Last Night's GOP Debate

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last night’s GOP presidential debate from the Reagan Library in California was understandably focused on the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. They were placed at the center of the stage, they were the first to get questions directed to them, and the moderators continually went back to them, providing them more airtime than the others. This morning’s Post headline reads “Perry and Romney spar in GOP debate.”

The GOP contest is not, in fact, a two person race even if the media is trying to turn it into one. You may recall that in 2008, Rudy Giuliani was leading all the national polls and at the end of the day, he garnered precisely one delegate to the GOP convention. Or, on the Democratic side, you may recall an email sent out by the Howard Dean campaign in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses that read (if memory serves) “As we bring this campaign to a successful conclusion…..” Of course, in Iowa, Dean and Dick Gephardt were so unrelentingly negative in their ads attacking each other, that John Kerry stepped over their wreckage and won the caucus, Dean gave his scream, and the rest is history.

In fact, Giuliani might have fared better this time than last because of a change in the GOP nominating procedures that almost no one is talking about. In previous years, many GOP primaries were winner-take-all, that is, if you won the state’s primary you got all of that state’s delegates. This encouraged a state-by-state focus, instead of a national campaign. This year, the GOP will be awarding delegates based on proportional representation. Coming in second is not such a bad thing in this scenario. So long as the other candidates have money to pay for the plane, they can keep in the race and some of them should.

Last night’s debate was Perry’s debut so it makes sense for everyone to focus on him. Instead of trying to present himself as someone “presidential,” perhaps staying away from some of the inflammatory things he has said, or toning down his rhetoric, he doubled down. Yes, Social Security is a ponzi scheme he insisted. No, there is no conclusive evidence for climate change. I am sure that this approach appeals to the base of the party, but I am not sure it helped introduce Perry to those Independent voters who will decide the general election.

Perry was certainly charming, very alpha male, but he was also at times incoherent. Consider this comment during a discussion of foreign policy:

But let me just say something about the president of the United States. And I know he's -- he's taken lots of slings and arrows here today. But one thing that I want to say that he did do that I agree with is that he maintained the -- the chase and -- and we took out a very bad man in the form of bin Laden, and I -- and I tip my hat to him.
I give more props to those Navy SEALs that did the job, but -- and the other thing this president's done, he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job. Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done. We'll never have to have that experiment on America again.
And I might add that he kept Gitmo open against the will of his base, and I'm glad he did that. America's safer for it.

Huh? Not sure how John Maynard Keynes got into a discussion of foreign policy, but hey, maybe this makes sense in Texas.

What was most curious about Mitt Romney’s debate performance was that he, like Perry, played to type. He has certainly convinced himself that he is the very image of what a President should be, but he did little to persuade those who do not hold to a kind of Junior League, Chamber of Commerce vision of what a GOP presidential candidate should look like that he is their guy. He declined to identify himself with the Tea Party. His answers all appear poll-tested. There is no passion. But, he has great hair. I do not discount Romney’s bona fides as a contender, especially because of his deep pockets. He could, like Kerry in Iowa in 2004 who splurged on a helicopter to reach more people, use his resources to pull off a surprise victory somewhere that propels his candidacy further. But, it is undoubtedly far more difficult for Romney to maintain a centrist posture (by comparison with the rest) and simultaneously reach out to the red meat eating base, than it is for Perry or Bachmann to win the base and the nomination and then try to reach out to the center.

Again, as in previous debates, Newt Gingrich had some of the strongest moments, but he had too few of them because of the focus on Romney and Perry. Michelle Bachmann did not turn in her strongest night, and she needs to have a strong night in one of the upcoming debates. She remains well positioned to become the un-Romney candidate if Perry slips on a banana peel, which is not an entirely unlikely possibility. Ron Paul was off, his answers jumping too quickly into the minutiae of his libertarian worldview, failing to articulate a broader vision that could help him breakthrough to voters beyond his core of support. It is time for Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman to find another line of work.

No matter who emerges from the fray, the spotlight now shifts to the President’s speech to Congress tonight, to the work of the Select Committee on the Budget (the gang of twelve), and here is the GOP’s essential problem: As was shown during the debt ceiling debate, Speaker John Boehner is hostage to the Tea Party members of his caucus, so even if he wanted to get something done for the country, he can’t. The GOP brand will be suffering as they continue to focus on gutting Medicare, arguing about FEMA funding, and refusing to undertake a jobs program.

And, no one on that stage last night had the command of the issues, the personal magnetism and the record to take the spotlight away from the Tea Party and present a new, fresh vision for the GOP. No one, not even Romney, displayed so much as a whiff of the sunny optimism of the man in whose library they were debating. Rick Perry has vaulted to the top of the polls by default, with people hoping he would be the next Ronald Reagan. The more we see of him, the more we realize he is no Ronald Reagan. He could still be the nominee. I have argued all along that so long as the race becomes a two person race by Super Tuesday, the un-Romney candidate will be the nominee and that may be Perry. Or, there could be a long, drawn out slugfest of the kind we saw between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. Last night did nothing to dispel either scenario.

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