Politics & Policy

Sunshine State Spar

Assessing the GOP presidential candidates’ performances.

Thursday night saw another debate among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. As is customary, National Review Online collected thoughts from a post-debate response team.



Rick Perry achieved his frontrunner status because he is the governor of Texas. Today, that position resembles what being governor of California was for Republicans decades ago.  

He has now had three debates to show us whether he deserves to be the lead dog. While he showed improvement in his second effort, this third attempt made little or no progress. He does not demonstrate the ease necessary for public engagement with Barack Obama.  

Mitt Romney has the primary virtue of potentially being inoffensive enough to keep the focus on the failures of Barack Obama. He is smooth and comfortable. If he can survive the nominating process, he could win the general. But his inspiration level for the base is low.

Newt Gingrich breaks your heart because he comes off as very intelligent, witty, and creative. But you just know he can’t get over the demonization he has endured (some of it deserved).  

Jon Huntsman has everything going for him but wisdom. He can’t avoid the bait dangled by the Left on issues such as evolution and global warming. But he has the ideas, the brains, and the experience.  

Michele Bachmann has receded into full-time Perry-attack mode.  

Rick Santorum has wisely decoupled from her and is establishing himself. You wonder what he might have been able to do when he was still a senator and more viable as a politician.

Herman Cain has the intangible qualities of a good candidate. I don’t know whether he is ready for prime time on foreign policy, but he engenders incredible good will and natural affection. He also has ideas. He is especially good on Social Security.

Ron Paul is Ron Paul. A libertarian cannot win. But he is paving the way for a bigger future for his son, Rand. In a low-consensus society, libertarianism is not a terrible bet.

We could say something similar of Gary Johnson, who one-upped Paul with his hilarious line about the next-door neighbor’s dog and shovel-ready jobs.

 Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and the winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award. 


The 15 minutes of Thursday night’s debate devoted to foreign policy should leave national-security conservatives scratching their heads. Governor Romney and Herman Cain made solid points about the fundamental flaws in the Obama administration’s treatment of allies such as Israel, but answers by the rest of the field to other questions ranged from uninformed to semi-isolationist.

On Afghanistan, Governor Huntsman appears to be trying to appeal to the anti-war crowd, continuing to invoke the notion that we need to focus on problems at home instead of overseas. As in previous debates, Senator Santorum was the only candidate willing to directly rebut this sort of rhetoric, making the case for strong American leadership. In response to a question about why the United States continues to give other countries aid, Newt Gingrich, who has a record of being an internationalist, implied that much international assistance could be done away with. Gov. Gary Johnson touted his plan to gut the defense budget. 

Perhaps most perplexing was Governor Perry’s response to a question regarding loose nukes in Pakistan. He seemed to struggle for an answer, finally mentioning the need for strong allies in the region, citing the supposed refusal of the United States to offer India the most advanced version of the F-16 as an example of the administration’s failure to pursue his recommended strategy. The problem is that his account of the U.S. role in the India fighter competition is not entirely accurate and is not all that relevant to the question he was asked.    

With these types of answers, perhaps it is a good thing that the debates have barely touched on foreign policy. But despite the understandable emphasis on jobs and the economy, if anyone on the stage Thursday night ends up in the White House in 2013, his or her foremost and most important duty will be keeping Americans safe. Judging by the performances in Florida, many in the Republican field have a ways to go before they can credibly make the case that they are ready for that responsibility.

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


With the exception of Newt Gingrich, substance did not feature highly in this debate. But the campaign for the Republican nomination is starting to get serious. That means — unfortunately — that the candidates’ focus is going to be increasingly on trying to score points without seeming to be posturing or appearing petty, while also appealing to as many segments of conservative primary-voting opinion as possible. Increasingly, and perhaps inevitably, we’re also starting to hear the candidates make the same points and repeat the same lines — sometimes word for word — that we’ve heard in previous debates.

This is even more unfortunate given the flood of bad news about America’s economy that is crushing business and consumer confidence. We need serious, public, and substantial reflection from aspiring presidents about how they think the United States is going to turn the corner.

It’s too easy to say that such formats as Thursday night’s don’t lend themselves to that type of presentation. Whoever runs against President Obama is going to have to articulate, in very similar settings, a vivid, powerful, and content-rich contrast to the present administration’s economic policies.

The good news is that angry voters (especially independents), disillusioned with politics and politicians in general, aren’t going to buy in to messianic 2008 hope-’n’-change rhetoric in 2012. Yet while anti-Obama sentiment will take the Republican candidate a long way towards victory, it won’t be enough in the current economic climate. Substance — and the ability to communicate it — will matter.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books, including On Ordered Liberty, The Commercial Society (winner of the Templeton Enterprise Award), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy and, forthcoming in 2012, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.


The long-time professional politicians on the stage, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry — the current perceived frontrunners — lost the debate to Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich came across as smarter, more articulate, and more confidently in command of the moment than either Romney or Perry — because Gingrich is smarter and more articulate and was more in command of the moment than they were.

