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.