One Last Debate Before The Iowa Caucus

The Fox News debate held in Sioux City, Iowa on Thursday night was a moment of campaign introspection before the primaries begin.  Presumably by design, the questions were posed as an opportunity for the candidates to make closing arguments before the holidays.  The first round of questions obliged each candidate to face the most enduring criticisms about them, and they generally proved to be fairly sharp students of their own press clippings, particularly Gingrich and Romney.

It didn’t feel like there was a lot of movement in the race during this debate.  Santorum, Huntsman, Perry, and Bachmann didn’t hit the kind of grand slams they needed to rattle the lineup.  Huntsman’s tendency to drone on after repeated buzzers with mini-speeches instead of answers nicely captured the slushy tedium of his campaign.

Perry was solid again, and his self-deprecating sense of humor was charming.  He mentioned an NFL player saying that “if you don’t get your tail kicked, you’re not playing at a high enough level”… and then thanked the other candidates for helping him play at such a high level, by kicking his tail.  He needs to be a bit more than “solid” to get back in the game at this point, although if other candidates implode in the early primaries, his assured and charismatic performance in the last couple of debates may help voters feel comfortable with him as an alternative.

Bachmann hurt herself by going after Gingrich on his Freddie Mac consulting with a club, when she would have been better off using a rapier.  Nothing Gingrich says about that Freddie Mac money is going to make it smell any better to the primary electorate, but they can grudgingly appreciate his point about the difference between working as a private contractor and abusing government power on behalf of those economy-shattering GSEs. 

By the time he chided Bachmann about “getting her facts straight” for the second time, and she just kind of plowed ahead and kept playing the same jokers out of her deck, she was finished.  She probably dented Gingrich a bit in the process, but the shadow trailing behind her campaign is the impression that she sometimes goes off half-cocked, and she played right into it.  This is a matter of great concern to GOP primary voters who can all too easily imagine a legion of Obama-friendly media fact-checkers swarming her during the general election.

In a similar vein, Bachmann hammered Gingrich for his willingness to support Republican candidates who were soft on partial-birth abortion.  He responded that he didn’t want to weaken the party with a “purge” on the issue, said he was opposed to partial-birth abortion, and complimented Rick Santorum for his legislative leadership on the matter.  At this particular juncture, given the difficulty of the upcoming election, the stakes, and the economic preoccupations of the electorate, I suspect many viewers came away appreciating Gingrich the tactician, and viewing Bachmann as a bit too stern.

There’s an inherent problem with running as the self-declared “true conservative” in the race, which Bachmann does very aggressively, and Santorum tries with a softer touch.  The candidate winds up spending too much energy accusing rivals of insincerity, instead of presenting their own ideas in a persuasive manner.  It’s a fine balancing act, as honest criticism of other candidates’ records is fair game and can be very effective, but at some point you can end up spending too much time explaining why Newt Romney is an empty suit, and predicting that Obama will be flattened by the oncoming steamroller of your conservative principles, instead of talking about what President You is going to accomplish during your first year in office.

A lot of the criticism directed against Gingrich and Romney concerns differences between their past records and future intentions.  Certainly some observers are never going to trust their changes of heart, even when the case is made as passionately as Romney described his journey from pro-choice to pro-life.  “My experience in life has told me that sometimes I was wrong,” he said, with moving humility.  This is the kind of thing voters who are willing to believe in a sincere change of position want to hear.

Gingrich came and went from Sioux City with the same strengths and weaknesses, while Romney had a particularly good night compared to previous debates.  He spoke memorably of the $62 trillion in unfunded liabilities sitting on “the national balance sheet” and dwarfing the national debt, noted the importance of projecting military and economic strength to avoid conflict, and hammered President Obama for expensive and failed efforts to pick market winners and losers.  On the latter topic, he criticized Obama for “investing in Tesla and Fisker instead of GM and Chrysler,” which is a nice sound bite, but also a troubling missed opportunity to explain why the government shouldn’t be “investing” in GM or Chrysler either.

Romney’s best line of the night was, “Our President thinks America is in decline.  It is if he’s president.  It won’t be if I’m president.  This will be an American century.”  It’s a strong campaign theme, and it resonates with people who are tired of hearing President Downgrade tell them to remain huddled beneath their beds while he protects them from the wolves of economic liberty.

As for Ron Paul, there were the usual decent points and occasional flashes of inspiration on domestic affairs, including a somewhat more damaging critique of Gingrich’s relationship with Freddie Mac than Bachmann offered.  Then it was off into foreign policy delirium, where everything is America’s fault, and the same warmongering demons who cooked up a bloodbath in Iraq can’t wait to take a whack at Iran – a peace-loving land that will never, ever develop a nuclear weapon, and even if they did it would be perfectly understandable, because they’re “surrounded,” and every Islamist terror state should have nukes so they don’t end up like Libya.  He’d understand completely if our brutal sanctions of Iran prompted them to blockade the Straits of Hormuz. 

A significant portion of American voters might be willing to accept a more isolationist foreign policy, given the tight budget for defense and foreign aid that Paul correctly noted, but not when it’s made with Ron Paul’s intellectual dishonesty.  He’s incapable of engaging his real critics, instead whipping up fantasies about people who want to “declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims,” and breezily dismissing all the evidence of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a fever dream of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  He should be able to espouse his beliefs without pretending that everyone who disagrees is a warmonger who longs to bathe in the blood of innocents.

Paul also refuses to swear off the option of securing Obama’s second term by running third party.  Why should voters of either party put their faith in someone who won’t promise not to run against them?  And any tentative willingness of persuadable Americans to vote for Paul in the general election would evaporate upon contact with his more ardent supporters, who apparently can’t get through a debate without screaming something about the Federal Reserve from the back row.

We finally had a debate question about Operation Fast and Furious, although it produced little beyond a consensus that Attorney General Eric Holder should be fired.  That’s a bit disappointing, especially since this is the anniversary of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder at the hands of border-hopping killers with Fast and Furious guns.  A demand to unseal the records in the Terry case would have been appreciated.

On balance, it was a fitting coda to a long political season, granting a reasonable summary of the surviving campaigns to those who haven’t watched all of the debates.  Now it’s time to put all that stripped-down, rebuilt, fine-tuned, and turbocharged campaign machinery to the test.