Advancing a Free Society

Debate Thoughts

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Here’s a surprise: the Republican presidential debates – and we’re approaching a dozen now – have turned out to be good box office.

More than 5 million viewers tuned in to the most recent candidates’ confab, held in Spartanburg, S.C., and hosted by CBS, the National Journal and the South Carolina GOP (here’s the video). Some 6.1 million watched the Sept. 22 Fox News debate in Orlando – nearly twice the audience of the most-watched debate in 2007.

On Tuesday night, the Republican debate tour found itself in the nation’s capital, to discuss national security.

Call me an oddball, but I don’t care for political events on the 22nd of November – this year, the 48th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

The date’s a dark spot on the American landscape – in a select company with September 11 and December 7 as days that shocked the nation to its core.

Rather than the spectacle of Republicans tearing down an incumbent head of state (not to mention each other), why not a day of political silence (this applies as well to President Obama, who distanced himself from the GOP contenders by jetting up to New Hampshire – a day characterized by hecklers, taxes and super-committee silence).


Better yet, howsabout a day pondering the national-security what-if ‘s surrounding JFK’s abbreviated 1,000 days in office – his choices in Vietnam; how aggressively would he have worked with the Soviets on a nuclear test-ban treaty; would a Republican president sworn into office in 2013, 52 years after the birth of the New Frontier, likewise avow a willingness to“pay any price, bear any burden” given the nation’s financial straits and war-weariness?

(btw, in case you’re Christmas-shopping for that special Camelot-phile in your life, here’s a JFK rocking chair for sale).

As for the debate (the second such GOP forum on foreign policy in 10 days), the timing was apt: a week and a half ago, Egypt hadn’t erupted. Nor had the “super” committee on deficit-reduction officially thrown in the towel – and, in doing so, potentially throw the Pentagon’s budget into disarray.

Some observations:

  1. In a debate that's going to focus on the defending of our shores, Texas Gov. Rick Perry uses his intro to talk about his wife, their marriage and their first date – not his service to his nation as a U.S. Air Force pilot, which he’s been doing on the campaign trail in Iowa. Begging the question: what is it about debates and this particular candidate that just don’t mix?
  2. After a back-and-forth on the Patriot Act (translation: Texas Rep. Ron “the Patriot Act is unpatriotic” Paul, who thinks the law isunconstitutional) vs. the rest of the non-libertarian field), the first topic that’s not readily fixable: Pakistan. Perry ties Pakistani aid into his pitch for a foreign policy financed by zero-based budgeting. Romney speaks of “modernity” (an idea he also applies to Syria). No edge to any candidate on this one: Pakistan is the next president’s nightmare to inherit
  3. Gingrich laments such little time to discuss a serious topic like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Congratulations to those of you who wagered that New would spank the media in under 42 minutes. What took him so long to resort to a tried (and increasingly trite) tactic? It was only the former Speaker’s second chance to speak.
  4. Best visual of the night: the exasperated look on Romney’s face when Paul said Congress wasn’t serious about cutting the defense budget. Romney’s birthday isn’t until next March (he’ll turn 65 a week after Super Tuesday). I’d recommend buying himnothing from this list.
  5. One hour and 15 minutes into this debate and we’ve had scant discussion about acceptable levels of American military strength, not to mention presidential authority to use force under the War Powers Act. Also haven’t ventured in Libya, Korea, the U.S.’s expanded military presence in Australia, or American boots on the ground in Africa.
  6. For a moment, a crack in the immigration debate: Gingrich says it’s time to explore paths to legality. His reasoning (and he’s said this before – “the right to become legal”): it’s not in the nation’s character to tear apart the families of those who’ve been here a quarter of a century, have paid their taxes, and are good (non)citizens. Quickly, the scarlet “A” (“amnesty”) emerges.  For all his shortcomings, Gingrich deserves credit for trying to drag his party to a more common-sense stance. Conservatives have flocked to Newt as the latest Romney foil in the race. Let’s see if this reverses the migration.

Snapshot analysis: a good night for Gingrich, in that he wasn’t roughed up by his rivals despite his newfound frontrunner status (a sign, perhaps, that Team Romney doesn’t take Newt all that seriously?). A bad night for Bachmann, who began and ended the debate by trashing President Obama, but otherwise was overshadowed by Paul’s colorful/quizzical global outlook.

The next GOP debate: Dec. 10, Drake University, Des Moines (ABC News/Des Moines Register/Iowa Republican Party your hosts).

That’s an 18-day break in the action.

Let us give thanks.