August 11 2011 GOP Presidential Debate

This piece was written by Justin Arnold, editor of The Conservative Reader: Iowa, and Art Smith, Publisher of The Conservative Reader.

Last night’s GOP candidate debate was more interesting than we expected, and if you watched it, you definitely got a clear picture of how some of the candidates think.  How much you got to know some candidates depended on the questions asked of them.  For instance, Newt Gingrich got a question about his staff departures that just seemed completely out of scope and uninteresting (the segment was titled “Candidate Vulnerabilities”, which just seems like more of a talking head topic than a debate topic).  There was a lot of fire fanned between Bachmann and Pawlenty by the media panel, almost completely derailing one segment of the debate.  One question focused on what the candidates thought about other candidates not present.  Ho-hum.

While some people might have found non-policy questions interesting, and how a candidate reacts to any number of situations is certainly valuable information, it just seemed like a waste of the audience’s time to ask so many questions that aren’t of fundamental importance.  While some members of the press like to hear themselves talk about these topics, and also hate to ask the same “boring” questions, these are the questions that really matter: What are you going to do about the economy, terrorism, an over-stretched military, an over-stretched government, abortion, marriage, etc.  Asking the two Minnesotans to beat up on each other just smacks of media trying to create news instead of reporting on it.

Understand this is simply an assessment of last night’s debate and not our preference of candidates or an endorsement of any candidate.  In declining order of how we think they impacted their campaign’s standing (worst first, that is) here’s our assessment of each of the candidates from last night:

8: Herman Cain (Justin)

In this race’s early stages Cain’s candidacy created some major sparks following the first Fox debate in South Carolina.  Months later, and now on the eve of the rubber meeting the road, it seems time to call him what he is—a smart, likable, charismatic man, with a good story who has not developed into a major-league candidate.  Alone he may wow but, after his splashes fade, standing amongst his competitors while they talk about their battle scars and their experiences in office while not having any of his own is simply killing him.

In other words, the concept of a firebrand business man completely unstained by professional politics is great conceptually, but as the seriousness level raises just works to make people hesitant.   He certainly does nothing to quell these hesitations by continually displaying no discipline and getting in the middle of a bunch of silly, peripheral talk about Muslims and Islam.

The fact that he doesn’t really have specific proposals or thoughts not also held by many of the other candidates in the race leaves him with no distinction, no experience, and frankly no chance.

7: Ron Paul (Justin)

The award for understatement of the night went to Ron Paul, who while responding to a question if he was worried about Rick Perry getting into the race said it didn’t bother him because “I feel like I am sort of separated from the other candidates.”  Especially considering this performance, absolutely no one can dispute this fact.

He at least doubled his apparent quota of at least one outrageous answer per debate, spending much of his air time arguing that Iran is not a threat to the United States and hence should not be stopped from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  He then upped the ante by claiming our government has no right to label anyone a terrorist and, by extension, has no right to do anything about it.  For some reason he chose this evening as forum for further focusing on his position that in America basically no one should have the ability to pass moral judgment on anything.

Aside from the substantive problems created by this, politically there is simply no way that around 30% of his message will ever be accepted by a broad electorate in 2012, be it inside the Republican Party or in a general election.  He is not a proficient debater to begin with, and his refusal to at least somewhat take the edge off of his message in nationally televised debates leaves him always able to inspire his wildly committed devotees, but without the ability to ever broaden his base of support.  You don’t have to be a political science professor to see where this leads.

(Additional comment from Art): If you agree with all of Ron Paul’s positions, you would have been enamored by his performance last night.  Otherwise, you would have seen him just taking on enough rope to hang himself.  I agree with Justin, that there is zero possibility that Paul will garner enough support to ever be the Republican nominee.

6: Jon Huntsman (Justin)

In his first appearance, Jon Huntsman took to the stage with very high expectations in some quarters.  Though giving a solid performance it is hard to imagine anyone thinking he met any kind of elevated standard.

On a night that saw some tough talk on border security and illegal immigration Huntsman surprisingly came off as the toughest of them all.  By dodging a question he revealed he would support broadly granting citizenship, but only after the border was truly sealed.  It is worth noting that, at this point in the illegal immigration debate, clearly this is the most aggressive outcome doable on this issue.  Nobody is rounding up millions of people—the most hardliners will ever get is locked down borders and possibly a 14th Amendment “anchor baby” re-write in exchange for amnesty.

