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Assessing the CNN/Heritage/AEI Debate

Washington, DC - One of America’s most important founding principles, enumerated in the Constitution, is that the federal government must “provide for the common defense.” Indeed, the point of tonight’s discussion – which incidentally was the first presidential debate in Washington since Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared off in 1960 – was to give voters an opportunity to examine which Republican presidential candidate best understands foreign affairs and is most capable of defending America’s national security interests at home and abroad. Throughout Tuesday’s forum, I thought all the candidates presented themselves well at times, particularly Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Given the sponsorship of tonight’s debate, though, I’ve decided to evaluate each candidate individually against the backdrop of how they finished in Monday’s CNN poll. Here’s the breakdown:



Gingrich - A new survey conducted by Quinnipiac University says 46% of voters believe the former House Speaker would be the best candidate to handle foreign policy issues as president. And after tonight’s performance, he certainly lived up to that expectation. As the newly established frontrunner, Newt Gingrich’s answers were articulate, specific, and underscored his firm understanding of the impending dangers facing America. Perhaps his most important moment, though, was explaining the considerable rewards Americans would reap if the United States pursued a policy of energy independence. After all, this would limit our reliance on foreign oil, create jobs, and improve our national security – crucial points, I think, that need to be part of our national conversation. But what was most interesting and unexpected was his conviction that certain illegal immigrants – specifically those for example who have lived in the United States for, say, 25 years, raised their children and belong to local communities – should be given opportunities to pursue a path towards legal status. Throwing them out of the country, he contends, would be a rejection of the family values to which the conservative wing of the Republican Party has always been committed. While his statement will undoubtedly not sit well with grassroots conservatives, his proposal was courageous and adeptly argued.

Romney - Mitt Romney has proven, yet again, why he has remained the only consistent top tier candidate in the GOP field. With his polling numbers slipping nationally and in several key early primary states, he needed to chalk up a decent performance tonight after sitting out last week’s debate in Iowa. The former Massachusetts Governor spoke forcefully about the potentially catastrophic threat Iran poses to the United States as well as his vehement opposition to Ahmadinejad’s hostile regime. He emphatically argued that the United States should immediately impose crippling sanctions on Iran while simultaneously extending unabashed support for Israel. Moreover, he also candidly admitted his enduring support for the controversial Patriot Act. Echoing the sentiments of Newt Gingrich, he explained the necessity of drawing distinctions between national security requirements and criminal law requirements in our judicial system. Individuals, he said, that threaten the national security of the United States should be prosecuted as terrorists irrespective of whether they’re American citizens or not. And he’s right.

Cain – Given Herman Cain’s ongoing struggles in the arena of foreign policy, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza turned in a decent performance. He did not make any colossal gaffes or blundering statements which seems to be a general theme as of late. Yet, his learn-on-the-job attitude, I believe, has made it glaringly apparent that the field of foreign affairs is not his strong suit. While the former CEO reinforced his strong support for the Jewish state, he seemed unable to provide specific, substantive solutions on important issues such as replacing the TSA or cutting foreign aid to Africa and other countries. Although he improved dramatically from his last foreign policy debate, I don’t think he stood out or said anything memorable.

Perry – Governor Rick Perry has been inconsistent in the spotlight recently, occasionally delivering exceptional answers and other times – like the excruciatingly painful gaffe two weeks ago – appearing woefully unprepared. Tonight, though, he sounded well-organized, relaxed and confident. He also made an apt comparison between his own record and that of the President. He explained for example that during his tenure as the governor of Texas he signed six balanced budgets into law since 2000, underscoring his own legislative achievements and the failure of leadership in Washington. His tussle with Michele Bachmann, moreover, about whether or not the United States should continue funding Pakistan was a point of contention, but a position that has grown increasingly popular in the Republican party. Perry seems to be improving in the spotlight just in time for the Iowa Caucuses beginning in January.

Paul – In many ways, I agree with Ron Paul on an array of issues, such as his insistence on the moral imperative of limiting the size and scope of the federal government and adhering to our founding principles. But his belief, for example, that Iran is incapable of obtaining a nuclear weapon in light of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s most recent report seems overtly optimistic and naive. Nonetheless, he persuasively made his case that if elected president -- he would not support Israel if they launched a preemptive strike against Iran – a position which has tremendous appeal amongst libertarians. Yet his insistence that we end all foreign aid and end the costly War on Drugs was certainly a takeaway for him, which was reinforced by the sustained applause he received from a receptive audience.

Bachmann - The Congresswoman, who is polling around 4 percent nationally, came out of the gates swinging tonight. While many pundits and voters have dismissed her chances at securing the Republican nomination, it’s increasingly apparent she provides a valuable perspective. If nothing else, Bachmann has been a resounding voice on stage, excoriating President Obama for his health care overhaul, foreign policy concessions, and divisive rhetoric. Her performance tonight, albeit not glamorous, demonstrates why she indeed belongs on stage.

Santorum – I don’t believe Rick Santorum’s explicit endorsement of racial profiling will do him any favors. As a presidential candidate who has thrived on occasion recently when discussing traditional family values and social conservatism, he seemed out of his element tonight. While I agree that the TSA is an enormously expensive government agency that places onerous burdens on the traveling public – I suspect seeking out individuals based on race, religion, or appearance is a widely unpopular position in a country so dedicated to preserving civil liberties. I will say, however, his explanation about how legal immigration has been instrumental in creating jobs and promoting economic growth won him some political points, but his cringe-worthy assertion earlier in the night certainly set him back.

Huntsman – The former Utah Governor, who needed a strong performance this evening to keep his candidacy afloat, had a good night. He did, in fact, make an impressive point about how 21st century warfare has evolved. Drone Strikes and specialized forces, in his view, are the way of future and therefore the United States no longer needs 100,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. As a former ambassador, Jon Huntsman is a credible voice on this particular issue – which I thought added a unique perspective to the discussions involving U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.


Well, that’s my analysis. Was I too nice? Did I miss a crucial exchange or an important rhetorical battle? As always, let the conversation continue in the comments section below…

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