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Romney and Paul Sound Good, but No Big Winner in Latest Debate

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Although at one point I had hopes of actually attending last night’s presidential debate in person, those plans fell apart and it turned out to be a struggle to even hear it on the radio. I’m on vacation in Maine with my kids and our house has no television. Plus, for reasons I still don’t quite understand, FairPoint is apparently incapable of getting our DSL working. My last resort was to sit in our rented car in the middle of the dark woods and listen to the debate on the XM satellite radio rebroadcast of the CNN audio feed.

Hearing, rather than seeing the debate, while sitting with my college-age daughter and with her younger sister in the backseat playing video games, may have given me a somewhat different perspective on the outcome and the effectiveness of the candidates who were in attendance. My experience may have been akin to those who heard the Kennedy-Nixon debate on radio rather than watching it on TV. I was safely isolated from the “pretty” factor which some of the candidates have going for them, and had to focus on what they actually said.

The first and most obvious thing about the debate for me was the absence of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Despite meeting the qualifications which CNN had laid out for inclusion in the debate, Johnson was not invited for reasons which remain obscure. CNN chose to selectively interpret their own criteria in order to exclude him and stuck by their position in the face of a massive call-in and email campaign, substantial negative coverage in other media as well as protestors on the scene.

Even CNN knows they aren’t fooling anyone about their deliberate exclusion of Johnson and they may still be trying to explain it by the time the next debate rolls around. The upside for Johnson supporters is that this gross example of media bias seems to have really lit a fire under Johnson and his rhetoric is taking on a harder edge and he seems to be setting aside his laid-back style for a much more aggressive campaign style. It’s going to get harder for them to continue to ignore him.

Listening to the debate in the woods with the bears and moose and deer and loons and kids, with darkness all around and nothing to see, the first thing which struck me is the question of why the candidates represent so little of the country. Michele Bachmann’s pronounced accent brought it to mind, but that just reminded me that Tim Pawlenty is the former governor of her state and that Mitt Romney grew up not far away in another northern midwest state. For a depressed part of the country which is largely out of the Republican mainstream, it seems strange to see even one Minnesotan, much less two on the debate state. Add to that the fact that both Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich are from Georgia and you get a very limited geographical distribution of representation in the group. The fact that Santorum is from some alien planet doesn’t really help.

The thrust of these debate retrospectives is always to pick winners and losers, and it’s easiest to start by picking those who made no real mark at all. Pawlenty’s voice just blended into the background and he seemed to have very little to say that was interesting. Santorum managed to avoid saying anything too blatantly insane, but also seemed to be given less time to speak than anyone else and had nothing interesting to say. Gingrich also didn’t really manage to stand out, except with a sad attempt to frantically claim the Reagan legacy. None of these three did anything to hurt or advance their campaigns and they’ll remain at the bottom of the heap where they belong.

Michele Bachmann stood out because this was her first debate, she has a distinctive accent, she’s the only woman and her answers were clear and relatively concise. I think some analysts will be eager to give her the win because she was at least different, but listening to what she had to say I was underwhelmed. She seemed needy and egotistical and in her answers she kept alluding to her past accomplishments in Congress rather than explaining what she might do as president. She seemed incapable of expressing any original policy ideas or concrete plans. On key issues she seemed out of her depth, sidestepping hard questions and deferring to the Pentagon when asked about her war policy. On the plus side she did seem to understand that there are some issues where it’s better to defer to the states rather than let the federal government dictate policy.

Hermann Cain also stood out because of his distinctive accent, but he did not come off well. He waffled when asked the key question on why he supported the TARP bailouts, and as he has done before he showed both ignorance and inexperience in foreign affairs, like Bachmann deferring to the military in setting war policy, though perfectly willing to interfere with the military when it comes to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He really lost me when asked about his prior statement that he would not be comfortable with having an Arab-American in his administration and I have to concur with my daughter’s comment when she said “who is this guy, some sort of racist?” His irrational hatred of muslims does not reflect all well on Cain.

