« Obama is caught in a public fabrication |
Blog Home Page
| Your tax $$$ at liberal work »
May 5, 2007
Thoughts on the Republican President Debate
I suspect that most Republican voters who watched the GOP presidential debate on Thursday, like me, approached the event with a mixture of anticipation, trepidation, and disappointment. Anticipation to see how the various candidates would perform in their first big televised event. Would the three leading candidates -- Giuliani, Romney, and McCain -- continue to separate themselves from the rest of the pack? Or would any of the second- and third-tier candidates, who largely have been ignored by the media and fundraisers to date, make a strong enough impression to be taken seriously going forward? But also trepidation that none of the candidates would demonstrate the charisma, the articulateness, and the sound policy judgment that we need in our party's standard-bearer for 2008. Then, of course, there was the disappointment that the two most intriguing potential candidates -- Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson -- would not be participating in the debate.
Before offering my assessment of each candidate's performance, let me first say that the format and substance of the "debate" were atrocious. The candidates were not asked an equal number of questions (Tancredo was noticably ignored by the moderators); and they were allowed only 30-60 seconds to respond to each question, making intelligent discussion of the issues next to impossible. The questions themselves frequently were inane (e.g., asking the candidates "Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?" or whether they favored amending the Constitution to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for president) and even mean-spirited (e.g., the many questions designed to provoke arguments among the candidates over trivial statements they had made about each other on the stump). Moreover, the moderators completely failed to raise some of the most important issues facing the country (e.g., Social Security and entitlement reform, the backsliding of Russia towards dictatorship and an adversarial foreign policy, and domestic anti-terrorism measures).
Frankly, the questions seemed calculated to embarrass the Bush Administration and to promote fissures among the various constituencies of the Republican coalition. This was not surprising for a debate on MSNBC hosted by Chris Matthews. Why the Republican candidates agreed to such a travesty is beyond me.
Now on to the candidates (in alphabetical order):
Kansas Senator Sam Brownback
My impression of Brownback is that he is an earnest, intelligent fellow, but one with a limited range of expertise who would be out of his depth as President. Brownback made a strong case for the importance of religion in public life, noting that "American is a faith-based experiment as a country" and arguing that "we shouldn't be trying to run it [religion] out of the public square." I agree. But on a very different religious issue -- the challenge of militant Islam -- his emphasis on working with "moderate Muslim regimes" struck me as a cliché rather than a carefully developed position. I also thought his answer to the Roe v. Wade question -- that "it would be a glorious day of human liberty and freedom" if the decision were overturned -- demonstrated a lack of understanding of constitutional law (i.e., overturning Roe would not outlaw abortions) and reflected an exaggerated importance given to the abortion issue. Brownback is said to be a favorite among "social conservatives" precisely because he holds such strong views on abortion and related issues. I hope his supporters take to heart Brownback's own words when asked if he could support a Republican nominee who was not pro-life: "I could, because I believe in the Ronald Reagan principle, that somebody that's with you 80 percent of the time is not your enemy, that's your friend and that's your ally."
Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore
In my opinion, Gilmore was the only candidate whose stock rose significantly as a result of the debate. He should be considered a realistic challenger for the Republican nomination. His performance was consistently solid and articulate and persuasive. He didn't hit any home runs. But he never struck out either. His position on abortion comes closest to the American mainstream: He supports a right to abortion in the first 8-12 weeks of pregancy; he opposes partial-birth abortion; as governor, he passed waiting period, informed consent, and parental notification laws; and he agrees that Roe v. Wade was "wrongly decided." In response to a ridiculous (and liberal-leaning) question about the number of women in prison, Gilmore stated that "we have to insist upon obedience to the law." This was a great answer. Gilmore needs to continue thinking about the problem of Islamic terrorism, but I would be comfortable with him as Commander in Chief. Gilmore described himself as a "consistent conservative." However, he did not have sufficient opportunity to lay out all of his positions during the debate. I look forward to hearing more from him during the campaign.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani
