In the two hours of the Republican debate Tuesday night, more energy was spent in back-and-forth bickering than substantive answers. At times, I put my head down to avoid watching the candidates talk over each other. Due in part to a fast answer-and-rebuttal format, it felt more like a schoolyard argument than the serious discussion that would help propel the issues forward for the voters.
Included in the debate were former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (my father), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Congressman and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman boycotted the debate due to a conflict between New Hampshire and Nevada over the Republican primary calendar.
The Las Vegas Debate was sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference, and held at the Sans Convention Center at the Venetian Hotel. The debate was moderated by Anderson Cooper.
Cooper set the stage for the debate, reminding the candidates of the rules each campaign had agreed to follow -- that each candidate had one minute to answer the questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups and rebuttals.
Unlike the past debates, which were mostly polite and cordial in tone, this debate began and ended with fiery words. The candidates' own introductions provided a glimpse of what was to come. Santorum, Paul, Cain and Romney gave their standard intros. Perry then introduced himself as "a proven job-creator and a man who is about economic growth, an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience," seeming to take a jab at Romney.
Gingrich followed Perry, clearly identifying his opponent as a man who was not on the stage. "Unlike President Obama, I'm glad to be in Las Vegas; I think it's a great place to have a convention," he said to applause. "And -- and when I am president, we're going to replace class warfare with cooperation so all Americans can get off food stamps and onto paychecks."
Bachmann drew laughs with her introduction, "This is one night when I hope what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas."
The first attack was on Cain's 9-9-9 plan, specifically the part that deals with sales tax. All six other candidates piled on, but Perry and Paul hit the hardest.
"It's not going to fly, " Perry said.
"It is a regressive tax," Paul said. "It's very, very dangerous."
Romney said his analysis concluded that middle-income people would pay higher taxes under Cain's plan.
Asked last by Cooper, Gingrich responded to the question of whether it would be hard to sell Cain's plan.
"Well, you just watched it," replied Gingrich to laughs.
While the first exchange provided clear contrasts of ideas, it was neither personal nor fiery. This changed.
Romney sparred with Perry and Santorum, and in each case, it sounded like children bickering. The one-minute answer and 30-second rebuttal format exacerbated the conflict rather than revealing any substantive differences.
Possibly the most debilitating wound of the night came from Cain prior to the debate and was self-inflicted. During an interview with CNN, Correspondent Wolf Blitzer asked Cain, "Could you imagine If you were president ... and there were one American soldier who had been held for years, and the demand was al-Qaida, or some other terrorist group, you got to free everyone at Guantanamo Bay, several hundred prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, could you see yourself as president authorizing that kind of transfer?"
"I could see myself," Cain answered.
During the debate, when asked by Cooper about the earlier comment, Cain responded, "I don't recall him saying that it was al-Qaida-related. ... Well, I don't really -- my policy will be we cannot negotiate with terrorists." His response was either a change in position or Cain had not understood Blitzer's question earlier in the evening.
In summary, during the debate, Santorum focused on faith and family; Paul on liberty and the evils of the Federal Reserve; Cain on defending his 9-9-9 plan and his terrorist gaffe; Romney simply wanted the rules followed for the debate (he quoted them to Perry during one of their tiffs); Perry was determined to go on the attack; Gingrich held the big picture, elder statesman role; and Bachmann again promised to repeal Obamacare.
The winner of the debate was CNN, as it drew millions of viewers.
The losers were the viewers. American people should demand a different format to allow for more substantive answers and less bickering.