The Las Vegas Debate

The big problem with Republicans allowing someone like CNN’s Anderson Cooper to moderate a debate is that topics most uncomfortable to Obama don’t get mentioned unless the candidates bring them up.  There were a few limited attempts to work around the moderator in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, but it would have been nice to hear Cooper mention the three biggest scandals in modern political history: “green jobs” crony capitalism, the massive fraud behind ObamaCare, and Operation Fast and Furious. 

It was also bizarre to watch Cooper try to end the debate abruptly without giving Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann a chance to make closing statements.  They were, understandably, displeased.

Cooper’s job was to get the GOP candidates to fight with each other, and some of them didn’t need much prodding.  Rick Santorum eagerly jumped into the steel cage with Mitt Romney: cutting Romney off, talking over him, and then crisply informing him that his answer time was up.  Later, it was Rick Perry’s turn to cut Romney off and break the rules to bicker with him. 

This severely vexed Romney, which is understandable – he has a right to expect the other candidates to obey the debate rules – but also cut into the austere “CEO Of Frontrunner, Inc.” image he’s been working to project.  “You have a problem with allowing people to speak,” he informed Perry during one interruption.  That sounds like something Mr. Spock would say right before pon farr kicked in, and somebody got slammed against a bulkhead.

Romney took some very hard shots over RomneyCare, on a scale he hasn’t been forced to deal with before.  Santorum dropped the bomb everyone expected to fall at the previous debate, saying that Romney’s consultants “helped to craft ObamaCare.”  Newt Gingrich alleged “there’s a lot of Big Government behind RomneyCare… a heck of a lot more than your campaign is admitting.”  When Romney said “I may not be a doctor, but I know how to bring the cost of health care down,” Santorum snorted, “You didn’t do it.” 

Romney’s defense against these assaults on his signature health-care plan remains essentially unchanged: he says his plan was crafted especially for Massachusetts, he would never try to impose something like it upon the entire nation, and he remains committed to repealing Barack Obama’s attempt to do so.  “ObamaCare is bad news, it’s unconstitutional, it costs way too much money, and I will repeal it,” Romney vowed.

A fiery border battle broke out, with Romney and Perry angrily accusing each other of holding the “magnet” that’s pulling all those illegal aliens across the border.  Perry favored a “boots on the ground” manpower strategy for securing the border, and viewed talk of building a huge border fence as “playing to some group somewhere.”  He tersely informed Rep. Michele Bachmann, who favors such a fence, that “for someone who’s been in Congress to lecture me about the border is not right.” 

Perry was oddly insistent on pummeling Romney for having once contracted with a lawn service that employed illegal aliens – a point of some embarrassment for Romney, but not the haymaker punch Perry seemed to think it was.  He pounded it hard enough to earn a few boos from the audience, as when he declared: “We have people who hire illegal aliens, and you are number one on that list, Mitt.”  Wow… Mitt Romney’s front lawn must be huge.

This odd obsession with illegal alien horticulture aside, Perry had a decent evening.  He did a virtuoso job of presenting his energy-focused jobs plan, which is meant to be his Big, Beautiful, Simple Idea.  The Obama Administration “is killing jobs while it tries to move us to green energy,” he said, while his plan would unlock the 300-year treasure trove of energy resources beneath America’s waves and soil.

Unfortunately, he gave this stirring answer in response to an entirely unrelated question about immigration, but as he told Anderson Cooper: “You get to ask the questions, I get to answer how I want to.”  That sounds less like the sleepwalker who dropped 20 points in the polls, and more like the gunslinger who was ready to lead the posse and bring in Big Ben Bernanke.

Herman Cain got the kind of attention a surging candidate can expect, and he had a few rough patches.  Everyone took turns whacking away at his 999 Plan, with Ron Paul going so far as to call it “dangerous” because it would give the government “more revenue.”  (Most criticisms of the Cain plan say it wouldn’t bring in enough money to replace the old tax system, although Cain insists it’s revenue-neutral.)  Bachmann warned of the dangers of introducing an entirely new tax the government could jack up, and worried about the Value Added Tax overtones of Cain’s 9% corporate tax proposal.  Santorum echoed that criticism, and mourned the loss of tax incentives for families.  Romney preferred to target middle-class taxpayers with tax cuts, while Gingrich would target investors by zeroing out capital gains and offering tax relief to business expenses.

Perry dealt some of the toughest criticism to the 999 Plan.  “Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something.  You don’t need a big analysis to figure this thing out.  Go to New Hampshire where they don’t have a sales tax.  You’re fixing to give them one… Right here in Nevada, you’ve got 8-plus percent.  You want nine cents on top of that, and 9% on a new home, 9% on your Social Security, 9% more?  I don’t think so, Herman.  It’s not going to fly.”

Cain has previously been asked about the difficulty of expecting people to pay 9% federal sales tax on top of the existing state sales taxes they already pay, and it came up again Tuesday night.  He’s developed a weird strategy of trying to use the Jedi mind trick to make his challengers forget they asked this question, or somehow believe that Cain didn’t understand it.  “This is an example of mixing apples and oranges,” he exclaimed in Vegas.  “The state tax is an apple.  We are replacing the current tax code with oranges.  So it’s not correct to mix apples and oranges.”  He really needs to come up with a good answer instead of throwing fruit.

He’s also taken to making blanket statements that criticisms of the 999 Plan are simply incorrect, as they are based on flawed studies, while the only accurate study on Earth is the one his campaign prefers.  Referring people to your website is not a winning debate strategy.  Cain was on much better ground when he addressed the VAT tax criticism.  “If you take most of the products… take a loaf of bread.  It does have five taxes in it right now.  What the 9 percent does is that we take out those five invisible taxes and replace it with one visible 9 percent,” he told Bachmann.  “So you’re absolutely wrong, it’s not a value added tax.”  It would be interesting to hear him expound on those five existing taxes further.