I had high hopes for Giuliani before the debate, and overall I was disappointed. He did not have the presence and charisma that I expected. Many of his answers were choppy and uncompelling. By the end of the debate he had rallied, but I think his presidential aspirations took a hit last night. Giuliani was given the honor of the first question of the debate, when he was asked "how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?" This is a question that calls for the candidate to explain why he is running for president. Giuliani fell flat. He said that "Ronald Reagan taught us: You lead from optimism" -- but his tone was not optimistic (his answer included the words "weaknesses" and "flawed") and he appeared to accept the moderator's implicit assumption that there is, indeed, something wrong with America. Hardly Reaganesque. An inauspicious beginning for the front-runner. Then, in response to a question about Iran, he stated that "the use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous" and "very provocative," before going on to say that "the only thing worse would be Iran being a nuclear power." What does this mean? Granted, it is difficult to address a complex issue in 60 seconds. Nevertheless, Giuliani's equivocation -- especially compared to McCain's clear and forcefully stated position on this issue -- undermines his reputation as a hawk on Islamic terrorism. On the abortion issue, Giuliani again failed to articulate a clear position. How could he not have perfected his abortion soundbite by now? On taxes, Giluiani stated that the "death tax" must be abolished and the Bush tax cuts should be continued. Beyond that, he only spoke of "adjusting" the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and "looking for some marginal reduction" in the present rates. Sensible positions, perhaps, but uninspiring. Giuliani's best answer of the night was in response to the final question to all the candidates, about how they would be different from President Bush. Instead of attempting to lay out such differences, Giuliani generously, and eloquently, praised the President for keeping the nation safe since 9/11.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
As a candidate, Huckabee strikes me as a somewhat better version of Senator Brownback. Huckabee is smooth, articulate, genuine, and eminently likeable, but, like Brownback, I do not think he is qualified to be President. Huckabee gave what I thought was one of the worst answers of the night, in response to a question about global warming. Without addressing the merits of the scientific debate over global warming or the radical proposals being offered by the Democrats to reduce carbon emissions, Huckabee invoked the old Boy Scout motto of "leaving the campsite in better shape than you found it" and the Biblical notion of human beings as "stewards" of the Earth. It was a terrible answer that demonstrated a profound lack of knowledge about one of the most important political and economic issues of our time. It also implicitly accepted the premise of global warming (as did Duncan Hunter's response to a similar question). Global warming has become the rallying cry of those who seek to expand government control over the economy. Any responsible Republican presidential candidate must be prepared to rebut the alleged scientific basis for global warming and explain why the Democrats' prescriptions for dealing with global warming are mistaken.
Representative (CA) Duncan Hunter
As just noted, Hunter also gave a terrible answer on global warming. He was asked if he had seen Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." He said he has not. But instead of attacking the global warming hysteria, he stated that "global warming and the need to be energy independent gives us a great opportunity" and then explained how "we should bring together all of our colleges, our universities, the private sector, government laboratories, and undertake what, for this generation, will be a great opportunity and a great challenge to remove energy dependence on the Middle East and, at the same time, help the climate." What an awful answer. On the other hand, Hunter gave the best answer of the night on the immigration issue. When asked to name one thing the federal government does poorly, he said that what it does "really poorly" is "secure the border." Hunter advocates building a secure fence along the entire southern border with Mexico. Hear, hear! His approach to the Middle East is much less clear, however. Hunter says we have to "move very quickly" regarding Iran. At the same time, he says we should pursue a policy of replacing American troops in Iraq with Iraqi forces, so our troops can be withdrawn from the region. I am not sure what all this means in practice. And unlike McCain, for example, he did not say much about Islamic terrorism. I also did not find Hunter particularly charismatic or well-spoken.
Arizona Senator John McCain
In my opinion, McCain performed much better in the debate than either Giuliani or Romney. McCain's chief strength is his strong foreign policy vision, which he articulated in a clear and forceful manner. McCain recognizes militant Islam as the preeminent threat to our national security. He advocates an aggressive, pro-active strategy for dealing with terrorists. It is clear he would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, even if that means going to war. He thinks we can succeed in Iraq, and that the consequences of withdrawal would be disastrous. Indeed, he pointedly called out the Democrats for saying we've "lost the war" and for cheering when they passed a withdrawal motion "that is a certain date for surrender." No candidate can match McCain's understanding of our foreign policy situation or his commitment to the "pro-war" position. McCain also vigorously advocated for the line-item veto and the need to reduce government spending. Other candidates sang this tune, of course, but none as passionately as McCain. After Gilmore, I think McCain was the biggest winner of the night.