In addition to immigration other bold stands he took were offering a big, and certainly a brave, pat on the back to House Speaker John Boehner for his debt ceiling deal, and an absolute lambasting of the E.P.A (which included a “reign of terror” reference).

He deflected his ties to Obama and China relatively well but gave a squeamish and confusing answer on why he supports civil-unions and why those who don’t have taken the wrong position.  Going forward he must learn that to take a position on something means that you are also taking a position against the opposite— and you need to be able to articulate this opposition.

Overall this debut showed potential, and that he clearly has a much higher ceiling than candidates like Herman Cain and other second tier dwellers do.  Approaching that ceiling, however, will mean making the strides as a candidate that Cain has failed to make.

5: Tim Pawlenty (Art)

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has come a long way since I first met him in 2008 when he came to Des Moines to speak at a very sparsely attended political fundraiser.  My impression of him from that event, which was of a low-key speaker (he had been thought by some to be John McCain’s pick for VP only to be outdone by Palin) was probably driven more from the setting than his presentation.   In 2010, he was a rising star, entering the stage of a revived state GOP event with a splash of conviction and humor, only to become a generic sideshow, at least in Iowa, in the midst of extremely passionate fans of Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul.

Pawlenty answered most of his questions with limited energy… his most interesting moments came in the back-and-forth with Michele Bachmann.  Even in the midst of those exchanges, however, he showed an ability to differentiate himself only from Bachmann.

Pawlenty’s message was essentially conservative, and in most cases was clear and succinct.  His position on abortion, his examples of how he managed state government, were all well presented, but did not separate him much from others.  Even his ability to take responsibility for bad policies, such as where he clearly stated his regret for the “cigarette fee” that he signed, has become more common amongst politicians… and he still flubbed that by tossing out the fact that the Minnesota Supreme Court had favored the use of the term “fee” even though most looked at it as a tax.

Tim needed to come out swinging on everything, not just Bachmann.  Instead, he continued to look like a bland alternative, even though he may talk a good game.

4: Rick Santorum (Art)

In the first segment of the debate, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman were not given as much time as other candidates.  This trend might have continued throughout the event had Santorum not started making a fuss… it seemed that a number of the questions were directed to candidates based on things they had said in the past.

What placed Rick above Jon, and Tim as well, was the fact that he made a much better use of the time he was allotted than the others, eventually using the same tactics as Ron Paul to just ignore the clock and stretch the time out, eventually taking on Ron Paul regarding Paul’s preference for military isolationism, careless use of the 10th Amendment (and Bachmann’s apparent desire to ignore that same amendment), and the rights of the unborn.  One of his best statements was when he said that States do not have the right to trample individual rights just because of the 10th Amendment.

Rick made strong cases for his commitment to  marriage, having spent a good deal of time campaigning against the retention of 3 Iowa Supreme Court Justices in 2010, and life, most clearly articulating the need to not make one act of violence (rape) worse by committing another on an innocent victim (the unborn child resulting from rape).

Rick’s energy, strong understanding of the need to stop Iran from manufacturing nuclear weapons, and protecting our interests throughout the world, helped round out a strong performance.  However, whether because of the format, or his own presentation, he still looked like he was scrapping for attention… it may benefit him to have done so at some point, but did not help him rise any higher in our assessment.

3: Newt Gingrich (Art)

Newt has struggled to make progress in gaining traction with supporters and especially Iowans, to some extent because of the missteps of his initial campaign activities.  One of the best things about Newt is that he is always direct in his statements, but one of the biggest challenges he has is that he is always direct in his statements.  He handled the initial question on the Paul Ryan budget plan and follow-up spin on his comments poorly, even if he was correct in his assessment.  Newt Gingrich is a great leader and politician, but struggles to be a great candidate.

