The biggest mystery about the Reagan Library/MSNBC debate last night is why the Reagan Library allowed MSNBC to be the co-sponsor. Brian Williams, whom I haven’t watched much in recent years, seems to have been drinking liberally of the MSNBC kool-aid; many of his questions were so steeped in liberal distaste for Republican positions that it was embarrassing. There was no questioning about the nation’s fiscal position, aside from asking whether Rick Perry would abjure $1 of tax increases in return for $10 of spending cuts, very little on the macroeconomy and very little on foreign and defense policy.
Even so, most of the Republican candidates performed pretty well. My overall take is that Rick Perry, in his first presidential debate ever, did not perform commensurately with his recent lead in the polls, but did not do badly either; Mitt Romney was smooth and sometimes even interesting; and some of the other candidates did quite well. If that’s the way Republican primary voters and caucusgoers see things, the result may be to tighten the race for the nomination. The more so since, as I wrote in my Wednesday Examiner column, none of these candidates has very solid support and voters today know a lot less about them than they will by the time they get a chance to vote.
Let me go over the candidates’ performances, in the order in which they appear in the most recent realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls.
Rick Perry (29% in the average of recent polls). Perry came prepared to exchange barbs with Mitt Romney but not to defend Texas against the stereotypical complaints against Texas relayed by Brian Williams. He accepted Williams’s invitation to pummel Romney on Massachusetts’s low rate of job creation during Romney’s single term as governor and managed to note that it created fewer jobs then than during Michael Dukakis’s governorship in the 1980s (Romney didn’t think to note that Perry was a Democrat during most of that time and backed Al Gore for the 1988 Democratic nomination which Dukakis won). He was less adroit in explaining why Texas has relatively high levels of people without health insurance (one obvious reason: it has higher percentages of young people and immigrants, legal and illegal, than the national average).
" Rick Perry, in his first presidential debate ever, did not perform commensurately with his recent lead in the polls, but did not do badly either."
He did manage to make the point that, although Texas spends less money on education than many other states and—horror of horrors to Brian Williams, cut education spending from projected levels this year—that its black and Latino students tend to have higher test scores than in many high-spending teacher-union-dominated states. He was, I think, suitably presidential in going out of his way to give Barack Obama and the Navy SEALs credit for killing Osama bin Laden, and he was steadfast in defending Texas’s record on capital punishment. (Note to Brian Williams: You may be against capital punishment, as I am, but most Americans favor it in appropriate circumstances, and every American president including Barack Obama has supported it; it’s not un-American to execute the most heinous criminals.)
Perry was also interestingly passionate in defending his decision to require hpv inoculations and he accepted the invitation to attack Ron Paul for his 1987 renunciation of Ronald Reagan; he was strong in maintaining that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” for Americans now in their twenties. His call for predator drones to police the border with Mexico precluded any attacks on him for opposing the border fence in Texas (where, as he has pointed out before, it’s impractical since the border runs along a river). His statements that Keynesian economics was now dead.
Mitt Romney (18%). Romney came well prepared, defending as he has in the past his Massachusetts health care plan and zinging Perry by arguing that he didn’t create Texas’s job creating policies any more than Al Gore invented the internet. He dodged an attempt to get him to criticize Michele Bachmann’s claim she could reduce gas prices to $2 a gallon and he said that on the hpv issue Perry’s heart was in the right place: stances that showed a nice sense of command. Time after time he directed his answers toward criticisms of Barack Obama, saying he was a nice person but is simply in over his head and doesn’t understand how jobs are created in a market economy. Good points for the general election as well as for the primaries. Was he, Brian Williams asked with an almost audible gasp, a backer of the tea party? Well, Romney said, he agreed with them that government taxes too much and is stifling the private sector economy: a solid and surefooted response.
Ron Paul (8%). Am I becoming a softy or is Ron Paul becoming more endearing? He seized opportunities to attack Perry on his 1990s letter encouraging Hillarycare, his executive order on the hpv inoculations and his practice of crony capitalism. When Brian Williams goaded him by asking whether he favored getting the government out of air traffic control, he missed the chance to point out that other advanced countries have privatized their air traffic control systems and that our system is technologically horribly backward by comparison.
