Politics & Policy

Scoring the Iowa Debate

How did the candidates do?

An NRO panel of experts assess the Republican candidates’ performances on Thursday night in Des Moines.

David Brody

So much for Ronald Reagan’s “Eleventh Commandment” that says, “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Tim Pawlenty was the biggest violator last night, but guess what? It worked. I thought it was pretty clear that he won the night.

Let’s be clear: Pawlenty had to make a move last night. He hasn’t shown much progress in national polls even though he’s working extremely hard and has an impressive legislative résumé. He needed to do something to shake things up and by going after Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney he showed a tenacity that had been sorely lacking. Since Pawlenty is a hockey player, maybe he went to hockeyfights.com before the debate to get all riled up. Only time will tell if Pawlenty’s performance last night will make a difference, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him receive a nice little bounce from the debate.

As for the other candidates, I thought Michele Bachmann had yet another strong performance. She looked very calm and self-assured up there. The key for Bachmann is to stay focused on the issues and make no mistakes. She succeeded on both counts.

Mitt Romney continued to stroll along. As much as Pawlenty and a few others take shots at him, Romney seems to have an answer for all of it. As the saying goes, “Never let them see you sweat.” Well, Romney has been cool as a cucumber. Rick Perry may change that situation in a hurry.

— David Brody is White House correspondent for CBN News. 

Jamie M. Fly

For national-security conservatives following the GOP primary process thus far, ascertaining where candidates stand on foreign policy has been a frustrating endeavor. With a few exceptions, such as Governors Pawlenty and Romney, most have had little to say about national-security issues, and those who tend to be the most vocal often tout extremist views that put them well outside of the mainstream.

The discussion of foreign policy in last night’s debate was an improvement over June’s debate on CNN, where important issues such as Afghanistan and the war on terror were relegated to barely ten minutes at the end with very little back and forth between the candidates. The exchange tonight provided more of an opportunity for candidates to make their views known, but unfortunately ended up primarily showcasing Rep. Ron Paul’s ridiculous notion that Iran is not a significant threat to the United States or its allies.

It was also Paul who brought up national security even when it was not the topic — complaining repeatedly about American “militarism” and calling for cuts to defense spending.

Continuing to include Paul and his mob of vocal supporters at Republican debates makes the GOP look unserious. It would be as if Bernie Sanders were allowed to grace the stage at Democratic-party events and promote his socialist vision for America to a cheering crowd.  

Compounding the problem, some in the Tea Party movement now seem to be following Paul’s recipe for American decline. Staffers from several of the largest Tea Party organizations, including FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, told The Hill on Wednesday that defense cuts should be considered by the debt-limit “supercommittee.”

Their willingness to sacrifice U.S. national security and America’s global responsibilities to further their small-government agenda is shameful and could cause the Republican party to cede its decades-long credibility on national-security issues.

Americans may be focused on fiscal problems at home, but the Republican party needs a nominee in 2012 who can challenge Barack Obama’s disastrous foreign-policy record as well as his mishandling of the economy.

Instead of showing that they can keep Americans safe and advance America’s interests abroad, far too many on the right seem interested in running to the left of Obama on national security. This attempt to morph the party of Reagan into that of Carter is not only dangerous, it raises questions about whether the GOP has a candidate ready to fulfill perhaps the most important and sacred presidential duty.

— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

David French

At last, we have a true primary battle. The surprise, however, is that the battle isn’t between Mitt Romney and his leading challengers, but instead between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty (with an assist or two from Rick Santorum). I must admit it was puzzling to see two candidates who are fighting for the mantle of the True Conservative attack Bachmann for, in essence, being too principled.

Those were the sharp words. Now on to the great moments.

The first two belonged to Rick Santorum. His indictment of Iran and his defense of life even in the case of rape were outstanding. Regarding Iran, he starkly outlined the challenge and listed its clear acts of war against America and Israel. His declaration on abortion that one act of violence (rape) should not lead to another (abortion) was compelling, true, and stated with real conviction. Regardless of his place in the polls, millions of Americans heard clarion calls of truth. I wanted to cheer.

I loved Michele Bachmann’s answer to the “submission question.” She took an awkward potential “gotcha” moment and turned it into a testimony not just of the genuine bond with her husband but also of the marvelously good fruit of an enduring, loving marriage — five children, 23 foster children, and a lifelong journey through business, education, and politics. And it was delivered with good humor and grace.

