Thoughts on the AEI-Heritage-CNN debate


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The November 22 Republican presidential candidates’ debate, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a resident fellow) and the Heritage Foundation, and presented by CNN, was probably the most substantive and serious presidential debate of this election cycle.

It was intended to be a debate on defense and foreign policy, and mostly was, although (I am informed by an AEI source) CNN insisted on a question, posed by AEI’s Alex Brill, on entitlements and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked candidates why they did not behave like good Democrats and support a tax rate increase on high earners. Blitzer did not, however, disclose that he, as a high earner himself, had taken advantage of the law which allows you to donate as much money as you would like to the U.S. Treasury.

"What infuriates me is that this is a debate over water that has already fallen over the dam."—Michael Barone

There was very little discussion about China and none at all, as far as I can remember, about Europe which is facing a financial crisis; there was no mention of nuclear-armed North Korea though plenty of discussion about about-to-be-nuclear-armed Iran; there was more mention of Latin America than in previous debates, though questions here elicited responses on the immigration issue which (as I have argued elsewhere and will argue below) assume that immigration, legal and illegal, is continuing at the huge rate that prevailed from about 1986 to 2007, when the available evidence suggests it has slowed to a trickle and, in some cases, has become reverse migration, back to countries of origin.

But those responses were the fault of Republican candidates, not of AEI, Heritage or CNN. The failure of the debate to cover every important issue in foreign policy, in a two-hour period in which only 90 minutes were available for questions and answers, is attributable more to the broad array of issues that any American president and administration must deal with than to any faults of the debate organizers or questioners.

Although the questions were allocated more equally to the candidates, regardless of poll position, than in some recent debates, the dominant figure in the room was the candidate I have characterized as Grandpa Newt. Early on, when Ron Paul said that we had successfully prosecuted Timothy McVeigh, Newt Gingrich replied, “Timothy McVeigh succeeded.” He killed hundreds of people in Oklahoma City. Convicting him in court and executing him didn’t bring those people back to life.

Gingrich summoned up the specters of an American city destroyed by a nuclear explosion, by our communications system disabled by an electromagnetic pulse attack, and argued persuasively that there is a difference between criminal law and the laws of war, and that those who attack us are subject to the latter. Mainstream media doesn’t know how to deal with this, because they’re comfortable with the idea of the Underwear Bomber being given Miranda warnings 45 minutes after interrogation begins; Gingrich calls them on it. Gingrich got a little lazy here and there, riffing off a campaign stop of the day before on his entitlement plans (but craftily crediting the Chilean reforms cited earlier by Herman Cain and the Galveston County system cited earlier by Rick Perry, in both cases without positive effects on their candidacies).

But Gingrich was willing to risk getting into political trouble on immigration. Questioned about his support for the 1986 immigration reform bill, he said that he would favor something like the World War II era Selective Service Boards (another Grandpa Newt reference to history) deciding which illegal immigrants could stay in the country, because they had become part of the community, had been earning a decent living and raising a family over long periods of time, and which should be deported because they had only been here recently, had no significant personal or community ties and should be sent home.

This is a proposal I had not heard of before, and it has this interesting basis in our history: the Roosevelt administration and a Democratic but not liberal Congress in 1940 (14 months before Pearl Harbor) instituted a national draft but decided that local notables should decide on a case-by-case basis who was and was not subject to it rather than have the decisions be made by some abstract national criteria. By the middle 1960s, when the draft law like the theoretical 91% income tax rate laws, had been honeycombed by exceptions after two decades in which we were not longer involved in a total war, that process of local decisionmaking came to be seen as illegitimate by nationally certified elites (like the Ivy League undergraduates of which I was one at a time).

But in the early 1940s, in very different conditions, local decisionmaking was seen as inherently fairer than the application of national guidelines. Newt Gingrich didn’t have time to explain all this, and his proposal was immediately attacked as amnesty by Michele Bachmann (who later noted that people had been arrested in her home state of Minnesota for involvement in the al Shahab Somali terrorist group) and by Mitt Romney, who on this issue has been taking what I think is an opportunistic position that any amnesty is intolerable. That gave him a basis for attacking Rick Perry’s support for in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants (approved by a large bipartisan majority in the Texas legislature, not a body known to be dominated by liberal squishes) and for attacking the proposal Gingrich advanced in the debate.

