The South Carolina Debate


Monday night’s South Carolina debate, hosted by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, did us the great service of uniting the GOP field against Super PACs.  Everyone now agrees they’re awful.

Rick Santorum complained that a Romney Super PAC lied about his position on voting rights for felons, launching into a surprisingly protracted argument on a topic that was not exactly burning with feverish intensity upon the Republican brow, just hours before the crucial South Carolina primary.  Mitt Romney called the “King of Bain” documentary pushed by a Gingrich Super PAC “the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”  Newt Gingrich called upon Romney to denounce misleading Super PAC ads against him – something Romney was not quite willing to do, although you had to pick through quite a bit of verbal mulch to realize the denunciation wasn’t there.

Romney did, however, have a great moment when he mourned the absurd complexities of campaign finance laws, wishing instead that people could “give what they like to campaigns,” while candidates should have “the responsibility and the right to manage the ads run in their names.”  As Romney pointed out to Gingrich, it’s actually illegal for any of the candidates to give direct instructions to their Super PACs.  It’s bizarre that every candidate is essentially running alongside a shadow campaign he is expressly forbidden to communicate with, leaving him able to do little except cross his fingers and hope they don’t embarrass him… or spend half his time denouncing organizations that are trying to help him.

Romney had a fair-to-middling night overall, faring best at the beginning, when questions about Bain Capital compelled him to step into his new role as Defender Of Capitalism.  He was impressively well-prepared for this line of question, immediately recalling details about specific Bain acquisitions.  That’s exactly what he needed to do – it makes him look well-prepared, and conveys the sense that he cared enough about these companies to remember them.  (The cynic might suggest he’s been cramming like crazy over the past week to have those details at his fingertips.  That would make him really well-prepared.)

Romney consistently and effectively contrasted his private-sector experience with Obama’s disastrous “community organizing,” noting that in the private sector, “you balance your budget or you go out of business.”  He touted his plan to have zero interest on interest, savings, and capital gains to get American investment moving again.

One of Romney’s weakest moments came when discussing Social Security reform.  He thinks that massive, unsustainable entitlement can be “balanced” by using a means test to limit the growth of benefits for wealthy retirees, coupled with raising the retirement age.  Even if those timid measures were more than a temporary fix for an ailing system, why should younger workers tolerate getting screwed by endlessly rising retirement ages?  Should we be using means testing to turn Social Security into yet another engine of large-scale wealth redistribution?

Rick Santorum cracked Romney’s polished shell a bit by refusing to let him wiggle out of the felon-voting and negative-ad exchange.  Romney had to play his “Democrat legislature in Massachusetts” card to explain previous stances that don’t line up with his current positions, and later Santorum had to offer essentially the same defense – he was sometimes obliged to vote in line with his state, as in the case of opposing a national right-to-work law, when his heart wanted to go the other way.  This is a logical argument from any candidate with extensive legislative experience, but it will always be a tough sell to Republican voters leery of being sold up the river by “flexible” representatives who “grow” in office.

Newt Gingrich was really swinging for the fences.  He got to throw down with moderator Juan Williams over his characterization of Barack Obama as “the food-stamp president,” which he doesn’t regret one little bit.  Championing business-led job training programs for unemployment recipients, he pointed out that 99 weeks of unemployment is enough time to earn an associate’s degree, and said “everything you need to know about the difference between Barack Obama and the five of us is that we actually think work is good.” 

Later, defending his proposal to give poor kids early work opportunities such as performing janitorial work at school, he said “they would be getting money, which is a very good thing if you’re poor.  Only the elites despise earning money.”  Gingrich also made a strong case for offering younger workers a private Social Security option along the lines of the fabled “Chilean Model,” emphasizing the importance of making America a “universal investor nation.” 

It was interesting to hear Gingrich confidently describe the offer of government subsidies for underperforming private Social Security accounts as, essentially, a bet the government would never need to make good on, because those private accounts would far outperform the existing system.  His Social Security proposal was attacked as “irresponsible” by Rick Santorum, because Social Security is no longer running the surplus it would need to fund such a transition.  Gingrich replied that he would use money saved from consolidating various government welfare programs to give Social Security the funds it would need.

Rick Perry threw everything he had into this debate, which might be one of his last opportunities to save a fading campaign.  He was at his best when passionately defending the states from an “assault” by the federal government, citing the recent Justice Department action against South Carolina’s voter-ID law, and the NLRB attack on Boeing for daring to open a new production line in that right-to-work state. 

Perry also strongly condemned Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for using the phrase “utterly despicable” to describe the recent videotaped emptying of Marine bladders upon dead Taliban fighters.  Perry thought the word “despicable” should be reserved for terrorist atrocities like the beheading of Daniel Pearl, although he agreed the urinating Marines “made a mistake the military needs to deal with, and they should be punished.”

On foreign policy, Perry was intriguingly tough on Turkey, which he thinks might not belong in NATO any more.  He also felt Turkey would make an excellent target for his proposal to “start foreign aid at zero.” 

Both Perry and Gingrich made prominent mention of their flat tax proposals, major reforms that have not always figured prominently in either candidate’s debate performances.  Perry was swift to offer his flat tax rate when the subject of the highest acceptable income tax rate for any American was raised.  Gingrich talked up the lower rate in his flat tax plan, and answered criticism that it might not raise enough federal income by saying “we should reduce government to meet revenue, not raise revenue to meet government.”

Ron Paul’s total meltdown on foreign policy might prove to be the big game-changer of the evening, if it was devastating enough to shake some Paul supporters loose and send them Gingrich’s way.  It was the most remarkable on-stage candidate implosion since Rick Perry’s “three departments” brain freeze, a diatribe about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden that was harder to understand than one of Jon Huntsman’s Mandarin outbursts:

Paul also gave a weird non-answer about the effect of steep defense cuts on jobs in South Carolina, claiming that we’ve all misunderstood his position – he’s going to cut “military spending,” but he won’t cut “defense” at all.  Few South Carolina voters are likely to be reassured by such sophistry.  The big question is whether they’ll find Paul off-putting enough, Romney unconvincing enough, and Gingrich sufficiently impressive to make their primary interesting.