Cain has always run into trouble when dealing with questions that don’t interest him, on topics he hasn’t studied carefully – a weakness that can be exploited by opponents looking to generate “inexperienced candidate in over his head” banner headlines.  He was still “clarifying” his thoughts about releasing Guantanamo Bay prisoners, in the manner of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, after the debate was over. 

On the other hand, Cain is still a rousing breath of fresh air when he stands his ground.  He still isn’t cutting the Occupy Wall Street crowd any slack.  “They might be frustrated with Wall Street and the bankers, but they’re directing their anger at the wrong place,” he maintained.  “Wall Street didn’t put in failed economic policies.  Wall Street didn’t spend a trillion dollars that didn’t do any good.  Wall Street isn’t going around the country trying to sell another $450 billion.  They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration.”

Only Ron Paul had a good word for the “Occupy” movement, because for some reason he thinks he can convince them to occupy the Federal Reserve.  I’d pay real money to watch him climb on a soapbox in front of that unruly anarcho-socialist syndicate and explain how the flexible money policy that fuels so much of the Big Government spending they adore is really the source of their problems.

Paul had some good moments, especially when he made an eloquent defense of the role free-market forces would play in proper health care reform, and when he said “I work on the assumption that government’s not very capable of managing almost anything, so you shouldn’t put that much trust in the government.”  He wondered why nobody else was offering any real spending cut ideas, when he’s got a trillion dollars in immediate cuts on his mind.  (That would have been a great moment for Herman Cain to jump in with the spending cut plan he still doesn’t have, and desperately needs.)

Of course, there was also the patented Ron Paul Facepalm Moment, which came when he insisted that the Guantanamo detainees are “suspects,” not “terrorists.”  It’s one thing to advocate extreme isolationism, but another to carry on as if you’ve got no idea what’s actually happening in the rest of the world.

Newt Gingrich gave another strong performance, delivering most of the really quotable lines of the evening.  “I’m a hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk,” he said when the possibility of defense budget cuts was raised.  On the topic of the candidates’ religious faith, he mused, “I’d be really worried of someone assured me that nothing in their faith affected their judgment.” 

Asked what he’d say to the Latino community, Gingrich gave a rousing color-blind answer: “I think we have to have the same message for every American of every ethnic background that we want to make America work again. And you’ll know it’s working because you will have a job and you’ll have a chance to take care of your family.”

Best of all was his smackdown of the Super Committee concept, and the automatic defense cuts that would be triggered if other means of deficit reduction could not be agreed upon:

If you want to understand how totally broken Washington is, look at this entire model of the Super Committee, which has now got a magic number to achieve.  And if it doesn’t achieve the magic number, then we’ll all have to shoot ourselves in the head so that when they come back with a really dumb idea to merely cut off our right leg, we’ll all be grateful that they’re only semi-stupid instead of being totally stupid.

Now, the idea that you have a bunch of historically illiterate politicians who have no sophistication about national security trying to make a numerical decision about the size of the defense budget tells you everything you need to know about the bankruptcy of the current elite in this country in both parties. The fact is, we ought to first figure out what threaten us, we ought to figure out what strategies will respond to that. We should figure out what structures we need for those strategies. We should then cost them. 

Michele Bachmann was tough and focused, missing no opportunity to tout her comprehensive campaign platform.  She spoke of her desire to “completely abolish the tax code” and replace it with something that will “flatten” and “simplify” taxes for all Americans… and she does mean all, for “absolutely every American should pay something, even if it’s a dollar.”

She brought up the CLASS Act disaster, to devastating effect: “I think it has to be stated that Obamacare is so flat-out unpopular, that even the Obama administration chose to reject part of Obamacare last Friday, when they tried to throw out the CLASS Act, which is the long-term care function.  Secretary Sebelius, who is the head of Health and Human Services, reported that the government can’t even afford that part and has to throw it out. And now the administration is arguing with itself.  When even the Obama administration wants to repeal this bill, I think we’re going to win this thing. We’re going to repeal it! And I will!”

Asked to step into the illegal-immigration sumo wrestling match between Perry and Romney, Bachmann observed the person who “really has a problem with illegal immigration in this country is President Obama.”  She proceeded to bring up Uncle Omar and Auntie Zeituni, the President’s scofflaw illegal alien relatives.  Zing!

Bachmann’s tight performance was marred by a strange moment when she sought to frame the housing crisis as a women’s issue, because she talks to a lot of moms, and they’re “losing their nest for their children and their family.”

“We will turn the economy around,” Bachmann promised.  “We will create jobs. That’s how you hold on to your house.  Hold on, moms out there!  It’s not too late!”  That appeal might not play well with men who are losing their homes, or those who are tired of watching class and gender politics infused into every discussion.

Regrettably, the candidates got drawn into a long discussion of foreign aid.  It’s a subject worthy of criticism, but it’s also a very small portion of the federal budget, and should not be treated as a major cause of America’s financial ills – even if, as Romney suggested, it’s silly to borrow money from China so we can give it to other countries.  Rick Perry called for a discussion of defunding the U.N., which is a good idea no matter how much money it would save.

On balance, it was a crucial comeback night for Perry, but he threw too many wild punches.  He promised to have his own tax reform proposal to compete with Cain’s 999 Plan, and it won’t come a moment too soon.  Cain’s got a few leaky holes blown in the 999 boat.  He needs more planks in his campaign platform if he wants to keep it afloat.  Romney really bled for the first time tonight, but none of his wounds were fatal.  Of the rest, Gingrich seems best positioned to get that coveted “second look,” especially if Cain’s momentum flags.

(Photo Credit: CNN/David Holloway)