In terms of the format and the moderators, this was easily the worst political debate I’ve ever seen. Too many questions, too little time, too much focus on silly Internet questioners, and Chris Matthews was simply a buffoon. Why shouldn’t a Republican host a Republican primary debate?
Given that inherent (but equally distributed) burden, the field as a whole did reasonably well. There is a striking contrast between the leading Republicans and the leading Democrats in terms of experience (especially executive experience) and stature. If you had to choose a party based on the two sets of candidates, as they came off in the two recent debates, it’s easy to believe most Americans would choose the GOP.
But individually, who really stood out? If you knew nothing about this race except what you saw tonight, I suspect you would guess the three leading candidates were Romney, McCain, and Huckabee — probably in that order. All three were poised, sharp, and reasonably presidential. It was hard to see why Giuliani is a frontrunner (indeed, probably the frontrunner) and why Huckabee is so far behind. Giuliani was tired and off balance. He is capable of doing much better than this, but just didn’t show up tonight.
In the end, though, I have to return to the horrendous format, which made this a useless event even for those few of us who watched. I’m not sure we learned anything about who should be the Republican candidate. But I am sure we learned much about who shouldn’t host any more Republican debates.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.
Kathryn Jean Lopez
Clearly, Rudy doesn’t do panels well. Worst two answers of the night: He fumbled badly on the difference between Sunni and Shia. Then, when asked whether the increased influence of Christians is good for the U.S., he deflected, saying something like: “Sure, the influence of large numbers of people is always good for the U.S. . . but we have to reach out to others. We need to bring in Democrats.” And, you know, whatever.
McCain made me want to spirit valium to Simi Valley before he followed Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell. His answers and delivery seemed canned and cartoonish. But the man gets credit for steely resolve and the most impressive segue of the night: When asked about public funding for stem cell research, he thanked Nancy Reagan for her kindness when he was a POW. No way. McCain was a POW?
And the winner is: Mitt the Good, the Perfect, the Gosh-Darned Smartest of Them All. He was substantive, concise, and humorous, if somewhat over-educated for those who haven’t yet read the Cliff Notes on altered nuclear stem cells. His answer on stem-cell research showed that he has delved deeply into the issue while shedding light on his apparent flip-flop on abortion.
Best answer of the night: When asked (ridiculously) about government intervening when Catholic bishops withhold communion from certain pols, Romney blasted the idea with humor, saying that Roman Catholic bishops “can do whatever the heck they want,” while simultaneously defusing the Mormon issue and shifting focus to radical Islamists.
“This is a nation after all that wants a leader who is a person of faith, but we don’t choose our leader based on what church they go to.” Mormon issue, check. And, “This a nation which also comes together over faith . . . the people we’re fighting, they’re the ones who divide over faith and who decide matters of this nature in the public forum.” That was’ a twofer.
Runner-up goes to Mike Huckabee. Smart, pleasant, knowledgeable, and straightforward, he was the surprise in the Cracker Jack box. “Live Carb-Free: Vote Romney/Huckabee.”
— Kathleen Parker is a nationally syndicated South-Carolina-based columnist.
John F. Pitney Jr.
Ten men stood on stage last night. According to a classic article in psychology, short-term memory can only hold five to nine items at once. So to viewers who lacked a clear mental picture of the Republican field, the debate was a blur. True, it enabled the second-tier candidates to stand next to Giuliani, McCain, and Romney, but they needed something extra to set themselves apart. They didn’t have it. Politically (though not medically), Huckabee would have been better off if he had not lost all that weight. At least people would remember him: “Oh yeah, the fat guy!”
Among the big three, Giuliani turned in the most problematic performance. His abortion comments — “nuanced” if you like them, “hairsplitting” if you don’t — are already making the YouTube rounds. Then again, YouTube is already full of Giuliani-on-abortion clips, so the debate may not make much difference. More annoying was his suggestion that he tamed New York by being optimistic. No, he did it by being a real S.O.B. His dilemma is that his most appealing character trait — his toughness — is the flip side of his least appealing — his abrasiveness. He can’t hide the problem with a smiley face.
— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.
