Politics & Policy

At Reagan’s House

The Gipper can’t rate the candidates, but our panel does.


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.


There is a reason frontrunners duck debates: They are great levelers. They homogenize candidates on the same plane, bringing the bottom up and the top down. Rick Perry came into this debate Wednesday night as the frontrunner, an electable, conservative alternative to Romney. First, his mandate, forcing 12-year-old girls to take the HPV vaccine, will hang around his neck as “Perrycare.” Second, his Ponzi-scheme caricature of Social Security, despite the upcoming media furor, won’t hurt him — because Americans know it is true: There is no “fund” in the Social Security Fund, just a bankrupt, intergenerational transfer of wealth. However, Perry went farther than that. He implied that if he could go back 70 years to undo Social Security, he would. That is scary stuff for American seniors. And that matters. Republicans have one and only one litmus test this year: They have to put up a candidate who will beat Barack Obama. If Perry damages his electability, if he fades in head-to-head match-ups with Barack Obama, he will become Michele Bachmann. Iowa will become a horse race on the right. That’s good news for Mitt Romney, the winner of Wednesday night’s debate.

— Alex Castellanos is a Republican media consultant.



Why are Republican presidential candidates debating on left-wing MSNBC with NBC’s Brian Williams and Politico’s John Harris moderating? Here is a way to put this in perspective: In August, Gallup released its latest survey of “political ideology” in America. It revealed that 41 percent of Americans say they are conservatives, 36 percent say they are moderates, and only 21 percent say they are liberals. This small liberal minority documented by Gallup cannot and will not control the outcome of the 2012 presidential election — let alone the Republican presidential nomination — even if it does continue to control establishment media organizations such as MSNBC, NBC, and Politico, and even if it remains (as it manifestly does) absolutely committed to using its leverage in the media to protect liberal politicians and liberal policies and, most especially, the presidency of Barack Obama. 

The truth is: Republican primary voters need to pick the candidate most capable of rolling back the cumulative impact of almost 80 years of liberal policies that have brought this great nation — built on the premises of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and traditional morality — to the brink of ruin. MSNBC and Politico should not be sponsoring Republican debates; they are among the liberal political adversaries Republicans need to defeat.

— Terence PJeffrey is the editor-in-chief of CNSNews.



What is it with Texans and “justice”? Perry Wednesday night warned perpetrators of heinous crimes in his state that they would face “the ultimate justice,” meaning death by execution. Maybe that’s what George W. meant when he kept vowing to bring bin Laden to justice. In any case, it was a good moment for him. But the euphemism sounds strange to believers in a just God who reserves for Himself the assignment of penalties of “ultimate” justice, far worse, necessarily, than mere physical death.

There were other slightly comic moments in a fairly serious and fairly entertaining debate. It left me with the impression that Romney and Perry are running for president and everyone else (except Ron Paul) for president’s best friend, cabinet member, or state-dinner guest.

It was a useful display not only of the varieties of (sometimes half-formed) conservative opinion, but of the unifying and increasingly powerful orthodoxies of the Right’s critique of liberalism. Would that any of the candidates could better and more persuasively connect that critique to the deep sources of American principle and patriotism. Oh well, there will be other debates . . .

— Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. 


There was no clear winner in Wednesday night’s debate, but there was a clear loser, and that was President Obama. Most of the attacks were on President Obama and not on other Republican candidates. It is evident that all of the Republican candidates have a better understanding of what it will take to get the U.S. out of this current economic crisis. This is what is important to the people across America and to tea-party activists.  

While it is interesting to see the differences between the candidates participating in last night’s debate, I look forward to the field narrowing so that we can be more laser-focused on the issues that are important to the tea-party movement. In future debates, I hope to hear about what the candidates will do as president. Instead of comparing the candidates and their past records as governors, as well as previous statements and comments, we want to hear more about their ideas and solutions for returning America to the road to prosperity, so that we remain the “Shining City on the Hill.”

— Amy Kremer is chairman of the Tea Party Express.


Rick Perry filled the screen and the stage for the first nine minutes (and not just because he was asked the first question; it was his body language, spoken language, and overall demeanor) — until he unloaded the Dukakis line on Mitt Romney. It was too early, too small, and came off too hard for the moment. It was forgotten as the night went on, as it should have been. 

Every expert and pundit has what he or she thinks the American people are looking for in voting for a president. Here’s mine: a man or woman about whom, when they go to sleep, they can sleep knowing everything will be okay under their president’s watch. It requires good cheer, confidence, command, and competence. I think people were looking to see if the new candidate, Perry, had all that, plus one more thing: the ability to stand up in the heat of a general debate. He did, enough for Wednesday night. There will be harder questions for him coming, both on his record and on his proposals. 


This is a Romney/Perry race — many have been saying that for about a month now. It still is. And Perry just kept his lead. Again, for right now. He’ll need to punch just a little softer in the next debate, and he’ll come under stricter scrutiny on a lot of specifics. Romney will have to punch a little harder in the next debate, to convince that he has what it takes to take on the opponent who really counts, Barack Obama. After years of vetting, I think that’s still the biggest underlying concern about Mitt Romney. 


One minor comment about a second-tier candidate, as this debate was held at the Reagan Library: Ron Paul can revise history all he wants, but his 1987 letter of resignation from the GOP wasn’t just about deficits, it was also about increased military spending, an “irrational and unconstitutional foreign policy” (as he called it), funding the Contras, leaving us “less secure,” and much more, all laid at Reagan’s feet. What Paul faulted Reagan for in 1987 — whatever the administration’s fiscal failures given a country of divided government — they were reasons to join the GOP, not leave it.