Last night’s debate was a demonstration of Newt’s candor and comfort with talking about politics.  Some thought otherwise, but the question from Wallace about Newt’s early campaign team departures was so useless that it got a strong negative reaction from the audience.  Newt’s response was right on target: let’s talk about the issues.  The audience loved it (many tend to think poorly of the press, especially when they chase lines of questions that are off-topic).  Later, another question that sounded more relevant got another biting reply from Newt.  Although Newt’s response was again accurate, his approach was not sufficient to give the audience a clear understanding of his point (he should have answered instead of arguing… he still could have clarified that the question was posed well out of context).

Gingrich’s comments on monetary policy, especially about the secrecy of the Fed and need for an audit of the same, was on target.

Newt and Mitt Romney were the only ones on the stage who seemed to come across as “presidential”, in our opinion.  Purely on content and poise, Gingrich should have been the winner of the debate.  However, dealing with those two questions did take away from a smooth appearance, and while hitting the right answers, Newt still struggles with communicating his reasoned answers at a less professorial level, and as a result what he says becomes less memorable and even confusing to some.

2: Michele Bachmann (Art)

Much to the chagrin of many conservatives, there was only one woman on the stage last night, and it wasn’t Sarah Palin (as an aside, fully one-third of the “Caucus Insider” stories today at the Des Moines Register’s 2012 Iowa Caucuses page were about Palin).  However, the woman there last night definitely had a lot more grit than the former Vice Presidential candidate from Alaska.

Bachmann was a force to be reckoned with and had the most to lose last night.  Her biggest failing was allowing herself to be drawn into a Minnesotan debate with Pawlenty for an extended period.   Neither of them should have let it go on so long, but it is always hard to let go in these settings.

Bachmann struggled to explain her vote on the very cigarette tax bill that she criticized Pawlenty for signing.  She managed to explain that the bill, which she said Pawlenty had helped fashion, put the question of a cigarette tax and protection of the unborn against each other and forced her to vote for a bill she would have normally voted against because the life issue trumped taxes.  Somehow, Pawlenty tried to make it sound like the bill was pro-abortion and that somehow Bachmann is confused and voted for two bad things at once, but I have not found the bill to check it on this point.  I suspect Pawlenty was confused.

Bachmann overall made a very strong showing, argued well and focused with conviction on the issues that have been key parts of her message: fix our fiscal house, fix our economy, repeal Obama-care, protect the unborn, protect the institution of Marriage.  Her answer to the incredibly dumb question about submission to her spouse was excellent.  Her main challenge is reducing the level of shrillness in her voice, which may be difficult, but it tends to be difficult to hear the difference between a normal tone and a strong emphasis when she speaks.

1: Mitt Romney (Justin)

One can’t help but feel that while others surge forward or get buzz for possibly getting in the race, what is really happening is that Romney is tightening his grip on this thing.  Beyond again showing that he effortlessly slips off punches and has settled on an effective answer defending Romneycare, he has the discipline (i.e. wisdom) that makes it hard to fathom him losing a lead.

He comes off cool under the pressure of the debate’s themselves and in handling the attacks that he is often subject to during them.  Not only do these performances prove that the moment is not too big for him, they really reveal him as the most reasonable potential president to main stream Republicans and Independents.  No matter the validity of some of these candidates’ positions, the flat out truth is that droves of middle of the road Independents and traditional Republicans are not going to vote for Ron Paul, or even quite possibly Michelle Bachmann.

Much of his air time, which ended up not being substantial, was taken repeating his theme that Obama does not know how to get the economy moving again.  He didn’t get stuck talking about health care very long, but when he did he repeated his pledge to grant all 50 states waivers from Obamacare on his first day in office.  He was insistent that there needs to be a crackdown on employers who hire illegal aliens, said he would run a Federal government that doesn’t spend more than it takes in, and had a brilliant answer as to why the marriage issue should be decided at the Federal level.

With the most money, the broadest general election appeal, and the most discipline of any of the candidates, it really is becoming hard not to see a clear path to victory for Romney.  One of the only things that could do him in, besides Perry really being the second coming, is having some crazy personal skeleton suddenly roll out of his closet…oh yeah, never mind—he is Mitt Romney.


About the Author

Mr. Arnold is a long time constitutional conservative. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa. Over the last few years he has been involved in numerous political campaigns, most recently serving as campaign manager for an Iowa House candidate and serving as a city chair for Tom Latham. He is self-employed, running a small business in Ankeny, Iowa where he resides with his wife.

 

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