Ron Paul performed very much as he has in past debates, but was a little more savvy and resisted getting sucked into the kind of confrontation he had with Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 primary. He was a little shrill and probably a little bit too technical for some listeners, but his answers were right on almost every issue, or at least showed good sense and a willingness to find real solutions for difficult problems. On a couple of problems Paul seemed to lose his focus when making long answers and ended sounding a bit weak and confused. My daughter echoed a lot of people when she pointed out that although he had the best answers he still sounded like someone’s “crazy old uncle,” a problem Paul is never really going to be able to get away from. Paul also had one of the best answers when asked what to do about Afghanistan he came right out and said the he’d be commander in chief and would tell the generals what to do, not just follow their recommendations, and that he’d pull out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen as quickly as possible. That was a big win and Paul probably came out of this debate with his solid second or third place position preserved or even a bit stronger.

Overall the winner of the debate was probably Mitt Romney. This was clearly what CNN was trying to engineer by keeping Gary Johnson out of the field so that Romney would stand out more clearly and not have to deal with challenges from a social moderate with a much better record on fiscal issues as a governor than he has. Romney was articulate and well spoken, answered questions directly and seemed well prepared. He started off with one of the strongest answers of the night, proposing that if elected he would go through the government from the top down and assess every program on its merits and necessity and just eliminate those which seemed unnecessary. In that answer and at several other points in the debate Romney came off as a true fiscal conservative with real libertarian leanings, speaking up for states rights and the 10th Amendment. He was clearly making a play for the liberty and limited government grassroots of the Republican Party. He certainly sounded good and I suspect most will pick him as a winner, but it’s hard to get away from my gut feeling that I can’t really believe anything he says. His record is too out of step with his campaign statements and I still lack confidence in his convictions.

I doubt that any of the candidates will get a huge bump in the polls out of this debate, though it seems likely that Cain and Gingrich will lose some ground, probably to Bachmann and Romney. The real winners may be the as yet undeclared candidates sitting on the sidelines. Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry and a few less prominent hopefuls won’t have seen much in this debate to convince them to abandon their presidential ambitions.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • zingzing

    well, don’t get into any sort of disagreement with him. he’ll fucking shoot you in the face.

  • Arch Conservative

    “he even cheered the guy who shot george tiller.”

    Hell, I’d buy the man a steak dinner if I could.

  • too bad ms arch conservative didn’t make an exception

  • zingzing

    oh course, leroy, but archie’s all about being as priggish as possible. he even cheered the guy who shot george tiller. that’s archie. he sheds his skin every morning.

  • Arch Conservative

    I made one grand exception Leroy.

  • Leroy

    Archie, I’m a bit confused. Aren’t conservatives against abortion?

  • zingzing

    “Yeah you’re right zing. He didn’t do any of those things…”

    i know. i doubt anyone really thought he would, but political rhetoric makes idiots out of lots of people every day. (really, how could he have afforded that many jackboots? logistics, people!)

    “I guess I should be grateful for the 25% increase in unemployment on his watch, the government takeover of the healthcare system and the additional 4 trillion of debt.”

    well, i hardly think you can take the spiraling unemployment of bush’s last term as obama’s fault. unemployment leveled off within 6 months (within one minor spike thereafter). that it hasn’t gone down isn’t grand, but at least it’s not at bush-level full-speed ahead.

    “the government takeover of the healthcare system” is more of that blustering rhetorical nonsense i was talking about up there. you know that isn’t what happened. yet that’s what you say. why? (and really, it didn’t go far enough into a gov’t takeover for my tastes, so i dunno why you’d bring it up.)

    and that 4 trillion in debt is covering the mistakes of the (spending-happy) bush admin. and you know it.

    just out of curiosity, who do you think owns the national debt? i think the answer to that would surprise you.

  • Arch Conservative

    Yeah you’re right zing. He didn’t do any of those things so I guess I should be grateful for the 25% increase in unemployment on his watch, the government takeover of the healthcare system and the additional 4 trillion of debt.

  • zingzing

    archie, i’m a bit confused. conservatives thought that obama would have destroyed america, enslaved it and turned it into a muslim fascist communist dictatorship (although you tell me what the order of all that is). i should think you’d be quite happy with the current reality given what you feared would happen. i mean, it looks like he’s going to ALLOW ELECTIONS (again). that’s a plus, right?

  • Arch Conservative

    I don’t see how any of the people on stage could be worse than the train wreck we have in office.

