Thanks, as always, to those who joined us for tonight’s live chat tied to CNN’s GOP presidential debate on foreign policy. While the Ricochet discussion always delivers, the same can’t be said of the debate forums, which is why CNN deserves substantial credit, particularly in light of CNBC’s abysmal handling of the last such gathering.
The format was inspired. Even the incessant Wolf Blitzer (he of the fire alarm timbre) managed to get out of the way, acting as little more than a facilitator and avoiding the sort of nagging about the clock that turns many a moderator into one of the world’s highest-paid schoolmarms.
This was also the best audience participation we’ve had at a debate, largely because the joint sponsorship by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute meant that the questions were coming from conservative intellectuals (including some recognizable faces, like Ed Meese, Fred Kagan, and Paul Wolfowitz) rather that the usual YouTube and Twitter rabble. As such, this was the first debate that actually seemed formatted for the tastes of a Republican audience aiming to seriously vet their choices for the presidential nomination.
There were, however, some serious strikes against the proceedings: Newt Gingrich, in his first debate as a serious front-runner, was marginalized to the extreme, suffering long bouts of silence while the vanity candidates took center stage. Mitt Romney seemed to get fewer questions than normal, as well, but Newt’s relative absence was conspicuous given his recent performance in the polls. Also, as Bill Walsh noted in the chat, some rather serious issues were left off the table, including the European debt crisis and China (other than when Jon Huntsman – playing the only string left on his guitar – repeatedly volunteered it). With that said, onto the candidates’ performance:
- A more sober Rick Santorum would be out of this race. That won’t happen, of course, until we get past Iowa because Santorum is operating under the delusion that he will be the next “anyone but Romney” candidate when Gingrich stumbles. Watching him on stage, however, it becomes clear why that will never happen. Santorum is incapable of answering a question without some reflexive indignity that his capacious record isn’t being appropriately cited. He’s a good man with some important things to say, but he inevitably comes off churlish and won’t pick up any serious traction as a result.
- Ron Paul was … well, Ron Paul. I’m generally all for giving the non-front runners substantial amounts of time in the debate, but this forum was wasted on Paul, who spent the night proving Maslow’s dictum that for a man who only has a hammer in the toolbox every problem looks like a nail. Every question, no matter the intricacy, was answered with his unwavering conviction that the United States should have virtually no involvement overseas and that much of the aggression aimed at the nation is justifiable on the grounds of our international adventurism. Paul’s second answer of the night added nothing to his first and thus did it go for the remaining two hours.
- Jon Huntsman was characteristically listless and predictable. If he had invoked his experience in China one more time, someone in the audience would have had to call “Bingo!” He also spouted the usual pabulum about America’s “global brand” and the “trust deficit” in government, sounding all the while like the kid who cheated off of Mitt Romney in business school. Kudos, however, to the former Utah governor for being the only candidate onstage with the chutzpah to note that economic sanctions against Iran aren’t going to change that country’s nuclear calculus.
- Michele Bachmann had a stronger night than she’s had in a while, particularly when she sparred with Rick Perry on the issue of foreign aid for Pakistan. Bachmann’s intelligence committee bona fides shone through as she explained both the complexities and the consequences of the situation in Central Asia, while Perry opted for a much simpler hard-line stance against Islamabad. It was one of the few moments in these debates when Bachmann has demonstrated a presidential-level command of the issues.
- Rick Perry was back in the saddle, without any major gaffes and with a fluency on the issues that’s eluded him in the past few debates. He didn’t have any remarkable moments, but it’s a testimony to how far he’s fallen that the absence of a loss can be considered something of a win.
- Herman Cain may have had the worst night of anyone on stage. Coming on the heels of his Libya gaffe with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he had more to prove than any of his rivals. He failed. It was obvious that Cain had overstudied in preparation; when a question matched his notes, he would launch into his response with pseudo-Gingrichian bluster. When he was knocked out of his comfort zone, however, he repeatedly panicked, continually evoking platitudes about only supporting plans that could be “successful” and listening to the guidance of experts.
- That last cliché has worn out its welcome. Cain must recognize that the president is the ultimate decision-maker. As Commander-in-Chief, he must have the intellectual ability (and the confidence) to override his advisors and his generals. It’s not good enough to surround yourself with the right people. A president has to be smart enough (and discerning enough) to know when the right people are wrong. He should read Eliot Cohen’s book, “Supreme Command,” and study George W. Bush’s decision-making in the run-up to the surge in Iraq to understand how vital this skill set is.
- Mitt Romney turned in another characteristic performance – which is to say that at two hours’ remove I can’t remember anything he said, but I know he didn’t hurt himself. Say what you will about Romney’s defects (Lord knows I have), but there is no doubting that he has the discipline necessary to be a serious candidate in a general election. He is nearly impossible to move off-message and he rarely makes an unforced error. As we’ve all been warned over the past weeks, however, the same cannot be said of …
- Newt Gingrich. This was an unusual debate performance for Newt. He did not have any big breakout moment as he has in prior contests (a fact that’s probably partially attributable to how often he was overlooked). The closest he came was an exchange with Ron Paul early in the night over the Patriot Act, when he knocked down Paul’s invocation of Timothy McVeigh by noting that the whole point of the legislation is to prevent terrorist acts like McVeigh’s, not to respond to them after the fact.
- Newt may have had his first serious misstep, however, on immigration, where he gave a heavily-qualified answer on amnesty, proposing that illegal immigrants who had been in the country for an extended period of time (he arbitrarily threw out 25 years, though it didn’t seem as if he meant it as a hard and fast standard) should not be ripped from their communities and their families. It wasn’t nearly as jarring as Rick Perry’s famous “heartless” moment, but Newt was making the case on compassionate grounds without making a corresponding case for border security (to be fair, the latter is part of his agenda, but you wouldn’t have known that from watching the debate). To compound the effect, he told Gloria Borger in an interview immediately after the debate that he didn’t see how “any serious person” could disagree.
- This strikes me as a tactical mistake by Newt. If he proposes serious border security measures followed by a differentiated policy for illegal immigrants, he should be playing up the former in the primary race and only fleshing out the latter if he gets into the general. He’s now going to be refining and clarifying this position with the conservative base for the next week or two. And he’s given an opening to Romney, as immigration is one issue where the former Massachusetts governor is going out of his way to run to the right of the field.
- I’m not sure yet how much this will stick to Newt. He has the advantage of having more pronounced positives than his anti-Romney predecessors. And he also has the benefit of a base that has nowhere left to go for an anti-Romney. That being said, this will still make it harder, not easier, for him to consolidate conservatives. How quickly and how clearly he resolves this will likely be the key to determining how big of an effect it has on him.
Thanks again to those who joined us on the site. Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone. And to repeat the PSA from the chat, the Week in Review will be in repeats over the holiday weekend. We’ll be back with new material on the first weekend in December.