The CBS/National Journal "Commander-in-Chief" debate grilled candidates on questions of foreign policy, asking for the specific decisions they would make if they were the at the top of the chain of command in the White House. I wouldn't call it the flashiest debate we've seen so far - it was a fairly quiet Saturday night, as none of the candidates committed any major gaffes, there was no embarrassing in-fighting, and the whole production was pretty low-key. The contenders generally took President Obama to task for making it his mission to nurture American impotence on the international arena, with Pakistan, Iran's nuclear program, Iraq/Afghanistan withdrawal, China, the eurozone criss, foreign aid, and torture-related themes figuring largely (although, I was rather surprised that Egypt was mentioned while I don't think we heard the word 'Libya' even once!).
I hate to say it, but I think that the biggest loser tonight was Herman Cain. As much as I like Cain's personality, confidence and street smarts, he just didn't demonstrate any sort of mastery or command of the issues presented. Almost all of his answers were hopelessly vague. While he's often reiterated that he could learn on-the-job and would know how to surround himself with the right advisers, I just don't think the American people would be comfortable with a President learning about foreign policy while on-the-job (although, they did elect Barack Obama, so, wash). When asked whether Pakistan was a friend or foe, he answered, "We don't know," while the other candidates had plenty of decisive things to say on the subject - not very reassuring.
I'll have to echo Guy's sentiments from Wednesday night's debate and again pick Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney as tied for the winner tonight. Newt really is an excellent debater, he clearly knows what he's talking about, he has the experience to back it up, and he's not afraid to be a bit of a badass. He totally schooled one of the moderators when asked whether it would be morally correct and true to the rule-of-law to hand down an execution order to a terrorist caught during wartime - Newt kindly explained that there is a difference between trying an American citizen and trying a person attempting to kill you on foreign soil during a war. I thought it was a pretty awesome moment, and Newt was also very good about keeping the criticism on President Obama and not his stage fellows. Mitt Romney's answers mostly sounded poised, strong-willed, and well-researched, and reiterating American Exceptionalism is never a bad move. I thought his answer on China's many economic indiscretions particularly thorough, and reinforced his absolute committment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And while he certainly wasn't great enough to be declared a winner, I think Rick Perry actually did himself the most favors this evening. He took the several jokes about Wednesday's major gaffe in stride, and never sounded like he was wildly struggling for an answer. Perry had a very heartfelt moment, declaring that war and torture are terrible, but he would take any measures necessary to save young Americans' lives and would always feel that way until the day he dies. His "zero-based budgeting" approach to foreign aid put him on par with Newt Gingrich for a moment. Looking around on the internet, I can already see that Perry is getting criticism for his "awkward" Reagan/G.W. Bush-esque moment when he said that communist China will end up on the "ash heap of history," but I completely disagree. I thought he demonstrated a fundamental understanding of a point I cannot emphasize enough: China cannot continue as they are, and they are headed for an economic fall if they don't change their communist ways.
The ever-consistent libertarian Ron Paul didn't cause quite the firebrand sensation I thought he might, and I found Jon Huntsman's "we need to stop nation-building when our own nation needs to be built" meme to be pretty milquetoast. Bachmann actually demonstrated quite a specific knowledge of the intricacies and factions in the Middle East, and everybody sat up when she said that "the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war on Israel." Rick Santorum insisted that we must put aside difficulties with Pakistan and nurture a necessary friendship, and emphasized that as President he would not allow Iran to obtain a nuke.
The next big GOP debate is being hosted by CNN, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, on November 22nd from Washington, D.C. - and you know the Townhall team will be there to bring you live coverage, so stay tuned!