    It’s a shame Ms. Obama didn’t give abortion more thought at the time.

  • Leroy

    At last we know which candidates want thick and which thin pizza crust. This and other core issues were noted in the foreign press.

  • Here’s a better place to watch the silly fake Johnson-Obama debate stunt. The other page had only the Ron Paul version.

  • Hey, you can watch watch Gary Johnson debate after all: debate an Obama impersonator, that is, on John Stossel’s Fox News show. This was sooo clever the first time, with Ron Paul, that Stossel just had to do it again.

  • Michele B apparently kept her inner space alien in check last night and managed to fool everyone into thinking she might possibly be reasonable. But face it — when she’s not hilariously inappropriate and uninformed [that is to say, 99% of the time], she’s nothin’.

    I note that her ‘states’ rights’ position on gay marriage still allows her to support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.

    I also loved [the day before the debate] CNN’s recently out reporter Don Lemon asking Rick Santorum if he has gay friends, and looking half impressed, half dubious at Santorum’s answer: “I not only have a gay friend, I was with him just the other night.”

  • I think Romney is from Michigan, not Minnesota.

    Here is Ezra Klein’s Twitter summary of the debate. Reading it is probably as instructive as watching the damn thing, and much more entertaining:

    Romney won. Bachmann surged. Cain disappointed. Pawlenty whiffed. Gingrich slept. Santorum fretted. Paul scolded.

  • zingzing

    “Bachmann is already running and is a more professional candidate with a real chance to get votes.”

    yish. here’s your second exposure.

  • Steve

    I liked the fire of Bachmann, her background, and what she had to say. This was my first exposure to her. Not sure why everyone wants Palin to run when Bachmann is already running and is a more professional candidate with a real chance to get votes.

  • Baronius

    Wait, what? Zing doesn’t support Santorum?!

  • Baronius

    So far, I’ve heard that CNN threw the event for Romney, Cain, and Pawlenty. I think that people are seeing what they want to see.

  • zingzing

    i’d heard of pawlenty plenty. aww, that was neat. i’d never heard of johnson (although his common last name might have helped with that). and yeah… santorum… heard of him quite a bit. no one puts asshole and dick together quite like he does.

    “The problem with CNN making the decisions is that their priorities – like name recognition – are not the priorities of the voters or of the Republican party.”

    then the republican party needs to schedule its debates with another entity. but roger ailes seems to be showing some reluctance to do that for some reason or another.

  • Johnson certainly has as much name recognition as Pawlenty who no one had heard of prior to this election and Santorum is only ahead of him because of negative recognition, which shouldn’t really count for him.

    And it has to be about more than name recognition. Johnson has an actual following. He has people willing to protest in his behalf by the thousands. Santorum and Pawlenty certainly can’t claim that.

    Qualifications also matter. Governors are more electable. People like Bachmann get a lot of name recognition, but that doesn’t give them executive experience. Johnson was arguably one of the most successful governors of the last few decades.

    The problem with CNN making the decisions is that their priorities – like name recognition – are not the priorities of the voters or of the Republican party. So from the very start, having them in a decision making position skews the results.


  • Glenn Contrarian

    Dave –

    When it comes to Johnson, you merely echo the complaints that many on the far left and the far right have raised for many years – that the candidate that they like the most wasn’t included in the debate. Many of us on the left (not including me) wanted to see Dennis Kucinich included in debates during the last presidential election…but he was left out of most (and I think all) the major Democratic debates.

    And why? Is it really because the Fourth Estate wants to play kingmaker? I doubt it. I think it’s more of a matter of where does one draw the line when it comes to how many to invite to a debate…and what level of name recognition must one have before they can be considered a serious-enough candidate to participate in a major debate.

    With the possible exception of Herman Cain, I don’t think Johnson has anywhere near the name recognition that would qualify him in the eyes of the MSM. If he wants to be a truly viable candidate, then IMO he needs to take the next four years building up a national campaign framework using truly grassroots organizations, and frame himself as a true outsider as-yet uncorrupted by DC politics.

    To an extent, that’s what our current president did.

    Please note I didn’t make any judgments about the current crop of Republican candidates, but tried to address Johnson’s situation as objectively as possible.