I would like to see Perry and Romney each answer a question he was not asked.

For Perry: If you ever take the presidential oath, will you fulfill it by enforcing the immigration laws at Texas public universities and deporting the illegal aliens who are currently matriculating under the in-state-tuition law you signed?

For Romney: You have repeatedly attacked Governor Perry for saying that Social Security is unconstitutional — which is different from saying this seven-decades-old program should be abolished, which Perry has not said. What specific clause in the Constitution do you believe authorized Congress to force Americans into the Social Security program? Do you agree with Justice Cardozo — who wrote the opinion justifying Social Security — that it was the General Welfare clause? Do you think James Madison would have agreed with Cardozo on this interpretation of the General Welfare clause?

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


Mitt Romney gained on Thursday night because he’s a strong debater and Perry was a bit off, but also because this was another pile-on-Perry night. There’s a pattern here that’s been working in Romney’s favor. Back when he publicly refused to repudiate health-care reform in Massachusetts, it looked as though Romney was headed for months of unrelenting attacks by a field competing for the title of The Great Not-Romney.

That’s not how things turned out. Instead of actually going after Romney, the candidates attacked whoever looked like the strongest Romney opponent. Pawlenty was the first target. Now Perry’s it. This pattern lets Romney himself off the hook. Only the lead Not-Romney goes after Romney himself. The others go after the lead Not-Romney.

Pawlenty muffed his big chance to hit Romney, and although Perry held up well against Romney in previous debates, he seemed to tire this time. In any case, the field has put Perry on the defensive. It’s all he can do to fight to a draw. Without a pile-on, nobody’s there to call Romney on his smooth evasions.

Romney is a strong candidate, and the most electable of the lot right now. His greatest vulnerabilities are in the race for the nomination, not the general. So the pile-on-Perry dynamic has the effect of protecting Romney in a general election. If the Not-Romneys continue to kill one another off, Romney may walk away with the nomination, and the presidency too.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Radical-in-Chief.


Bret Baier is a breath of fresh air, my candidate for the designation “America’s Anchorman.” Good cheer, articulacy, youthful exuberance, but substance as well.  

The candidates: Romney opened with and kept building on a technique he has steadily been improving — showing fight by showing confidence, and just enough humor, too. I thought Perry won the first debate he was in, at the Reagan Library, but he has been going the opposite route from Romney. Following his strong opening three debates ago, Perry has become less sure-footed and confident in his debating and talking points. And his jokes tend to come off as japes or jabs when they aren’t flubs (as when trying to attack Romney for his flip-flops).  

There is one other growing problem Perry needs to address, if it’s fixable: He has come off, two debates in a row now, as the most liberal man on stage on illegal immigration. His defense of his immigration record as a “last name” or “heart” issue comes off as patronizing and saccharine. Santorum nailed it on why a preference for and subsidization of illegals is both bad policy and wrong. 

I think it’s too early, and would be folly, to dismiss any candidate (at this point in 2007, Giuliani and Thompson were the frontrunners — and neither ever did better than third place in the actual primaries), but one does have to ask what constituency or base or part of the GOP Huntsman represents that is not represented by better-polling and better-funded candidates. Santorum and Gingrich can speak about domestic and foreign policy better than the others, Bachmann is still a tea-party stalwart and can articulate the strongest points in the strongest of ways on several issues, Cain offers the exclusive private-sector background. But at this point, one truly needs to ask what Huntsman’s point is other than trying to prove he’s smarter than everybody else. To be viable, he needs to find an answer — other than running to everyone’s left.

— Seth Leibsohn is a fellow at the Claremont Institute and the co-author, with William J. Bennett, of The Fight of Our Lives: Knowing the Enemy, Speaking the Truth, and Choosing to Win the War against Radical Islam.



Mitt Romney demonstrated the confidence of a candidate who has been to this rodeo before — he had one hand literally in his pocket — with his eyes on winning the general election (see his socialism answer).

Rick Perry looked tired. He is the governor of Texas while doing this, so he just might be.

Rick Santorum, once again, provided solid answers and context, demonstrating the breadth of his policy knowledge and experience. He took on Perry’s “heartless” answer, about in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, with compassion. Ditto the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” question, despite the unfortunate and unnecessary — and media-distracting — sound effects from the audience.

There were some odd images: Gary Johnson’s (or Rush Limbaugh’s) shovel-ready line, Perry’s “mate up” plans for breeding a Gingrich-Cain vice president.

Rick Perry seems to be following a Michele Bachmann model: strong opening, then a fade. It will be interesting to see what it all looks like deeper in the fall. Autumn for which candidates?

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



In his comments on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, Governor Perry said: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” On the Gardasil issue, he explained his actions by saying: “I erred on the side of life and will always err on the side of life.”

If he keeps it up, people will start calling him a compassionate conservative.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.

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