Michele Bachmann (8%). For the first half of the debate Bachmann seemed almost shut out of the conversation; in addition, her makeup artist was not kind to her (sorry if you think that’s sexist but, as the first 1960 presidential debate showed, makeup can make a difference). She rallied in the second half, noting that Ronald Reagan’s deal trading tax increases for spending cuts didn’t work out as he had hoped and noting, as no other candidate did, that Barack Obama has not done enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. She parried a question about oil drilling in the Everglades by noting that Obama has been forced to retreat on at least one major EPA regulation.
Newt Gingrich (4%). Here as in Iowa Gingrich seems to be playing the part of an elder statesman, reminding listeners that he supported, in his sophomore year in Congress, the Reagan budget and tax cuts. His strongest moment came in calling out Brian Williams and Politico’s (much less partisan) John Harris for emphasizing questions that prompted disagreement among the Republican candidates. “I’m not interested in your effort to get Republicans to fight each other.” He pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security was created because “we have enemies, people who want to kill us.” But he also gave Obama credit for his Race to the Top education program because it encouraged charter schools. And he made a nice point when he said that we should require that immigrants’ children learn American history—and that we should require that American students should too.
Herman Cain (4%). He got a chance to lay out his 9-9-9 economic program and got in a few other good lines with his characteristic good humor. He backed health savings accounts and personal retirement accounts—both good and serious policies—and defended House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s insistence that Congress find spending cuts to compensate for increases in the FEMA budget (weren’t Democrats in favor of paygo in some now forgotten era?). Cain seems unprepared to become president, but his performance invites the question: wasn’t Barack Obama similarly unprepared in 2007 and 2008?
Rick Santorum (3%). Santorum complained several weeks ago that the Fox News/Washington Examiner debate questioners in Iowa asked him only about cultural issues and not about the range of domestic and foreign issues on which he made significant contributions during his 16 years in Congress. This time he seized the opportunity to describe some of those contributions—but also went heavily against Perry on the hpv issue. To Brian Williams’s question about whether as a Catholic he should support caring for the poor, he gave an especially good and chastening reply about how the welfare reform he championed in the House and Senate in the 1990s actually improved the lives of the intended beneficiaries.
Jon Huntsman (1%). In the August 11 Fox News/Washington Examiner debate Jon Huntsman seemed like a deer in the headlights, in the moment before he became a hunk of venison. This time, to my surprise, he did much, much better. He made his point that during his governorship Utah had become, by some measures, the nation’s number one job creator, and he bragged on his Utah health care program; he made some mention, though not as much as I think he could have, to the fiscal and tax policies he recently unveiled which got a glowing review from the Wall Street Journal editorial page. For a guy who was a Barack Obama appointee, he delivered some devastating criticisms of the incumbent. He dismissed Bachmann’s promise of $2 gas as ridiculous. On foreign policy, he advanced forcefully his position that we should disembark from military involvements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he made a nice point by saying that he could address the Chinese in Chinese.
Let me conclude by noting that MSNBC decided to send in Jose Diaz-Balart (brother of one current and one former Republican congressmen from south Florida) to ask the candidates questions about immigration. Why couldn’t Williams or Harris have asked those questions?
All the candidates stuck to the position that we need to secure the border first before deciding what to do, if anything, about legalizing illegal immigrants. Phrasing the question this way got Perry off the hook on defending his Texas DREAM Act (allowing in-state tuition at public universities for the children of illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions). Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann took the opportunity to demand that a fence be constructed on the entire border (overlooking the problem that while that’s feasible in California, Arizona and New Mexico, where the border lies across bleak desert, it’s more problematic in Texas, where the border is a river).
Diaz-Balart pressed the candidates on what they would do about the current estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, but failed to note that that number is (the Census Bureau estimates) down from 12 million and that (according to the Mexican government) the net immigration from Mexico to the United States in the last measured year was zero. Huntsman suggested he might back legalization, saying that he views the issue from the eyes of his two children who were born in other countries (they were adopted and are legally in the country). My own intuition is that the immigration situation we had during the 1990s and most of the past decade is history, and that we are never again going to see the kind of mass immigration of very low-skill immigrants from Mexico that we experienced then. But neither the questioner Diaz-Balart nor any other candidates gave any consideration to this possibility.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.