that “it’s not appropriate for a governor to make a decision that all 12-year-old girls get vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease,” Perry repeated his defense: he admits he made a mistake by not making the program “opt-in” instead of “opt-out” (a decent point he muffed a bit by wondering “what part of opt-out parents don’t get”) and added that he would “always err on the side of life.”  The vaccination thing did some damage to Perry, especially when it made him visibly stumble, but it probably won’t hurt him much more… and while Bachmann had a few decent moments in Orlando, she couldn’t find a way to stand out from the pack.  She conveyed the sense of a candidate who wants to make a few closing statements before exiting the stage.

Newt Gingrich still loves prowling the debate stage with a predatory gleam in his eye, but he wasn’t quite as commanding as during his last two appearances.  He delivered a zinger on foreign aid: “Our bureaucrats giving their bureaucrats money is a formula for corruption.”  He nevertheless stated he was a “strong supporter” of foreign aid, with a desire to extensively “review” such programs.  Then he moved into darker territory on foreign policy, warning “this world is in danger of becoming dramatically more dangerous in the near future.” 

The Gingrich trademark is to roll into debates with a fistful of policy proposals.  Early on, he called for tying unemployment compensation to “a business-led training program, so unemployment insurance becomes an investment in human capital.”  The current unemployment system is “fundamentally wrong” because “people should not get money for nothing.”  He did not comment on whether it was also wrong to get your checks for free.

Gingrich was a bit less dramatic than some of the other candidates when it came to education reform, promoting school choice by adopting a “Pell Grant” approach to K-12 education.  He dismissed the tomfoolery of our outmoded, supposedly impossible-to-fix system for verifying immigration status, noting that credit-card companies process far larger amounts of data with great reliability.  By the end of the debate, however, he was answering the “how would you turn America around?” question by saying “nothing will turn America around more than election night, when Barack Obama loses decisively.”  That’s a crowd-pleasing answer, but clearly Gingrich the policy wonk had turned in for the night. 

Ron Paul carried on as usual, surviving a rather half-hearted challenge from Gary Johnson for the libertarian alpha-dog spot.  He didn’t have anything quite as spectacular as his confrontation with Wolf Blitzer over hypothetical dying coma patients at the last debate, but he did have a nice moment when he explained that he’d honor the Tenth Amendment by vetoing “every single bill” that violates it… and then laughed at how much of his stage time that short, unambiguous answer left unused.

Paul also delivered a simple, but powerful, comment about abortion: “No one can outdo me on respect for life, but only the people can solve the abortion problem, not the law.”  It’s one of many issues he believes should be left to the states.

Rick Santorum turned in a good performance, alternating with Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman to drop a few strong positions that could anchor news coverage until the next debate.  Whether it was Santorum calling for the return of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or Johnson demanding an immediately balanced budget – along with 40% spending cuts – it had the urgency and excitement of three men trying to hang on to the bottom rung of a slippery ladder.

The upper rungs are rather treacherous at the moment, too.  Huntsman cheerfully allowed that he was waiting for Romney and Perry to “bludgeon each other to death,” at which point he’d look favorably on Herman Cain as a running mate.  I’ve heard less plausible strategies.