There were three surprises Thursday:
First: Mike Huckabee. His answer on free trade — that outsourcing jobs is “criminal” — proved a stinker. But all his other answers ranged from good to very good, while he proved articulate, intelligent, and likeable. He’s still a longshot, of course, but if the debate tonight began with the Big Three and the Seven Dwarfs, it ended with the Six Dwarfs, the Big Fou — well, the Big Three-and-a-Half.
Second: Mitt Romney, who had in some ways the best night — he seemed by far the most relaxed, charming, and engaging — but also the worst, announcing that “I’ve always been personally pro-life,” an answer utterly at odds with the ardently pro-choice position he asserted in his 1990 debate with Ted Kennedy. Is Romney unaware that tens of thousands of the Republican faithful have viewed that debate? Has he never heard of YouTube?
Three: Rudy Giuliani, who had no really good moments while providing what was undeniably the worst when, asked the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, he stumbled awkwardly. Rudy seemed so half-hearted — so unwilling to make an effort, to demonstrate that he actually wants to become president — that I found myself wondering if he’s having second thoughts about running.
I can’t tell you who won, but Rudy for darned sure lost.
— Peter Robinson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of Uncommon Knowledge, is author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.
The good news is that there was not a single cringe-making moment in the debate. None of the 10 GOP contenders is unintelligent, crazy, or even embarrassingly inarticulate. In fact, the seven less popular candidates seemed extremely impressive to me. Tom Tancredo, Jim Gilmore, and Duncan Hunter were firm, intellectually consistent, likeable, and so attractively conservative it made me think Fred Thompson is not needed to round out the field — or anchor the bottom of the ticket. They all have well-formulated ideas across the policy spectrum, from abortion to jihad, taxes to immigration. Any of them would do quite well as a V.P. candidate, Gilmore especially.
I could live without Sam Brownback, who lists too far to the social agenda, and Mike Huckabee, who fights hard to keep natural glibness at bay. They both speak in party line generalities about defense, and dealing with Iran, Iraq, and the jihadis. Huckabee is, of course, correct that anyone who can keep his religious beliefs from influencing his policy perspective doesn’t have serious religious beliefs. Sooner or later Mitt Romney will have to address that.
Tommy Thompson, who lacks all charisma, was an innovative and effective conservative governor of a liberal state, and acquits himself well, especially on domestic issues. And Ron Paul — “Dr. No” — warms the hearts of all who believe in small government and personal liberty. Alas, he has always been too principled to be effective. But he is quite intelligent and keeps the field pointed to the true libertarian/conservative north, as he did last night on the issue of national ID cards, which everyone seemed to embrace till he began fulminating, at which point Giuliani and the others “clarified” that the cards were only for aliens.
The bad news, however, is that the top three contenders were less impressive than one would wish. Even where I liked his answer, I thought Mitt Romney sounded a little pat, canned, and occasionally just plain fake as he aggressively pushed his newfound conservatism. Example: Finessing his stem cell answer with references to a particular process for generating the cells that no one has every heard of. While working hard to seem genial, he remains inaccessible. Is there a there there? What does he really think? Who would he be in a crisis? Nothing in this — to be sure, the very first public round — would answer those questions.
John McCain was very energetic, if, as always, not entirely directed. He looked more presidential than when he made his official announcement in a black sweater last week. He was clear and articulate about defending America and the ways in which he would do that differently from President Bush. He was hardcore about cutting spending. Those are two big and central items — and if a president could “win” the war against Islamo-fascism and cut spending and government, that would be a brilliant legacy. Can he? He seems to lack a certain intellectual depth. It bothers me that he continues to hew to liberal immigration policies, and yet will not defend them. He should lose that mumbo-jumbo about bipartisan outreach and finding Democrats for his Cabinet. Has that ever worked?
Perhaps because I wish to be able to support Rudy Giuliani wholeheartedly, I was disappointed with his performance. Not that it was terrible or anything. But the audience wanted to hear core political philosophy and clear policy direction. Instead he related everything to his record as mayor, which seemed too concrete and reductivist in a funny way. He fudged the first question about his views on abortion — not good. But he was forthright about respecting “a woman’s right to exercise her own conscience” the second go. Forthright is good. And it was nice to hear him defend President Bush’s post-9/11 record on domestic terrorism. All in all a far more impressive round than the other party last week.
— Lisa Schiffren is a former speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle.