As it happens I haven’t read much if anything of the reaction to the Republican presidential debate the other night, which was conducted by MSNBC and hosted at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. However for the record, and to prove I care (which I do) I’ll jot down my own take.
Rick Perry had to be the story, with all eyes on his first debate appearance, and I think he just plain did well. A defining moment was when he was asked about his statement in his book Fed Up! a few years back that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.” Brian Williams kindly explained that even Karl Rove has said that such an attitude is toxic and politically untenable. Rick Perry demonstrated why he’s soared to the top of the Republican polls by not stepping back a bit. One could imagine a lame politically-safer answer beginning with, “Well, let me tell you what I was really trying to get at with that rhetorical statement …” but instead Perry insisted that Social Security—while it can work for current seniors and those near retirement—is genuinely a Ponzi scheme when it comes to people in their 20s and 30s. It won’t be there in its current form for them.
In my opinion, Karl Rove and others who maintain that Perry’s forthrightness on this subject is toxic simply don’t appreciate the depth of the crisis that this country is in to the same extent as ordinary people do. People have lost faith in a lot of things that were supposed to be solid, and have grown tired of hearing feel-good lies from the political class. Anyone with sense knows the plain truth of what Perry is saying. There aren’t going to be enough young working people to pay for the greatly increasing numbers of retired elderly, without absurdly confiscatory payroll taxes. It’s just not on. Perry’s refusal to cow on this subject is a plus, and, again, is an aspect of his personality that the voters are attracted to.
The death penalty question showed the huge gulf between ordinary voters and the media elite, with Brian Williams obviously horrified that the audience applauded the fact that Texas has executed so many murderers. Perry’s answer was in the correct tone. More importantly, he displayed a good tone and a relaxed manner with almost every question that was thrown his way, including the attempted-gotcha questions on science and the like. However I think that he, like most of the other candidates, rose to the bait too often in criticizing his competitors on stage.
Newt Gingrich drew big applause, and deservedly so, for calling out the media, especially those present, on their tactic of drawing the Republican candidates into confrontations with one another, instead of simply asking them for their views of how to deal with the variety of problems the country faces, and letting debate happen naturally. Brian Williams was particularly naked in this regard. “So, Michele Bachmann, would you care to elaborate on just how stupid you think Rick Perry is? You have 60 seconds, and then, Governor Perry, you can have 30 seconds to rebut by telling us everything you don’t like about Michele Bachmann.” He may not have used those precise words, but he may as well have.
Gingrich was admirable in this and for other remarks, but—although I hate to be glibly dismissive of him at this stage—he is clearly not the man of the moment. And there are some extremely ill-considered things in his past that he simply cannot rise above, notably doing an ad campaign with Nancy Pelosi on the subject of climate change. Still, his presence improves the debates; so much so that I hope some way can be found to have him on stage during the general election debates next fall. Maybe some ceremonial title like “Liberal Media Browbeater.”
By contrast, I love to be glibly dismissive of Jon Huntsman. When I wrote on the last Republican debate, I said of Huntsman that “in the current political climate he represents antimatter.” I thought it a good line then and still do. It’s only a question of when he goes poof and is entirely annihilated (or perhaps, more accurately, when he realizes that it has already happened).
Herman Cain, a lower-tier candidate but nowhere near antimatter, did himself some good with a very strong performance. He’s at his best speaking on the economic issues that dominated this debate, and he comes across extremely credibly, being the only candidate on stage who can claim not to be a member of the political class and not get laughed off that stage.
And speaking of Mitt Romney: his new tack of claiming not to be as much of a professional politician as his competitors should be laughed at, considering how long he’s been active in politics (even though he’s failed to win a majority of the contests he’s been in). It hardly needs to be said, however, that he is adept on his rhetorical feet and will continue to be seen by the establishment as the safe alternative to … any alternative.
Michele Bachmann was underwhelming to this viewer. She seems to be something of a shrinking candidate these days, but I admit to bias. A long time ago in one post or another I questioned her staying power and I hate to be wrong. Nevertheless, she is not yet done and warrants respect.
I hope Rick Santorum enjoys having the platform he gets in these debates, because it’s all he’s going to get in this election cycle. Nice guy I’m sure. And speaking of platforms, Ron Paul continues to enjoy his and is often fun to watch. The gadfly always wins these kinds of debates. It really is his moment: his kind of intense skepticism of government and referencing of constitutional basics is highly relevant and attractive. It’s his moment to be heard. But it’s still not his moment to be elected.
Am I forgetting anyone? I guess if I am then he or she must really deserve to be forgotten.
Overall: I think Perry did what he needed to do, and came across in exactly the way that has led people to give him such serious consideration. He’s had everything but the proverbial domestic plumbing fixture thrown at him since entering the race, in an attempt to keep his strong start from cementing into a solid lead, but none of it seems to have held up. This is not an endorsement, but I do think he fully deserves to be in the lead right now. After him, Herman Cain seemed to have it most together on that stage and should have improved his standing and credibility. Everyone else held their own, which in some cases is barely enough to keep a firm grip upon.
Next debate is this coming Monday evening in Tampa, Florida, via CNN. The frequency of the debates in these coming weeks will provide an opportunity for momentum shifts … unless, of-course, it doesn’t.