Perry lost points with many anti-amnesty Republican primary voters when he seemed to be accusing them of not having “a heart” for the young Hispanic students; Gingrich risked the same by suggesting that local draft-board-like panels should be able to grant a path toward legal residency if not citizenship. Gingrich was more deft here than Perry and seemed not to be attacking the motives of those who disagree. But for some large quantum of Republican primary voters and caucusgoers any endorsement of what they consider amnesty may be fatal.

What infuriates me is that this is a debate over water that has already fallen over the dam. Romney mimicked immigration restrictionists’ arguments that in-state tuition and Selective-Service-type amnesty would be “magnets” for further illegal immigration, There’s a theoretical basis for this claim. But empirically illegal immigration has been dropping toward zero and reverse migration of illegals seems to be taking place: the Census Bureau estimates that the illegal population has declined from 12 million to 11 million, and it probably has declined more since.

My AEI colleague Nick Schulz asked the intelligent question about future immigration: are you in favor of increasing the quotas for high-skill immigrants? The candidates allowed to or willing to respond said they would, that you ought to staple a green card to the diplomas of graduates with math, science and engineering degrees. Any policy in this direction has to go more into detail and figure out ways to avoid attempts to game the system, but the candidates so responding were on the right track. That doesn’t seem to stir the souls of Republican primary voters, however, who I think are motivated not so much by a dislike of the ethnicity or even the low skill levels of illegal immigrants as they are by the abstract but powerful idea that the law should not reward those who have disobeyed the law.

As for Mitt Romney, aside from what I (but perhaps not many Republican primary voters) consider his shameful attempt to demagogue the immigration issue, he did very well . We heard some of his standard riffs—Barack Obama doesn’t think this is an exceptional country; I do—but they’re pretty powerful and, at least as a description of Obama, pretty fact-based too. He was strong on Afghanistan, strong on the defense budget, strong on Syria (though he made a case that Rick Perry’s proposal for a no-fly-zone there wasn’t responsive to current realities). On Iran Romney sounded like he was prepared to take military action to prevent the current regime to obtain nuclear weapons; Gingrich made the interesting point that it would be preferable to oust the current regime than to suffer the negative effects of taking their nuclear weapons out.

Otherwise, Romney was mostly smooth and unobjectionable. He has obviously made a calculation that this year a current or past squish position on immigration is a disqualifier in the Republican primaries while squish positions on a health insurance mandate or abortion are not. This may prove correct. I don’t find that congenial, since I think that positions on health insurance mandates and abortion should be more or less independent of events and political context, while positions on immigration should depend on the situation faced by the country currently (not in the recent past) and the reasonably foreseeable future. But such is life.  

Other candidates? Rick Perry gave a performance that, if he had done similarly well in the first three debates, he would be a strong contender today. Michele Bachmann made some solid arguments  though her claim that she was at the center of Congress on the summer debate on the debt ceiling increase was delusional. Rick Santorum soldiers on, having held events in all 99 counties in Iowa (the only candidate who has) and citing again and again his Senate record without mentioning that he was rejected by Pennsylvania voters by a 59 to 41 percent margin in 2006. I like him, but I’m not sure that all that many Iowans he has talked to on the stump do too.

Jon Huntsman had a pretty good night, particularly in one sharp exchange with Mitt Romney; I have the impression, without any proof, that Huntsman has a particular animus toward Romney and believes (on the basis of some reasonable justification: more foreign experience, reelection rather than retirement as governor) that he is more entitled to serious consideration than his (in this cycle) extraordinarily fellow Mormon. Anyway, Huntsman has a series of positions which, while arguably intellectually coherent and explicated on occasion with some eloquence, seem unlikely appeal to any sizeable body of Republican primary voters.

Herman Cain confined himself, mostly, to brief replies, but showed very little of the acquaintance with foreign and defense policies most of us want in a president. Yes, Iran is mountainous, but maybe planes, missiles and drones can fly over the mountains. Once they get there is the problem. As for Ron Paul, if he is you cup of tea, enjoy. He had his claque in the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitition Hall, and you can cheer with them.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI

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