If political junkies were rooting for a fireworks display tonight, they certainly got one. Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty attacked each other repeatedly and ferociously. Newt Gingrich twice ripped into moderators for perceived “gotcha” questions. Ron Paul was (inexplicably) given the opportunity to animatedly spar with his competitors on virtually every foreign policy question of the evening. Voices were raised. The audience groaned, booed, and cheered. It was, by far, the scrappiest debate of the bunch. But was it productive? I’m not sure. It’s a terribly trite, pundit-esque observation to make, but I couldn’t help but think Rick Perry enjoyed the best night by not being on the stage. Let’s review each candidate’s performance:
Michele Bachmann shone brightly at points – her gracious answer to a eye brow-raising question about her marriage comes to mind – but she also went to the mat with Tim Pawlenty early and often. In her sniping, she misstated Pawlenty’s record on Cap and Trade, and repeated a long-debunked misquote of Pawlenty regarding the proper size of government. I also found her grandstanding on the debt ceiling off-putting. It’s one thing to oppose raising the debt ceiling because of one's opposition to the final deal. It’s simply irresponsible to say it shouldn’t have been raised, period. She conflated this (regrettably) necessary act with “adding to” the debt, which is not the case. Raising the debt ceiling allows the country to make good on debts already incurred. Rick Santorum called her out on this point at the very end of the debate, and I’m surprised it took as long as it did for someone to do so. She didn't make any grave missteps, however, and remains the favorite to win Saturday's straw poll, which she shrewdly plugged at least twice.
Herman Cain appealed to the crowd with concise, conservative answers on several questions. He also pulled off a number of snappy one-liners that drew laughs. He’s a welcome presence in the field, whose private sector experience adds a valuable perspective. Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth on occasion, and therefore spends quite a lot of his time clarifying past statements. He may have churned out another gaffe with his Mormonism answer tonight, which made me wince a little bit.
Newt Gingrich may have helped himself a little bit this evening. His answers on a number of issues, especially his contemptuous pit-down of the newly-formed debt “Super Committee,” drew enthusiastic applause. Gingrich also attacked two Fox News moderators for what he called “gotcha” and “Mickey Mouse” questions. His first rejection of a question was Chris Wallace’s query about his floundering campaign. Newt said voters would rather hear about candidates’ ideas than horserace-related minutiae. The crowd roared. He tried the same trick on a tough Libya-related question from Bret Baier. This time, he seemed defensive and whiny. On the whole -- compared to previous debates, and in light of his pretty disastrous campaign so far -- this was a pretty good night for Newt. Question: Is there such a thing as too many Reagan references? He tested the limit.
Jon Huntsman joined the fray for the first time, and I doubt he did very much to improve his standing among the party faithful. I’ll give him some credit for a courageous and classy answer on his decision to serve in the Obama administration, and for not dodging a question about his support for gay civil unions. Neither response will play very well in Iowa, but he answered truthfully anyway. He also uttered the word “entitlements” on several occasions, raising a crucial issue that was almost entirely ignored during the two-hour debate. At the end of the day, though, I literally forgot to include him on this list, at first. Huntsman, a new face to many viewers, needed to establish a clear raison detre for his campaign tonight. I’m afraid he didn’t. But is he "proud of his record"?
Tim Pawlenty had a lot riding on tonight’s debate. As I wrote this morning, he really needed a breakthrough performance to ignite his campaign and catalyze a comeback. I didn’t get the sense that he accomplished that task. His punching match with Bachmann was absolutely brutal, and couldn’t have helped either candidate. He gave good, thoughtful answers on foreign policy. Pawlenty also did a nice job of highlighting the president’s dearth of specific plans on entitlement reform and job creation. His ‘one acre” joke at Mitt Romney’s expense was funny, but a little low. Pawlenty also did a relatively good job of highlighting his own record as Governor of Minnesota -- consistently bringing the conversation back to results. If voters internalized that message, perhaps he benefitted from this debate more than I’ve initially perceived. We’ll see. If tonight had been about hitting a solid single, maybe this could be considered a good showing for T-Paw. But for a candidate polling at around three percent nationally, decent performances just aren’t going to be enough.
Ron Paul scored some points by noting with bemusement the GOP establishment's newfound respect for his long-stated goal of (at least) demanding accountability and transparency from the Fed. He also had one of the best answers on Romneycare, asserting that the Constitution affords states the right to make bad decisions – of which Romneycare is one. His absolutely appalling foreign policy, however, was given far more play than it deserved. 'Bring the troops home from everywhere, at any cost,' is not a mainstream position -- even in the Democrat Party. Shrugging off Iran’s nuclear threat was dangerous and naïve. One of Fox’s worst decisions tonight was allowing Paul to respond to almost every national security answer from the other candidates, as if he were some indispensable expert. He’s obviously entitled to his isolationist / “non-interventionist” views, but moderators should not have elevated his extreme opinions to a position of moral equivalence. Also, always so angry.
Mitt Romney was tonight’s winner, if there was one. I've reached that reluctant conclusion for two reasons: (1) He disproportionately benefitted from the non-stop boxing match between Pawlenty and Bachmann. As the frontrunner, he should have been fending off most of the jabs and arrows. Instead, he coolly sat back as Team Minnesota tore itself asunder. Even when he had a lot to answer for on the issue of taxes and spending in Massachusetts, another flare-up of the Pawlenty/Bachmann feud allowed him to skate by unnoticed. Their mutual enmity elevated the frontrunner. (2) His answers on Romneycare sounded reasonable, but they were not credible. When asked about the individual mandate, Romney slipped past the tough, philosophical question about the proper role of government, then launched into a textbook Obama-style defense of the mandate. Also, Romney invoked federalism to defend his healthcare law, but called for a federal ban on gay marriage – which happens to be one of his relatively new positions. No one seemed to notice or challenge the contradiction. To the average voter, though, Romney looked and sounded presidential – again. He generally hovered above the fray, and delivered pithy, informed, and polished responses to every question. That amounts to a win, if only by default.
Rick Santorum turned in his best debate so far. He beat the drum on social issues – his bread and butter – and fiercely challenged Ron Paul’s terrible comments about Iran. Unfortunately, his time limit seemed to be more strictly enforced by the moderators than Paul’s, which was exasperating not only for the candidate himself, but also -- I suspect -- to many viewers. But did we really need multiple mentions of polygamy tonight? The Obama campaign must have been delighted that multiple-partner marriage came up on two separate occasions. With unemployment sticking above 9 percent, and the economy in the toilet, GOP sideshows on polygamy (and the gold standard, for that matter) are music to Democrats’ ears.
The moderators from Fox News and the Washington Examiner were hot and cold. They asked some very tough and detailed questions, but they also openly stoked quite a lot of the intra-field sniping. Their greatest sin was allowing Ron Paul to dominate the foreign policy portion of the debate. He was permitted to reply at length to every point, yet his interlocutors were cut off at the sound of the bell. In short, the anchors’ discretion was not marshaled particularly well at times. Also, how did no one ask a question on entitlement reform? That’s just incredible.
If you get the sense that I wasn’t thrilled with tonight’s debate, congratulations on being a perceptive reader. (Either that, or I didn't even come close to concealing my disappointment). One distinct positive: Most of the candidates did an effective job of parlaying questions into attacks on President Obama's leadership and policy failures. As always, you’re more than welcome to challenge, refute, or agree with my analysis. Have at it. Who won tonight? And was the debate as bad as I thought it was?