The Oakland University Debate

There’s no way to get around it: Wednesday night’s debate at Oakland University turned into a disaster for Rick Perry.  He’s already slipping behind Newt Gingrich in many polls, and needed a solid performance to revive his campaign with his energy and flat tax plans.  Instead, he just… froze up when trying to remember the third agency he wants to eliminate.  Awkward laughter turned into head-scratching.  Helpful suggestions were offered.  (It turns out it’s not the EPA, which he would keep, but rebuild from the ground up.)

This was especially odd because Perry brought up the “three departments to eliminate” point on his own.  It was a point he wanted to make, not a pop quiz from the moderators or another candidate.  Perry also kind of spaced out during a fairly straightforward plea for government accountability, later in the debate.

Given where Perry’s campaign already was, and that his remaining debate performance was decent but not charged with electricity, it was a bad moment.  In the long run, it doesn’t mean he’s unqualified for the White House.  No President is required to remember his entire campaign platform from memory.  In fact, it might be a refreshing change to have one who forgets his platform before the election, as opposed to the traditional First Hundred Days Memory Hole.  But Perry did not need another bad debate, especially not one that made him an instant figure of ridicule.

It’s too bad, because Perry otherwise did a solid job of promoting his recently unveiled flat tax and energy plans.  He also spoke powerfully of trusting “the capital markets and the private sector” instead of letting the government dispense tax hikes and bailouts to shape the economy.

All of the candidates were actually quite good on Wednesday night.  They committed no other major gaffes, and there were no ugly brawls involving illegal alien lawn care specialists, edited book passages, or heartless voters. 

In fact, when the moderators asked Mitt Romney if he would retain the ostensibly tainted Cain as the CEO of a company he had just purchased, Romney firmly declined to answer the question.  Cain was well-prepared for the harassment question, declaring “the American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion, based on unfounded accusations.”  He also noted that “over the last nine days, voters have voted with their dollars.  They don’t care about character assassination, they care about leadership.”

The audience booed when the moderators brought up the harassment allegations, cheered when Cain ably defended himself, and applauded when Romney put the question to bed.  Whatever life the story retains beyond the debate stage, it didn’t damage Cain any last night.

Romney was a bit more engaged than in previous debate appearances, having apparently concluded that the time for sitting back and holding his cards close to the vest was coming to an end.  He looked remarkably energetic and youthful.  Good haircut?  Good lighting?  Provocative choice of pre-debate soft drink?  Whatever it was, he came across as a higher-voltage candidate than usual.

Romney was firmly against bailing out European banks (as were most of the other candidates, although Ron Paul came closest to responding with the answer I think I would have given: “Bail them out with what?”)  He pounded President Obama hard for prioritizing his re-election campaign over dealing with the difficult issues facing the country.  He accused China of predatory pricing policies, currency manipulation, Internet espionage, and the theft of American intellectual property, and spoke of using tariffs to “level the playing field” against them.

While the other leading candidates promote various forms of dramatic tax reform, ranging from Gingrich and Perry’s flat taxes to Herman Cain’s beloved 999 Plan, Romney said he prefers to focus all efforts for relief on the middle class, which has been crushed by Obama’s policies.  That has a whiff of class warfare about it, and it’s not as rousing as Herman Cain’s ebullient insistence on broad-based economic growth as the cure for many of our ills.  It’s also worth noting that our tax code is millions of words long due to debris from previous attempts to target “relief” at the “deserving”… and punishment at the “undeserving.”

The worst moment from Romney came when he was forced to confront the specter of RomneyCare, which is a little unsettling this far into the campaign.  He looked visibly shaken after having to explain, one more time, that RomneyCare is just peachy for Massachusetts, but it would be unacceptable to force such a “one size fits all” solution on the entire nation.

Romney still tends to erupt in bullet points, but maybe after watching the clueless ideologues of the Obama Administration reduce the American economy to rubble, voters will gravitate to an organized executive with a briefcase intellect.  He deserves major credit for highlighting the role Barney Frank and Chris Dodd played in engineering the subprime crisis, a story we will someday have to apologize to our children for not teaching them sooner. 

There was a general consensus that the Dodd-Frank financial regulations have to go, and while Michele Bachmann has been particularly emphatic on this point, Herman Cain stole some thunder by declaring the legislation has three major flaws: it doesn’t provide oversight of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and “the other two biggest problems with Dodd-Frank are Dodd and Frank!”