Finally, Mitt Romney’s comments on the federal marriage amendment were tonic for those who understand that the defense of marriage is a matter of both high principle and common sense. We know kids do best in mother-father families. We know that people move all over the country, and marriages valid in one state and not another create legal nightmares. I’m a Mitt Romney partisan, but I think even those who aren’t convinced could find a lot to like in an eminently sensible answer reasonably delivered.

— David French is co-author of Home and Awayand co-founder of Evangelicals for Mitt.


Maggie Gallagher

Others are going to focus on the core economic issues (Newt Gingrich did have a great night). Here’s the Maggie awards from a socially conservative perspective. Note: All quotes below are approximations.

Winner of the Message Discipline Award: Michele Bachmann.

When my dad taught me “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” Michele Bachmann must have been listening. I will fight, fight, fight, fight, fight for you . . . no matter what, is her message. The content varies but the message stays the same. This is her answer to every question about her record, every jab from Governor Pawlenty, and it’s pretty emotionally satisfying. She gets knocked down, she gets up again, nobody is ever going to keep her down.

“What people want is a champion for what they believe in,” she told Sean Hannity in the spin room afterwards: someone “bold, new, different, and willing to take it on.”

Co-winners of the Marriage Debate: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

Mitt Romney looked as he always looks — polished, confident, and intelligent — in explaining why he is not fine with gay marriage in New York.

“I believe the issue of marriage should be resolved at the federal level. Why? People move from state to state . . . marriage is a status [not just something that takes place within a state] . . . I support a federal marriage amendment as a man and a woman because the ideal place to raise a child is in a home with a mom and dad.”

Weirdest answer came from Governor Huntsman. Asked why he is right and voters are wrong on civil unions, he incoherently declined to explain. “Everyone can come to this with their personal beliefs,” he said. “We haven’t done enough for equality, that’s just my personal belief, I’m personally in favor of civil unions.”

Rick Santorum went into this debate with nothing to lose, and on the social issues, he distinguished himself from the pack. He can explain why marriage, as a status, being different in all 50 states really won’t work, and how the “pick off a state” strategy on marriage will lead, as it did on abortion, to an engraved invitation to the courts to impose gay marriage — as the court did in Iowa.

Rick Santorum also scored big points when he said he was the only candidate on the stage last night who came to Iowa and helped un-elect those activist judges who imposed gay marriage on Iowans.

On marriage in this debate, Bachmann was far weaker — not only weaker than Santorum but weaker than Romney as well. She stated her position clearly but did not make an argument for it: “I support the federal marriage amendment; as president, I will not nominate activist judges who legislate from the bench. In Minnesota, I was the chief author of the constitutional amendment. I have an unblemished record when it comes to this issue of man-woman marriage.”

Unblemished, maybe, but also unexplained.

For me, and I suspect for a lot of social conservatives, the single most moving moment in the debate was when Byron York tried to pose a “gotcha” question to Rick Santorum: “You oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest; aren’t you too extreme?”

Santorum paused and pointed out something I hadn’t thought about: The Supreme Court just said we can’t impose the death penalty on a rapist. We can’t kill the man but we can kill the child. There’s something wrong with that, Rick said, and paused: “It’s an innocent human life. The child has done nothing wrong.”

Winner of the Immigration Debate: Herman Cain.

On immigration, Cain had one of the best lines of the evening: “We have a pathway to citizenship, it’s called ‘legal immigration.’ America can have both ‘high fences, and wide-open doors.’”

Best Suck-Up to Rick Perry on the Forlorn Hope He Might Appoint You VP Award: Jon Huntsman.

Enough said.

Winner of the Minnesota Odd Award: Governor Pawlenty.

He got lots of laughs when he suggested that if anyone can find Obama’s deficit plan, “I will come to your house and cook you dinner, or mow your lawn — but in the case of Mitt Romney I’d limit it to one acre.” It was funny, but really, Governor Pawlenty, painting a picture in voters’ minds of you performing tedious domestic services for other candidates, is not very . . . presidential.

Kudos to Fox News, this was really the least boring presidential candidate debate I’ve ever seen.

— Maggie Gallagher is chair of the National Organization for Marriage.


Charlotte Hays

It was a good night for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who proved that he can go on the attack. He pounded Michele Bachmann, his chief rival in the Ames straw poll, where he desperately needs a good showing. Surprisingly, I think he laid a glove on her. As the night wore on, Bachmann seemed less and less the belle of the ball. The minuet between Pawlenty and Mitt Romney was more good-natured. “I don’t want to miss this chance again,” Pawlenty said when asked about Romney’s Massachusetts health care. This time he didn’t wimp out on criticizing what he had dubbed Obamneycare. “I think I liked his answer last time,” Romney said pleasantly. It is clear that Romney and Pawlenty don’t dislike each other. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a Bachmann-Pawlenty (or vice versa) ticket.

