Politics & Policy

Tea with Your Debate

About last night in Florida.

CNN and the Tea Party Express held a Republican debate in Florida last night. NRO’s experts analyze the results.

 

HADLEY ARKES

My sense is that Rick Perry got quite battered on Monday night, and the problem ran beyond people “piling on.” He could have had something better to say about granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens or their children. But faced with the challenge, he could do nothing but repeat the same lines — the lines that didn’t quite explain his decision or move that audience.

Perry was beaten up once again on mandatory HPV inoculations for teenage girls in Texas. I’ve heard from friends a better defense than the one he offered — a defense that involves the distinct vulnerability of girls, a vulnerability far more serious than that of boys. When Michele Bachmann expressed outrage over dealing with the young people in school and bypassing the parents, he might have asked: Why would you assume that the parents would not be informed and not discuss this matter with their daughters? If parents were given the “opt out” as he said, they surely would have been informed. But the decisive point there was made by Rick Santorum: Why should it have been an “opt out”? Why was the presumption set on the side of giving the inoculations, with the burden put on those who would go to the trouble of filling out the forms and making a positive decision to “opt out.”

In the Labor Day forum in South Carolina, Michele Bachmann, in response to Prof. Robert George, insisted that Mitt Romney was quite wrong on health care: It was wrong, even within a state, to compel a person to buy a policy for medical insurance. George asked her about the constitutional ground on which that claim to liberty would be made against the legislative power of the state. She said that she was sure he would “enlighten her.” In other words, she hasn’t thought it through — even though that position runs counter to all of her declamations about the Tenth Amendment. I happen to think she has it right. But I’m not clear on whether she is aware that she has a serious contradiction or that she is quite aware, but finessing things.

But the main feeling that emerged from Monday night was relief and satisfaction when Newt Gingrich spoke. He was tonight, as he’s been on other occasions, the sharpest and the quickest. He had also clearly decided on this stance: He would not take part in any scheme of questioning or provocation that would set the candidates against each other in a way that would leave the survivor damaged for the election. He would refer several times to Rick Santorum, in the work they did together in Congress, and that elicited reciprocating gestures from Rick — all sustaining a sense of camaraderie, not cattiness. And in one of his best moves, he shot back at Jon Huntsman for suggesting that Perry and Romney, in their tense exchanges, could be scaring the voters looking on. Newt responded aptly that the public should be far more scared by Barack Obama than by exchanges between Romney and Perry.

I spoke too sharply, and not with the civility I should try to preserve, when I remarked last week that Jon Huntsman is a sanctimonious nasty man. I regret that I said it, but Monday night’s debate confirmed yet again how true it is.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

HUNTER BAKER

Hopes were high for Rick Perry going into his first debate. By almost any measure, he underperformed. John Harris staggered him with a question about climate change.

The word on Perry is that he learns. He proved the scouting report is true. The governor performed dramatically better this time around. At almost every point he was more comfortable, had a sense of humor, and seemed less brittle. His only real error was extending the discussion about his decision to require HPV vaccinations in Texas. He started out right by simply admitting a mistake, but he couldn’t stop explaining himself. It was a self-inflicted minor wound.

Bachmann gamely dogged Perry’s steps, trying to take back the position she had before he entered the race. She had some success but undercut herself by adamantly insisting that no state government can constitutionally require citizens to purchase insurance, a point which is clearly incorrect.

Huntsman regressed. His attempts at humor were awkward and flat. He found a nice theme about domestic nation building, but it was too late to make much noise.

It’s a little tough to watch Mitt Romney. His front-runner status was short-lived. He clearly needed Perry to stumble so he could pounce, but that moment didn’t arrive. If Perry continues to warm to the task, a former one-term Massachusetts governor probably can’t beat him.

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

MONA CHAREN

What was with CNN introducing the candidates as if it were a football game?

It was a bad night for Perry. While clearly the audience favorite at the start, he lost a lot of altitude as he had to defend the Gardisil decision, the in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, and his opposition to the border fence. Many in the audience may have been hearing about these things for the first time.

Romney, while always polished, strikes many as utterly inauthentic — and therefore untrustworthy.

Gingrich is made for these debates. Michele Bachmann is the reliable B student. And Jon Huntsman, whose candidacy was based on reason, civility, and high tea — turns out to be quite ready with the shiv.

— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us).

SAMUEL GREGG

When CNN hosts a Tea Party–sponsored debate, you know we’re not in 2008 anymore.

This debate was a preview of the economic arguments that will be marshaled against President Obama in 2012. In this regard, almost all of the candidates demonstrated their ability to raise sharp questions about the present administration’s specific policies but also about the basic philosophy informing those positions. The question running through my mind was how the president was going to provide convincing (let alone coherent) responses to the critiques I heard of policies ranging from Obamacare, to his administration’s not-so-subtle association with some of America’s worst examples of crony capitalism, to the ramping up of deficit spending that has produced so few tangible results in terms of employment and growth.

It was also revealing that the economic questions asked at this forum closely mirrored many of the issues raised at the previous debates. This suggests that all the talk about the Tea Party’s running out of steam since 2010 seems less convincing than ever. Whether the Republican party likes it or not, the Tea Party is still galvanizing American conservatives and also, perhaps more importantly, independents. And that spells deep trouble for the Left in 2012.

— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his 2012 forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future.

