Republican presidential candidates gathered for a debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday night and National Review called on experts for analysis.
Thanks to the vagaries of Comcast in western Massachusetts, MSNBC didn’t come in for me until 40 minutes into the debate. I didn’t see, then, whether any coverage was given to marriage, abortion, and the “life issues.” Those issues could have played powerfully to the advantage of Rick Santorum, and in the balance of the program, as I saw it, Santorum was pushed to the periphery by the interviewers. (In what I could see of the transcript, it appears that they didn’t give Santorum a chance to speak about marriage or abortion.)
But something of importance did spring out of this presentation. Rick Perry persuaded me that he was not scary, and that he won’t be seen as scary by the vast public. The interviewers tried to goad him into defending his position that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and that the scheme had been unconstitutional from the beginning. But he didn’t take the bait. He deflected questions about the origins of the program — it has been in place for over 70 years, no one was going to be dispossessed of benefits long thought coming, and the question was how to fix things now. He didn’t budge from the claim that Social Security was a Ponzi scheme, and everyone knew that there won’t be enough money to pick up the obligations that will be accumulating. Perry wouldn’t be rattled in questions on capital punishment and global warming, and he would have time later to pick up the names of those important scientists, like Will Happer at Princeton, who support his position.
Romney made a gentle, but telling, show of grace when he refused to pile onto Perry on the question of Perry’s initiative to inoculate teenage girls against sexually transmitted diseases, and do it through an executive order. The incident had revealed an unlovely side of Perry. But Romney remarked that everyone deserved a “mulligan,” that everyone has made decisions he regrets, that he was sure Perry thought better now of his move — and that he was sure Perry’s heart was in the right place. On the part of Romney, this was the gesture of a man fairly secure, not desperate to take cheap shots. Whether Romney or Perry is really the right man for the job, I came away with the sense that either man, set against Obama, would come off as reassuring, competent — and quite able to win.
Jon Huntsman is a sanctimonious, nasty little man.
— Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.