The Corner

Notes on the Debate

It was, overall, an impressive show, with the candidates showing a remarkable resilience in responding, with precise information, to subjects rapidly shifting; with so-called moderators moving beyond the artless to the indecent, trying to bait candidates by offering criticisms — and then inviting another candidate to join the libel, rather than letting the target of their attack defend himself. Newt and Mitt struck back with subtle, but telling gestures. They were implicitly pointing up the vulgarity of the demand to explain, in 30 seconds, how they are going to organize 16 percent of the national economy in dealing with medical care.

But nothing we can point to tonight, in noting highlights, will claim much time in the conversation tomorrow when set against the Major Event of the evening: the ending of Rick Perry. Yes, many of us advancing in age can have sympathy with someone forgetting names or items on his list. But to go out of his way to make his point about three departments he would remove from the federal government — and forget the third — that is not a man ready to stand in this arena. And yet it was worse: The department he had forgotten was the Department of Energy, touching an issue that he has made the central issue in his campaign. But the distraction of mind did not end there: When the subject of student loans arose, he somehow couldn’t see the point that loans to students and public funding had themselves become engines for escalating the costs of college, well beyond inflation. Apparently the cassette was inserted in his head and he began to reel off things like long-distance learning and putting the press on trustees to reduce costs — by doing what? The poor man was reeling and suffering distraction. Yes, quickness of wit in debate may not be the test of soundness of judgment. But a debate can test clarity of mind. And he should be reminded that Lincoln, in debate with Stephen Douglas, offered the fullest unfolding of his argument, the clearest exposition of its moral ground, and the most savvy scheme of prudence to guide the administration he would later form. No trifling thing, a debate, when it is serious — and done by a thoughtful political man.

Even I was impressed by the range of facts that several of the candidates could command on a moment’s notice. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum were most notable here, but even Ron Paul had some apt things to say (e.g., on student loans). Herman Cain? It was clear that he has but one answer to anything. If he were asked how the Red Sox could have avoided their tailspin, the answer would probably be “9-9-9.” And simply reiterating that it’s “bold” does not make it bolder; it makes it increasingly tiresome and less plausible. Rick Santorum is rightly frustrated by the relative want of attention he has drawn, but his anger, I’m afraid, is getting in the way. To mix the metaphors, he may actually need more buoyancy before he can gain traction.

One of the questioners revealed the statism absorbed by many in the media when he noted the decline in “home values,” heading toward the levels of 1999. He asked Romney whether he, as president, could put up with that — as though the level of prices of homes were the responsibility of the president or the government. Mitt gave a cutting, apt response: Would you have the federal government solve the matter by buying all the housing? The dense reporter responded that he, the reporter, was asking the questions, and Romney was supposed to respond to them. Has CNBC hired a reporter so stunted that he had never heard of a Talmudic question, or heard that certain questions are best answered with another question? We’re making up our minds about the candidates on that stage, but most of those people asking the questions were simply not urbane enough to be there. They should be looking for jobs off camera.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College, the founder of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, and the architect of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Acts.

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