When Romney was asked about people who’d lost jobs as a result of some of his corporate takeovers, the former governor gave a nice little disquisition on the dynamism of capitalism. If there was a winner last night, both in terms of style and content, I thought it was Romney. He got applause with his stance against Obamacare but I thought he was wandering into dangerous territory when he tried to explain why Massachusetts instituted an individual mandate forcing residents to buy health insurance. As good as Romney was, he got nothing like the fervor inspired by Bachmann and Ron Paul (but doesn’t he travel with a cheerleading section?).

Herman Cain has many appealing qualities, none of which were on display during the debate. Cain managed to make southerners look dumb and bigoted in the process of explaining earlier remarks about Romney’s Mormon religion (Cain, you see, doesn’t personally mind Mormons, but the folks in Atlanta . . . ). The guy from central casting — a.k.a. Jon Huntsman — sure looks good in a suit. He’s handsome, and I can see why the media like him. Dead silence when he said he was for civil unions. Whenever the petulant Newt Gingrich, who recalled that he “used to run” the House of Representatives, was asked something he didn’t like, he said it was a “gotcha” question. Strangely, this always evoked applause. I can’t believe I am going to say this, but Rick Santorum was charming. He boyishly raised his hand once when he wanted to speak.

Charlotte Hays is a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.

Terence P. Jeffrey

I think what the Iowa debate demonstrated is that the Republican campaign is now likely to come down to a contest between Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry.

This is because, quickly after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary early next year, the GOP contest will boil down to just two candidates: the establishment’s candidate and the conservative. Romney is already the establishment’s candidate. Going into the Iowa debate, Bachmann was emerging as the most likely conservative candidate. To win the debate, all the other candidates except Romney (and the already-a-nonfactor Huntsman) needed to unseat Bachmann as the conservative frontrunner.

This is why Tim Pawlenty, a former governor, and Rick Santorum, a former senator, spent part of the debate ironically attacking Bachmann’s credentials, claiming she has not accomplished anything in the U.S. House (other than standing up against the entire Washington establishment). Their attacks were ironic, because, even though Pawlenty and Santorum previously filled more senior governmental positions than Bachmann, they clearly were forced into an inferior position in this debate by having to attack her credentials rather than her principled positions on the issues.

They could have made similar arguments against Abraham Lincoln.

While Santorum deserves great credit — and gratitude from conservatives — for his principled and passionate defense of marriage and the right to life in this debate, I do not think he succeeded in unseating Bachmann as the conservative here. Nor did Pawlenty. Unless either pulls off an upset victory in Saturday’s straw poll, neither is likely to supplant Bachmann at any time in this campaign.

Next, Rick Perry will try.

Meanwhile, all conservative candidates should relentlessly ask Romney an issue raised in this debate: Do you really believe government — at any level — ought to have power to force individuals to buy a good or service?

— Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor-in-chief of CNSNews.

James Lileks

Enjoyable, if a bit long. Some thoughts:

Everyone who raised their hand vowing to oppose the 10-1 deal knows that they had to raise their hand, and each one would probably agree to a 10-1 deal. Maybe six out of eight. Ron Paul might agree to levies on paper used for letters of marquee.

Pawlenty and Bachmann were like the married couple that spoils a party with a bitter fight in front of everyone. Pawlenty’s approach seems, at first glance, inexplicable — you can’t get the Tea Party people by going after their fave with a baseball bat, and it made his nice-guy image look like a suit donned for public appearances — but, on further contemplation, it looks inexplicable and unwise. The offer to cook dinner for someone if they could find particulars of Obama’s plans was a good homey-folksy line that would have made the highlight reel for Things Candidates Said That Were Somewhat Unusual; nice, bright moment. He immediately soured the mood with an offer to mow Mitt’s lawn, as long as it was under an acre. Because, you know, he’s loaded. Really? Ergo, what? It seemed like he was ticking of the box that said “BE HARD ON MITT.”

Romney’s attitude towards Pawlenty was like that of a very large dog enjoying himself on a soft rug in the sun, dealing with a puppy who wants to play.

If Ron Paul can’t see the difference between the USSR-U.S. nuclear standoff and Iran getting the bomb, he does not understand the difference between MAD and mad.

Hard to think of another candidate who could have pulled off Cain’s line about America needing to learn how to take a frickin’ joke. If Huntsman had said it, you would have expected him to be deadly serious about our international competitiveness in joke-taking, and how joke acceptance had risen 47 percent during his tenure as governor. Because he was a governor, you know.

