The Dartmouth Debate

The GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire on Tuesday night wasn’t supposed to be a really major event.  Hosted by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News, it didn’t even have major television sponsorship.  This “economic” debate nevertheless grew in importance as Herman Cain crashed into the top tier, Rick Perry battled sliding poll numbers, and Mitt Romney started looking for a knockout punch to sew up the nomination.

Cain and Romney both kept their narratives going.  Cain heavily emphasized his “999 Plan,” to the point where saying its name became a verbal bear trap for the other candidates, since it gave him more debate time.  The others took a variety of shots at 999, with Michele Bachmann particularly concerned about the dangers of opening a new income stream for the federal government with the 9% national sales tax Cain is proposing. 

Cain handled this fairly well, saying that he’d require a two-thirds supermajority to raise the 9% income, corporate, or sales taxes included in his plan.  He also stressed the advantages of making more of the tax system transparent to Americans, by virtue of dramatically simplifying the rules, and making a big chunk of federal revenue highly visible through his sales tax idea.

The debate “moderators” often took the spotlight as outright opponents.  During one such exchange, Bloomberg TV’s Julianna Goldman scolded Herman Cain for dropping a 9% sales tax on milk and bread.  This will surely be an objection he faces again, and should have been well-prepared for, but he seemed a little put out by the question.  He might point out that his sales tax idea addresses both ends of the income spectrum: everyone will finally have “skin in the game,” and the wealthy will pay more because they buy more.

Cain was otherwise quite good about presenting the 999 Plan as a Rosetta stone for economic growth and job creation.  He stumbled a bit when asked to name his model for Federal Reserve chairman, in light of the beating the current holder of the office, Ben Bernanke, had taken during the evening.  Cain’s answer was Alan Greenspan, which will not sit well with many Republican voters.  (“Alan Greenspan was a disaster!” exclaimed Ron Paul, who was willing to credit only Paul Volcker, who held the job during most of Reagan’s presidency, as doing “a leeeeeetle bit of good.”)  It seemed like the question Cain was least prepared to deal with during the evening.

On the other hand, Cain had a good moment when asking Mitt Romney to run through all 59 points in his economic plan, making the case that his “simple, fair, efficient, and neutral” proposal was better.  Romney actually had a quite solid response, listing some of the highlights in his plan and maintaining that “simple answers are sometimes helpful, but often inadequate.”

The “shootout” portion of the debate saw a lot of incoming fire headed Romney’s way.  It fell to Rick Perry to attack RomneyCare, which the former governor of Massachusetts defended almost solely on the basis of how many children it covers.  If your hackles were raised by Perry’s accusations of “heartlessness” towards critics of his Texas DREAM Act, there was some schadenfreude to be savored here.  Otherwise, it’s a pretty shallow defense of a program that has already given Massachusetts a stiff dose of the rising insurance costs, job losses, and “crowd-out” destruction of private insurance plans that ObamaCare is depositing on the rest of America.

Romney also invited the people of Massachusetts to get rid of his health-care program if they don’t like it, and claimed “3 to 1 support.”  That most certainly is not the level of support RomneyCare enjoys from Republican voters in his state.  Isn’t this supposed to be a Republican primary?

Romney also had a rather tortured answer when questioned about his support for bailouts, which boiled down to making a distinction between “preserving the financial system” (good) and “bailing out individual institutions” (bad).  He was strongly critical of President Obama’s lack of leadership and “zero private sector experience.” 

The moment most likely to haunt Romney for a while came when Newt Gingrich asked why point in his 59-point plan called for a capital gains tax cut… but means-tested it to apply only to those making under $200k per year, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of Obama’s magical “250k per year = EVIL MILLIONAIRE!” class-war rhetoric.  Romney replied, “I’m not worried about rich people, they’re doing just fine.  The poor have a safety net.  I’m worried about the people in the middle.”  Part of reclaiming our liberty from the political class will involve telling them to get bent when they decide which classes of Americans “deserve” tax increases or tax relief.

Professing a dislike of “temporary Band-Aids” like the Obama stimulus packages, Romney called for a “fundamental restructuring of the American system,” which would hopefully work out better than Obama’s “fundamental transformation.”  He’s still running on his “managerial” credentials and CEO style, which in this climate amounts to running on his perceived electability.  It’s probably still more or less working for him.

Rick Perry had a horrible night.  He might as well have thrown in the towel when he got up from the table.  He was tired, listless, and bizarrely focused on trumpeting his One Big Idea, which involved opening America’s “treasure trove” of energy resources to get the economy moving again.  That’s a good idea, but it felt like one leg trying to prop up a stool that was meant to have three or four legs.

His big moment was the RomneyCare assault, where he played badminton instead of hardball.  Every candidate had a bizarre encounter with one of the hostile moderators – Perry’s came when the Washington Post’s awful Karen Tumulty, who seemed like she would have been more at home pooping on a cop car with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, asked him about Solyndra.  Tumulty amusingly spun Solyndra as either a case of “inadequate safeguards” failing to protect taxpayer investments, or “just the risk we run when the government gets involved in subsidizing new industries and technologies.”  (How about “an example of unbelievable criminal corruption,” Karen?)

After saying “the federal government shouldn’t be involved in that type of investment, period,” Perry said it was “fine for states to do that” – and walked into a trap where Tumulty hammered him about the Texas emerging technology fund, which she said “your own state auditor said earlier this year” is “neither accountable nor transparent,” and “gave $16 million to companies that are connected to your campaign contributors” – some of which “have gone bust.”  That’s right: a shrill liberal from the Washington Post was the first person to mention Solyndra at the debate… and she successfully used it as an attack on a Republican.  That’s a far cry from the expectations surrounding Perry when he entered the presidential race.