CHARLOTTE HAYS

Can we get the Tea Party and Wolf Blitzer to team up for the all GOP debates? Thanks to very good questions by the tea-party activists and Blitzer’s ability to keep his liberal bias in check, it was a lively and revealing night.

Two things mattered: whether Michele Bachmann could stage a comeback (I don’t think she did) and the back-and-forth between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, one of whom will in all likelihood become the Republican nominee. The first question was on Social Security, perfect for a face-off between them. “Governor Perry scares seniors,” Romney said, trying his darndest to give “Ponzi” Perry an opportunity to scare them some more. Romney recalled that in his book Fed Up!, Perry called Social Security unconstitutional. Does he stand by that?

I thought Perry’s answer was good: “If you are saying that back in the 1930s and ’40s they made the right decision [about Social Security], then I don’t agree with you,” Perry said. That’s a yep, it’s unconstitutional, and Perry got a strong round of applause. But Perry did make it clear that, after all these years, Social Security is part of American life (though I am not sure he wouldn’t want the states to have more say in administering it). Perry, as he needed to do, went out of his way to reassure older citizens who are on Social Security. He was believable, I thought.

Still, if you listened to what Mitt Romney, who’s lost some of his frontrunner confidence, said, you had to admit that the former Massachusetts governor has the best command of economic issues of all the GOP hopefuls, including Herman Cain, whose intriguing tax plan is called 9-9-9 (why not 6-6-6?). Romney is right that his business experience is a plus. It shows in his fluidity and sophistication whenever he answers questions on what to do to restore the economy.

Romney may well be the best candidate to go up against Barack Obama. Still, I can give my heart to Rick Perry for awhile, can’t I? I love his confidence and swagger. Did you notice the way he always got the camera to look at him, no matter who was talking? At one point, Perry actually patted Romney on the back — condescendingly. Best of all, snobs would be driven as wild by Rick’s “regalatory” as they were by George Bush’s “nucular.” (By the way, Perry says nucular, too, the scamp!) I like to think of Perry as sort of the Texas aggie version of bad boy Prince Harry. Rick Perry is cocky. Barack Obama is arrogant. There is a big difference, but I must admit that, smitten as I am, Texas cockiness may not play as well above the Mason-Dixon line.

Speaking of what plays well, somebody should tell the desperate Jon Huntsman that Kurt Cobain references don’t play well with a tea-party crowd.

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

STANLEY KURTZ

When Rick Perry is on — which is often — his folksy, but tough manner is totally winning. Romney is smooth and competent, but he can’t quite match Perry’s appeal. Since substantive differences between Perry and Romney on entitlements are less than meets the eye, style is becoming more important. In fact, the race is turning into a combination of style and experience. Despite appearances, actual policy differences are too small to matter much — with the important exception of Romneycare, and maybe now immigration for Perry.

Yes, Perry took hits on the HPV vaccine and immigration. The conservative base will be a little more cautious and a bit less enthusiastic about him as a result. But this is still a Romney-Perry show, and Perry’s vulnerabilities are not going to cancel out the Romneycare problem — which Mitt has only made worse by demagoging Perry on Social Security. Perry’s immigration stance might help make conservatives a bit more open to Mitt, which is fine. But for now, despite the fact that Perry took some hits, this is still his race to lose.

The real question is what would happen to Perry after a massive scare campaign in the general election based on Fed Up! I can see those scare tactics failing. But the entitlement issue remains risky business. Let’s wait and see how this plays out.

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

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ

On his very first full day as a candidate in the Republican primary race, Texas governor Rick Perry gave a good answer when asked about his executive order mandating the Gardasil vaccine for girls going into the sixth grade in his state. He said it was a “mistake,” motivated by his hatred for cancer. But the more he talks about it, the more he makes it an issue. Rick Perry doesn’t seem to believe that this was more than a procedural mistake. How much have we surrendered when we’ve decided that the only way to spare sixth-grade girls from a sexually transmitted disease is vaccination? Rick Santorum made that point Monday night and well.

For anyone who is watching these debates, Rick Santorum is consistently substantive. I’m for the guy who will make him secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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

MARVIN OLASKY

The only thing missing in the CNN debate showmanship last night was having one of the candidates (Jon Huntsman, please) voted out. Other reality-show elements — throbbing music, a cheering audience, a dramatic introduction of contestants — were all present.

The show started with a notice of thrills to come: “Eight candidates. One stage.” CNN gave each candidate a label: Rick Perry is “The Newcomer,” Mitt Romney is (inaccurately) “The Frontrunner,” Rick Santorum is “The Fighter,” and — my favorite — Newt Gingrich is “The Big Thinker.” Someone at CNN must love one of my favorite movies, The Great Escape from 1963, which had James Garner as “The Scrounger,” Charles Bronson as “The Tunnel King,” and Richard Attenborough as “Big X.”

Wolf Blitzer played “The Ringmaster,” shouting after the introductions, “Ladies and gentlemen, the eight Republican presidential candidates.” And so it went. The Ringmaster often threw out-of-context statements at the contestants (excuse me, candidates) to get a rise out of them. The result was lots of heat and little light. Overall, I thought The Newcomer won the night and The Firebrand (Michele Bachmann) started no fires. Others can opine about what content there was. What truly astounded me was the format.

— Marvin Olasky is the editor-in-chief of WORLD.

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