Monday, December 12, 2011

Debating Points: The Last Republican Debate

Last Saturday, I did something I had not yet done this year: I watched a Republican presidential debate all the way through. Did it help that this one had "only" six participants? Yeah, a little bit (sorry, Herman Cain), but more important was the rise of Newt Gingrich and the rapid approach of the Iowa caucuses, which have really raised the intensity meter.

There's plenty of critical commentary about each of the candidates (Mitt Romney's desperate! Ron Paul's crazy! So's Michele Bachmann!), but I had the opposite reaction. With a couple exceptions, I thought everyone did well, at times exceptionally so. 

Newt Gingrich was the focus, not only of attacks from Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, but also from the moderators, who seemed to structure the questions, and even the order in which candidates responded, to provide maximum discomfort to Newt. When George Stephenopolis raised the (ahem) "infidelity" issue, you just knew that Gingrich would be the last one to respond. He was largely on top of his game, mostly so on the alleged "Palestinians-are-an-invented-people" gaffe, an opportunity which let him make a Reaganesque pitch while simultaneously letting Mitt Romney look like a detente-ing Gerald Ford. 

We hear often that Gingrich is great...except for all that baggage, both marital, historical, and reputational. Well, after the last 20 years in which American voters have essentially demanded tax cuts and expanded government spending, I'd say the voting public has some baggage of its own that it needs to get over. 

Mitt, of course, had his now-infamous "bet" with Rick Perry, which came across as more awkward than arrogant. (and, whatever the merits were, Mitt did shut Perry up for the moment). But, he had some great moments, too. When he made his pitch in support of Romneycare, he pointed out that they did what they promised to do: extend health insurance to the 8% of MA residents who lacked coverage, something Obamacare failed to do. In that moment, you could imagine an effective critique of Obamacare in the general election, even from the guy who, in Michele Bachmann's words, was the first and only governor to impose socialized medicine in one of the laboratories of democracy. 

Speaking of Bachmann, I really wonder what non-conservatives think of her. We all know what liberals, the media, and the entertainment world think of her: they think she's crazy, and are rushing around wildly trying to make that her image. But Bachmann presents herself very well, looking stylish and composed, even as she fights furiously for the life of her campaign. She had a lot of striking phrases in her debate moments, especially "Newt Romney," which sounded like a mistake at first, but one that she decided to roll with to humorous effect. At this point, I think she's established herself as the most persistent and coherent critic of the president. If she sometimes seems to head into the rhetorical tall weeds, she manages to come back. I think people gave up on her candidacy too quickly. 

The other "true conservative" - that would be Rick Santorum - also impressed. He also did a good job coming across as human, which he's very good at (he's a genuinely nice, good-humored man), but the haters on the Left have focused their deranged ire on him for years. Many have wondered why he is running. The better question is why have so many supposedly "better" candidates not run. I'm sure they have their reasons, but at some point you have to step into the arena.

Of course, Rick Perry has been the cautionary tale about stepping into the arena before having your sandals tied and your shield polished. His has been an epic flame-out because, God love him, he comes across as slow-witted, and Republicans want - just once - to enter an election with a candidate who won't come across as a fumble tongue. Perry's still chipping away, though, looking relaxed and confident while trying to puncture Romney's patrician cool. There's was one heart-stopping moment when he held up two fingers and said - regarding the recently downed drone in Iran - Pres. Obama had three choices. D'oh! Still Perry's bluntness has its benefits. He closed the "Palestinian" question off by simply saying that the problems in the Middle East aren't due to Newt Gingrich, but to the incompetence of the current president, which earned grateful applause from the crowd, and an appreciative tip o' the head from Newt. 

And, no debate since 2008 has been complete without Ron Paul, but even he came off well, even telling a joke (my wife worked my way through medical school! Ba-dum-bum!) He also had the line of the night in response to Diane Sawyer querulous plaint that, surely, the government has some role in helping people take care of their health (i.e. prevent obesity, etc.) Ron was having none of it: If you need the government to tell you how to live you are in big trouble. So true, but so hard for many Republicans, especially the precious moderates, to understand. 

This was a debate that touched on hot button issues, but - unlike years past when questions about gay marriage and abortion were the flavor - the issues were hot because they are so desperately resonant. We are a country with spiralling debt, a health care system being abused by the government, an immigration policy on auto-pilot for the past 10 years, etc. Maybe liberals were hoping one of the six would say something verifiably crazy, but what I saw were six serious people with serious answers to vexing questions. The only thing you could say were "wrong" about their answers were that they did not embrace the liberal pieties and prescriptions that have been this country's default setting for too long. 

Maybe this isn't the Republican A-team, but they are the ones who are taking the trouble to run for president, and they acquitted themselves well. 

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