Newt was cerebral, professorial, and commanding, but he might — just might — have a few personal issues with the media. I don’t know if you picked it up. Subtle. Dogwhistle stuff.

— James Lileks is http://www.lileks.com/.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

On a national stage Thursday night, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum talked both about “the trauma of abortion” and how Iran “tramples the rights of gays.” He was able to highlight two conversations that are rarely had with the megaphone of such a mainstream forum as a presidential-primary debate. Further, while asked about rape and abortion — a question that has been known to shut down abortion discussions — about an issue that represents a minority of abortions, he used the opportunity to talk about the “violence of abortion.”

It was a good night for discussing marriage and abortion in soundbites. I know Santorum is in it to win it. But if he doesn’t, he’s done some good, as he is prone to do. He’s also made clear what anyone who has followed his career knows: He knows Washington and how it works, like few others, while not being of it.

Mitt Romney showed leadership gravitas yet again; he is chipping away at Barack Obama for failed leadership.

But Newt Gingrich really drove that home in the Iowa debate, catching the fire of the tea party’s fierce urgency of now.

There were still not enough foreign-policy questions. But that probably reflects the electorate? (Less than one percent of us serve in our wartime military.) Pawlenty had some fire here.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


Henry Olsen

Two sets of observations, prosaic and poetic.

Prosaic: Pawlenty shook his head “no,” but never directly responded to Bachmann’s charge that he supported cap-and-trade and endorsed an individual mandate for health care. He’s made his campaign theme “principles and prudence,” that he’s the conservative who can get things done. But for many conservatives, failure to effectively rebut these charges makes them wonder if he’s got the principles part down pat.

Romney is a bright man, but the disconnect between his answers on health care and on gay marriage is glaring. On health care, whatever the states want to do is fine, even if it means forcing you to buy an insurance policy you don’t want. On gay marriage, whatever the states want to do is not fine, although he acknowledges it would take a federal constitutional amendment to make that desire effective. But the reason he gave — people move around, so marriage standards should be uniform — is inconsistent with the “state laboratory” argument on health care. People travel every day and get sick in states they aren’t citizens of; the Obama administration argues that people’s ability to financially access health care shouldn’t depend on their state of residence. Can Romney explain, without recourse to legal standards or economic efficiency, why his view of society is more just than Obama’s?

This leads to the poetic point. The fundamental question of the upcoming election is whether the nation founded in 1776 and reborn with the political prudence of each subsequent generation can maintain its principles while meeting its exigencies. One cannot make the conservative argument effectively without understanding the fundamental premise that undergirds our founding principles.

Lots was said tonight about states’ rights, the Tenth Amendment, and the Constitution as if they are the essential founding principles. But not one candidate ever cited the Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founding document, the promulgation of which we celebrate on July 4, to explain or justify his or her beliefs about the extent and nature of government power.

The Republican party was founded in 1854 in large measure because its creators believed that the Declaration’s idea that each individual has natural rights which it is the just duty of government to protect was in danger. That no major candidate for the leadership of the Party of Lincoln could reach back to the principles of the document that inspired Lincoln’s entire philosophy, and by extension formed the intellectual foundation of the party he helped to create, to explain their vision of responsible liberty speaks volumes about why tens of millions of Americans are afraid that our historic form of limited government is in danger of being lost.

— Henry Olsen is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative.


John J. Pitney Jr.

Newt Gingrich is an historian. And although his debate performance was fluent and passionate, history was not always his friend.

When Bret Baier asked about the possibility of a budget deal involving a high ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, all the candidates rejected it. Gingrich vigorously shook his head, and Baier asked him why. Gingrich could have said that Ronald Reagan took such a deal in 1982, only to regret it when the tax increases kicked in but the spending cuts never materialized. Indeed, Gingrich opposed the deal at the time, saying that Reagan was “trying to score a touchdown for liberalism.” But he didn’t raise the 1982 deal in his answer, perhaps thinking that it would sound disrespectful to Reagan. He focused on the current deal, strongly faulting the idea that a “supercommittee” could ever work. Instead, he said, Congress should fight the deficit through “regular legislative order.” That’s a valid point, but he’s the wrong messenger. As speaker, he often disregarded regular order, frequently bypassing the entire committee system.

In another answer, he said that the entire federal government should adopt “lean Six Sigma.” Some time back, another Georgian proffered management gimmicks (e.g., zero-based budgeting) as a solution to overspending. His name was Jimmy Carter. The rest, as they say, is history.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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