Advancing a Free Society

Debate Thoughts

Monday, September 12, 2011

The second Republican presidential debate in five days.

And, once again, an instance of politics making for strange bedfellows.

Last week, it was MSNBC, which lives to condemn the conservative cause, teaming up with Reagan Library. This week, it was the pairing of CNN and the Tea Party Express, whose libertarian followers better relate to Gary Cooper than Anderson Cooper.

Another recurring theme: football.

It complicated television last week, with President Obama having to squeeze in his congressional address before the Packers-Saints game. This week, it was a GOP presidential debate starting in the second quarter of the Patriots-Dolphins game – a football game being played in Miami, btw, which is not a good thing for a debate being held in Tampa.

The next Republican debate is Sept. 22, in Orlando (followed two days later by the Florida state GOP’s straw poll vote). The good news: no NFL game that night; but there is a purple-state matchup on ESPN between North Carolina State and Cincinnati.

As for the Tampa debate, the following observations:

  1. The first audience question is Social Security, and Wolf Blitzer lets Michele Bachmann take the first swing. Most every debate forecast (notice the overlap here, here and here) says she needs to get noticed tonight, to make this a three-Republican race. Instead of going after Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the frontrunner, she instead tears into President Obama. Missed opportunity.
  2. But not for Mitt Romney, who asks Perry if he thinks Social Security should be returned to the states (apparently, from Perry’s book). If Perry secures the GOP nomination, you can count on this being a Democratic line of attack.
  3. Why does Jon Huntsman try so hard to be hip (the by-product of too much fawning media)? Last week, it was mentioning he’s fluent in Mandarin. This week, it’s citing a Kurt Cobain song. Nirvana? Seattle grunge? Tea Party? Really?
  4. Twenty minutes later, we’re mercifully into the second question: how to fix the budget. In case you’re curious as to what floats the Tea Party’s boat, here’s the Tea Party Express’ five fiscal principles: (1) End bailouts; (2) reduce the size & intrusiveness of government; (3) stop “out-of-control” spending; (4) stop raising taxes; (5) no government-run healthcare. If I’m a candidate prepping for this debate, I touch on at least one of this points each and every time I get to talk.
  5. Back to the Bachmann dilemma. After that first question, she can barely get a word in edge-wise. Part of the problem is Wolf Blitzer: he wants a Perry-Romney showdown, so he keeps encouraging the two to thrust and counter-thrust. The second problem: the nature of the beast. She needs an intimate setting to be heard; an eight-candidate debate is like a noisy night out at the Olive Garden.
  6. Blitzer mentions that Perry accused Fed chairman Ben Bernanke of treason (actually, what he said was: “Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in history is almost treasonous in my opinion”) and the audience applauds. That’s as close as America got to the media cliché of was a torch-lit mob of fly-over-state yahoos. It’s also Romney’s problem tonight: he wants to take a more reasoned and nuanced positioned (eliminate the Fed and Congress is calling the monetary shots). This crowd wants more blunt, folksier talk –and that’s Perry’s forte.
  7. Seventy minutes into the debate, Bachmann at long last goes after Perry – on the HPV vaccination controversy (a 2007 Texas executive order requiring girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer, which was overturned by lawmakers). The same topic came up last week – Perry saying he “felt like a piñata”. He needs a better response than merely stating, as he had in the past, that he was erring “on the side of saving lives”.
  8. The toughest part of the debate for Perry – his immigration record (specifically, giving in-state college tuition rates and financial aides to illegal aliens, already a topic of attack from the Bachmann camp) – and he handles it well. But that’s “well” in a national-election sense, not conservative-heavy GOP primaries and caucuses. He didn’t backpedal and pander to the crowd. Keep an eye on this as we get closer to the votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
  9. So much attention given to Perry re. domestic policy; so much attention given to Ron Paul re. foreign policy. Why? The entertainment value of watching the Texas congressman explain that U.S. occupation was the real motivation behind the 9/11 attack (note: this was the closest I’ve seen to a candidate being take out of a debate on a rail).

Each candidate’s asked what he/she would bring to the White House. Hard to believe not a one didn’t promise to raise a “don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue . . .

Winner: Perry. Compared to the Reagan Library debate, the Texas governor received rougher treatment. But he walked away without a lasting gaffe – he maintained his poise and presence. That’s a net-plus on the evening.

Loser: Huntsman. Time and again, he played the provocateur. Time and again, he seemed sorely out of place.

Winner: The “Tea Party” movement. A nationally televised forum legitimizes its presence. That said, it’s still a mob – in organization, not outlook. “Tea Party” can refer to: 501(c)(4) non-profits (Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works); for-profit businesses (Tea Party Nation); and informal groups (National Tea Party Federation, Nationwide Tea Party Coalition). How those groups coalesce and shape the 2012 election remains an enormous “

Losers: English authors. C.S. Lewis observed that tea “should be taken in solitude”. George Orwell wrote that “all true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes”. That doesn’t jibe with a political movement that’s all about public displays of emotions and unrealized expectations on Capitol Hill.