Cain was very insistent on economic growth as the cure for what ails us – driven, of course, by his flatter, fairer, more growth-oriented 999 tax plan, the Swiss army knife of Cain’s post-Obama survival kit.  He retains the attitude of a CEO armed with a briefcase full of action plans prepared by talented consultants: he likes the Ryan plan for the budget, and H.R. 3000 for health care reform – a market-oriented bill banished to the dim recesses of House committee hell by “Princess Nancy,” as Cain dubbed former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  The fabled “Chilean model” of Social Security privatization made her expected stroll down the runway.  (Interestingly, Newt Gingrich also had some nice things to say about the Chilean model.  He and Cain do seem to be getting along famously these days!)

Noting that there’s “something wrong” with overseas companies winning American business because our own companies aren’t competitive, Cain declared, “The tax code is what sends jobs overseas.”  He’s sometimes criticized for loose mastery of the details in the plans he espouses, but Cain is still phenomenal at framing the big picture, and presenting long-term strategy with optimism and vigor.

Newt Gingrich wasn’t quite as spectacular as in some previous outings, and he perhaps overplayed his crowd-pleasing battles with the debate moderators a bit.  Not that they didn’t give him plenty to work with.  They talked over him several times, were generally unfair about allocating debate time between the candidates – to the point where Rick Santorum had to grab a little time to address a question that was never formally presented to him – and generally conveyed an attitude of exasperation that anyone could believe there are real alternatives to Barack Obama’s policies. 

Jim Cramer of CNBC seemed to be under the impression that the evening was meant to be a debate between himself and the entire Republican field.  He appeared to be pantomiming a pipe organ performance while asking his questions.  At one point, I could swear I heard him shout “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” at Gingrich, but that might just have been my imagination.  Cramer left for a while in the middle of the debate, which was sad, because while he was contentious, he was much more entertaining than the rest of the sour CNBC crew.

Nevertheless, Gingrich overplayed his heroic stand against the forces of debate moderation bias, at one point refusing to answer a 30-second question about health care reform because that topic would be better addressed in two of the seven 3-hour debates he wants to have with Barack Obama.  When Gingrich finally did lower himself to tossing out thirty seconds’ worth of reform ideas, he did just fine.

One of Gingrich’s great assets is that he doesn’t get nervous at debates.  He treats them like every other time he has access to a podium, and proceeds accordingly.  He delivered a number of interesting ideas on Wednesday night, including some ruminations about the importance of advancing medical technology to reduce costs, and therefore resolve many of our health insurance problems – something that will never happen if government control turns medicine into the usual command-economy barren wasteland.  He was uniquely adept at addressing the problem of runaway student loans by pointing out that a sea of government money has distorted the price of tuition beyond reason, leading to longer and costlier college educations with less useful content. 

On the other hand, Gingrich was quite direct in asserting that he would get rid of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke at the earliest opportunity, and investigate the living daylights out of his bailout decisions once he had been safely removed from Washington.  He also bluntly stated he would not “raise taxes on working Americans in the middle of a recession.”  He probably doesn’t want to raise taxes on us after the recession is over, either, but we should probably nail that down at our next opportunity.

There wasn’t a lot from the other candidates we haven’t heard before, and they’re fast approaching a round of early primaries they probably won’t survive.  Bachmann has been focused and disciplined in debate performances of late, and continued that trend.  She was the only one of the candidates who would step forward to repeal President Obama’s payroll tax cut, which she derided as a political gimmick that would “blow a $111 billion hole in Social Security,” since it’s taken out of Social Security taxes.  (In fairness, although Herman Cain didn’t make this point himself, his 999 Plan would by definition end the Obama payroll tax cut, since it ends payroll taxes.)

Ron Paul did the best job at explaining the importance of introducing market forces to medicine, and warning of the dangers of rising inflation.  He’s been criticizing the effects of currency manipulation for a long time, and he’s really good at it.  Santorum’s best moment was an interesting comment that his own reform plans, which prominently include a zero percent corporate tax on manufacturing to attract repatriated capital back from overseas, are much simpler in scope and execution than the sweeping proposals of his competitors.  He postulated that these simpler goals would be easier to achieve, and more likely to attract bipartisan support.

Romney and Cain did the best overall job of achieving their debate goals, with Gingrich not far behind them.  There are several debates coming up in rapid succession, which should help Cain keep his campaign narrative focused on substance.  All of the candidates were admirably devoted to substance this time around.  Hopefully that will be the new tone of the race from this point forward.