His position in that race today, and the ongoing narrative of his slide in the polls, demanded a forceful performance from Perry tonight.  Instead, he limped through a few talking points (besides that energy “treasure trove,” he’s also big on block granting funds to the states) with only a brief flicker of real fire at the end, when he declared: “The reason we have so many people living in poverty is that we have a President of the United States who is a job killer.”  He also correctly noted that Americans are tired of getting socked with tax increases to resolve the deficit, and waiting for spending cuts that never come, but it’s a point that deserves more thunder than he could muster.

“People are begging for jobs,” concluded Perry.  “They’re begging for someone to make America America again.”  That’s a catchy slogan which adroitly taps into the national mood, but Perry needed more than a bumper sticker tonight.

The lower tier candidates were more interesting, especially Michele Bachmann.  She’s had some campaign missteps lately, but tonight she was playing to her strengths: she was tough, focused, and quotable.  Her Weird Moderator Moment kicked off the evening, when a bizarrely ranting Karen Tumulty asked her, “Do you think it’s right that no Wall Street executives have gone to jail for the damage they did to the economy?”… and then cut Bachmann off ten seconds into her answer to argue with her. 

When Bachmann made the entirely accurate and reasonable point that “it was the federal government that demanded that banks and mortgage companies lower ‘platinum level’ lending standards to new lows,” setting the stage for the subprime mortgage crisis, Tumulty wailed, “But the federal government has also deregulated them!”  She simmered down when Bachmann brought up the Community Reinvestment Act, which is checkmate for that particular line of witless liberal argument.  She should have fired back by asking Tumulty when Barney Frank and Chris Dodd would be going to jail.  (Newt Gingrich actually raised that issue a few minutes later with Charlie Rose.)

Just about everyone at the table was in favor of repealing the disastrous Dodd-Frank banking legislation, but Bachmann sounded like she wanted to shred it and staple the pieces to Dodd and Frank’s foreheads.  She’s taken to referring to their legislation as “The Jobs and Housing Destruction Act.”  She mentioned the “dirty dealing” that led to the Durbin Tax that lower-income Americans will now be forced to pay, because “Senator Durbin had former staffers that came to lobby him on behalf of retailers.” 

Bachmann was sharp in her criticism of ObamaCare, which she called “the number one reason businesses aren’t hiring today.”  She provided a terse and potent summary of the deficit situation, noting that “we paid $2.2 trillion in taxes” last year, which is “a lot of money from all the American people”… but the government “spent $1.5 trillion more than that – that’s the problem.”

Bachmann also voiced a concern that’s been nagging at me for the better part of twenty years, noting that future taxpayers are looking at absurd tax rates to pay off our profligate government spending, and “who’s going to get out of bed in the morning to go to work if they’re paying 75 percent tax rates?”

Newt Gingrich didn’t get a lot of spotlight time, but he made excellent use of what he could get.  He noted the new government push against prostate cancer screening, and said it was “basically going to kill people.”  This led him to say “I think, candidly, Governor Palin got attacked unfairly for describing what would, in effect, be death panels.” 

This set Michele Bachmann up to discuss those “15 political appointees” of the IPAB, who will “make all the health care decisions for over 300 million Americans.”  Gingrich seemed to be making a real effort to build up the other candidates in this way.  He didn’t have much mud to sling at his opponents, beyond prodding Romney about the means testing on his capital gains tax cut proposal.  Noting that Americans hire Presidents to solve problems, rather than sympathizing with their plight, he declared “every person at this table is more likely to solve those problems than Barack Obama.”

Gingrich got in some killer lines, wondering why House Republicans haven’t repealed Dodd-Frank yet, calling for the public release of all “decision documents from 2008, 2009, and 2010 at the Fed” so we can learn what they did right and wrong (an utterly horrifying prospect for members of the Obama Administration), and dismissing the Budget Control Act of 2011: “It is nonsense to say we’re going to disarm the United States unilaterally because we’re too stupid to balance the budget any other way.”

Late in the debate, Gingrich mused, “there is a stream of American thought that really wishes we would decay and fall apart, and that the future be bleak, so the government could then ‘share the misery.’  It was captured by Jimmy Carter in his ‘malaise’ speech.  It is captured every week by Barack Obama in his apologias disguised as press conferences.”  That seems like the moment from Tuesday night destined to capture the most YouTube hits.

It’s probably time for the other candidates to think about packing in their campaigns.  Huntsman is superfluous, and Paul came off as sullen and cranky.  When Herman Cain insisted that he’s never called Paul or his supporters “ignorant,” Paul looked into his lap and muttered, “I’ll get it for you.”  Not really a “presidential” moment.

Later on, Paul livened up and castigated Cain for choosing Alan Greenspan as his dreamboat Fed chairman, which might well turn out to be the most solid punch anyone landed on Cain during the evening.  He also had one of the best closing comments: “If you care about people, you believe in liberty, that’s what made America great.  That’s what I want to restore.”  It’s not enough juice to run a presidential campaign.

As for Rick Santorum, he had a couple of decent ideas, such as reducing corporate taxes on the manufacturing sector to zero, in order to recover jobs in that sector from overseas.  The problem is that he seems rushed and panicky, as though he can see the sand slipping through his campaign hourglass.  Most of his other rhetorical arrows rest securely in the quivers of other candidates.

It didn’t feel like any neutron bombs or game-changers went off at this debate.  The performances underlined impressions the candidates have already given.  Rick Perry really needs to recapture that big Texas confidence and bold energy pronto, if he wants to remain a top-tier candidate.  He’s been running in the shadow of the expectations that surged around his high-powered debut.  He didn’t escape from that shadow Tuesday night.