Monday's GOP debate, hosted by CNN, was largely an exercise in frustration and futility. The format allowed each candidate 30 seconds to answer each question - hardly sufficient to say much more than, "Well, first, I'd like to say..." By the time the candidate would get those words out, moderator John King would start grunting and wouldn't stop until the candidate had concluded the answer. It was irritating and distracting. And weird. King needs more training as a moderator. I suggest a couple years on the spelling bee circuit before they let him anywhere near a high-profile debate again.
I was also frustrated by the "11th Commandment" pact the candidates had apparently agreed to prior to the debate. By that, I mean Reagan's famous 11th Commandment never to speak ill of a fellow Republican. Aside from the fact that even Reagan didn't follow the Commandment religiously, this was a primary debate. The idea is for candidates to convince voters to choose them and not their opponents. While it's great to criticize Obama and his policies, it's also important to debate important issues within the Republican party. There are important differences between the candidates, both in philosophy and governing history, and those issues need to be addressed and debated. Ignoring the elephant (pun intended!) in the room just makes it highly likely that the candidate with the most money and the highest name recognition will win the nomination - Mitt Romney. But by default, rather than on the merit of his ideas, beliefs, and record.
Here's my assessment (in no particular order) of the candidates' performances on Monday night:
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) - Rep. Bachmann took the opportunity to announce that she had filed the paperwork to run for president. Like Sarah Palin, some on the Left have made a sport of turning her into a bizarre caricature. In this debate, she was able to show 3.162 million viewers (up 400% from CNN's normal audience) that she is warm, smart, determined, and can play with the big boys. Her story of five natural children and 23 foster kids shows that her lectures and policies relating to family values are more than cerebral ponderings and book knowledge. She's walked the walk and has skin in the game. I think she was a big winner, especially among those who had not heard of her and those who had only heard her taken out of context.
Gov. Mitt Romney - Governor Romney was a winner in the sense that he didn't lose any ground. He "looked" presidential and managed to stay above the fray. The other candidates refused to attack or even engage him on his state-mandated healthcare program in MA and his flip-flop on abortion. He must have breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was irritated that he obfuscated on several answers, seeming to remain just vague enough that he could back away from his answer and later say, "That's not what I meant." For example, moderator John King could not pin Romney down on whether or not the debt ceiling should be raised. He said,
"I believe we will not raise the debt ceiling unless the president is finally, finally willing to be a leader on the issue the American people care about."So, in other words, we won't raise the debt ceiling unless we will. Got that?
Gov. Tim Pawlenty - Gov. Pawlenty had some good moments, but much of it was overshadowed by the completely awkward confrontation with moderator John King. King asked, cajoled, even BEGGED Pawlenty to criticize Romney about what Pawlenty had - just the night before - referred to as "Obamneycare." As Romney looked on , Pawlenty punted. He went after Obama instead, refusing to lay a hand, or even a sharp adjective on Romney. Pawlenty has said over and over again on the talk show circuit that he can be nice, but as a former hockey player, is willing to "throw a sharp elbow" when needed. It was needed at this debate and he came off as more of a figure skater than hockey player. Would he do the same in a debate with Obama staring him down? He left me with that question.
Rick Santorum - I honestly don't know there is so little enthusiasm for this man. He gets it. He can articulate the values of the Tea Party and he voted that way consistently when he was in the Senate. When he talks about foreign policy, he sounds like the adult in the room. And no one in the race is a more solid social conservative. During the debate, he was passionate about the Constitution and his love for this country and confidence in the American people. I just don't agree with detractors who say he is "boring."
Ron Paul - I didn't hear all of what he said, as I learned to tune out that frequency of whining when the boys were little. Really, he didn't belong on that stage. He's a Libertarian, not a Republican. Oh, he runs on the Republican ticket and he often votes with the GOP, but you won't find the issues he's most passionate about and for which the loons flock to him anywhere in the GOP platform (ending the Federal Reserve, isolationist foreign policy, legalizing drugs). During the debate, Paul alternated between populist (to a certain segment that he appeals to) slogans and monetary mumbo jumbo that almost no one understands:
"And when you have a reserve currency of the world and you abuse it, you export money. That becomes the main export so it goes with the money."I would venture to say that the vast majority of Americans have no idea what that means. I have no idea what it means. If you fail to communicate, you can't win. That, in addition to his many other issues.
Newt Gingrich - His demeanor was more "grumpy old man" than elder statesman. In fact, he may have overtaken Ron Paul in this category. I don't think he cracked a smile the entire evening. He's clearly a very intelligent man, knows his facts, has been around a long time. We know because he reminds us. Constantly. He gave some of the best answers of the night, including those on immigration and appointing Muslims to his cabinet. However, he's got so much baggage it's hard to discern what is fact and what is campaign fiction with this man.
Herman Cain - I like Herman Cain. I enjoy listening to him, I love his story of realizing the American Dream and I really want to like him more. But I fear there is little more to him than slogans, acronyms and 5-point plans. Most of his answers in the debate started with, "We have to work on the right problem." True enough, but not enough. He usually followed up with a 3-point plan represented by an acronym. To me, it came across as simplistic rather than studied. He also has still not articulated a foreign policy, instead, continuing to insist that he cannot give his opinion until he has all the intelligence at his disposal. This is a very amateurish policy and not one I wish to see in a presidential candidate. I want to like him more, but I feel like it would be foolish to do so.
So what did you think?