— Seth Leibsohn is a fellow of the Claremont Institute and a principal with the consulting firm Leibsohn & Associates.


There was a theme at the debate at the Reagan Library, one that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, in particular, pushed: We all want an alternative to Barack Obama. Increasingly, American voters are with them — that is, the GOP field. You saw some credible options on that stage.

Rick Santorum is good at these debates. He’s a resource the next Republican president ought to call upon. One who knows Washington and is discerning about the stewardship responsibilities of its leaders.

There wasn’t a whole lot of Michele Bachmann at the Reagan Library. While everyone points that out, it’s worth remembering how impressive she was from the word “Go,” since announcing her run. (I tweeted a fantasy sisterhood moment.)

The best moments of this week in debating/forum-ing? Herman Cain being asked about marriage and poverty at the Palmetto Freedom Forum, and Rick Santorum talking about welfare reform at the Reagan Library, when asked about how his faith influences his treatment of the poor as a policy matter. This is a whole different look at what social justice is and should and can be.

Romney was gracious and wise to not go after Perry on the Gardasil issue, even though it certainly would have been justified. He demonstrated an attractive restraint.

Ditto Newt Gingrich on school choice. (And a reminder to say: Thank you, John Boehner, for restoring the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program when the president wouldn’t.)

Other strong moments: the humane tone of the conversation Santorum and Gingrich pushed on immigration.

Weak media moment: The immigration question had to be outsourced to Telemundo?

Lingering question: Did the audience really applaud Perry’s record on the death penalty?

Less important but still lingering question: How did the Reagan Library come to embrace MSNBC for a GOP debate? I could see, say, Robert P. George more naturally there asking questions of the Republican candidates.

Free advice: Everyone needs to listen to Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan communicate, expecially on Social Security. Romney knows the wisdom in that. Perry may learn it.

Some Americans are likely asking this morning: Can’t we just have a night with Perry and Romney having it out?

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and tweets at @kathrynlopez.



The news media really don’t get Rick Perry and his appeal to Republicans. The questions designed to undermine him (Social Security, death penalty, creationism, etc.) strengthened him with Republicans. Mainly, they liked what he said and how he said it. Perry’s a natural, like the man whose library served as a backdrop. No question Perry’s problem will be in finding enough swing voters in Purple states to create an Electoral College majority; being deeply Red probably isn’t enough, even in a strong GOP year, and the stereotype of Perry as “Bush on steroids” was proven true. As usual, Romney turned in an acceptable performance, but he appealed to the head, not the heart. Romney’s nomination depends heavily on Republicans’ coming to the conclusion that Perry cannot beat Obama — and the polls are going to have to show this clearly, month after month. Obama is not cooperating with the Romney “remainder” strategy, since POTUS is sinking steadily. Michele Bachmann got little time when it mattered, and is proving how deadly is the combination of gravity and inertia. Newt is winning applause but not votes. Jon Huntsman (R., News Media) got caught in a trap laid by his own campaign manager; he’s going nowhere. Paul will keep but not expand his 10 to 15 percent. Santorum and Cain didn’t break out. On to the next two debates — and the long roller-coaster ride before a victor is crowned.

— Larry J. Sabato is director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.


Wednesday night, the American people saw the 2012 nominee of the Republican party and, quite possibly, the next president of the United States.

Republicans should feel good about this group and about their future nominee, whoever he or she is.

On stage Wednesday night were seven articulate men and one woman of capacity and good character, accomplished in the field of government and politics, the private sector, and family, all more or less quite capable of leading the GOP against the manifold excesses and abject failures of our preening and self-revering Man-child in Chief.

Our president is very much like one of the Kardashians; pretty to look at but oh-so-utterly clueless, shallow, vapid, and — in the end — incapable of anything other than just showing up for the paparazzi. 

These Republicans don’t have to be great (although the country certainly deserves a great president): They just have to be competent, a word never found in the lexicon of this White House, too focused on the language and politics of destruction.

Each of these Republicans understands the great problems facing our country and how to turn it around.

Each of these Republicans — unlike Obama — meets the test of the Founders, to bring experience and good character to the presidency.

This is something Ronald Reagan understood with every fiber of his being.

Somewhere, Wednesday night, Ronald Reagan was smiling.

— Craig Shirley is author of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America.




The entrance of Perry into the 2012 campaign took the oxygen out of many competitors’ campaigns and effectively created a two-man race in the polls. Both men prevail against President Obama in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, and both men hold commanding leads over the rest of the primary pack. Wednesday night’s debate solidified this impression.

The good news for Republicans is that both Romney and Perry have had a nearly relentless focus on jobs, jobs, jobs.

Wednesday night, it was a subject on which viewers got to see the early shape of a core debate in the GOP primary. Governor Romney shifted from simply criticizing Obama’s lackluster record and instead promoted new ideas while taking on Perry’s claims of economic leadership. Governor Perry promoted his own Texas record, while needling Romney on the jobs picture in Massachusetts.

I believe the debate hinted at an emerging key question: Which economic record is more important — one from the state house or one from the private sector? (While Romney has both, his focus as of late has been on his private-sector credentials.) 

Romney remains a top force in this race, and Perry’s performance has made it a steep uphill climb for the rest of the GOP field. But it is how each candidate handles the issue of jobs that will define his or her success moving forward in this race.

— Kristen Soltis is director of policy research at The Winston Group.

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