Representative (TX) Ron Paul
Paul is an interesting guy. He has run for president before, on the Libertarian Party ticket. He made perhaps the most insightful comment of the debate: "If you think that government has to take care of us, from cradle to grave, and if you think that our government should police the world and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a foreign policy that we cannot manage, you can't get rid of the IRS." While we can debate the details, I think Paul's right in principle. So long as we have an expansive vision of the role of the federal government, it is going to take lots and lots of taxes to accomplish these tasks. Many of the candidates in the debate advocated flat taxes or fair taxes or consumption taxes and so on. But at the end of the day, radical tax reform will not be possible in the absence of a radical change in our understanding of the role of government. Nevertheless, I think Paul comes across as a bit of a crank (e.g., talking about "the inflation tax" when inflation has been very low for years, claiming that Scooter Libby was "instrumental in the misinformation that led Congress and the people to support a war that we didn't need to be in"). He obviously lacks the political skills to be president. More importantly, he said very little during the debate that makes sense coming from a Republican presidential candidate. This is not the place to debate the merits of his "libertarian" vision, of course, but it is not a vision around which a winning coalition can be built.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
Like Giuliani, but unlike McCain, I think Romney came across as a "smaller" candidate during the debate than either his poll numbers or his fundraising prowess would have predicted. Romney continues to strike me as a polished but uncompelling candidate. I am not talking about his alleged flip-flops. For example, Romney answered the question about his changing position on abortion quite persuasively (he says his change of heart occurred when examining the issue of human cloning). But, to me, there is something artificial-sounding about Romney -- except when he is talking about family and country. Indeed, his two best answers of the night -- among the very best of all the candidates' answers -- were on these topics. On the family, Romney said: "I think that's the heart of the Republican Party: the American family. The American family is seeing an explosion of out-of-wedlock births. We've got great single moms doing their very best. But we have to encourage moms and dads, because the best work, the most critical work for the future of America, is the work that goes on within the four walls of the American home. We've got to help the American family and get more marriages before babies." This was an outstanding answer. Earlier, in response to a question about what he "dislikes most" about America, Romney responded: "Gosh. I love America. I'm afraid I'm going to be at a loss for words because America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills and streams and great cities. It's the American people. And the American people are the greatest in the world. What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people: hardworking, innvoative, risk-taking, God-Loving, family-oriented, American people." Sentimental? Perhaps. But Romney truly believes it. So did Reagan.
Representative (CO) Tom Tancredo
Tancredo is a staunch advocate of controlling our nation's borders and stopping illegal immigration. In my opinion, this is one of the three most important issues of our day (in addition to Islamic terrorism and the push for socialized medicine). We need many more men like Tancredo in Congress. However, we do not need Tancredo in the White House. His performance during the debate showed, sometimes painfully, that he is not ready for the national stage.
Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson
Frankly, I am not sure what to make of Thompson. He is a thoughtful, articulate candidate. He built a strong, innovative, conservative track record as governor. During the debate, he offered some interesting suggestions for Iraq (decentralizing the government so the various warring ethnic groups would be able to elect their own local representives and dividing up Iraq's oil revenues among the central government, the local governments, and the people themselves) and for domestic tax policy (eliminating the AMT and offering taxpayers a choice between the current tax system and a flat tax). In many ways, his creative mind reminds me of Gingrich. Giuliani honorably credited Thompson with developing some of the public policy approaches that were used so succcessfully in New York City. But after watching the debate and re-reading the transcript, Thompson does not stand out in my mind as presidential caliber. Fair or not, I think he lacks the charisma and rhetorical flair needed for a winning candidate.
Predictions, or Wild Guesses
Granted, it still is very early, but my overall assessment of the candidates' prospects to date is as follows:
Brownback, Huckabee, Hunter, Paul, Tancredo, and Thompson have no chance of winning the nomination or being elected.
Gilmore should experience a boost from the debate, and may become the "conservative" alternative (instead of Romney) to Giuliani and McCain.
Giuliani's star is fading. While he has a very impressive track record as mayor of New York City, and is qualified to be President, he has not demonstrated the charisma, the confidence, and the sound policy judgment expected of the Republican front-runner.
McCain has shown that he is the right choice for those who believe that fighting an aggressive War on Terror is the determinative issue for the 2008 election. However, espeically in light of the deep national divide over this issue, I don't think this will be enough for the nomination or the general election.
I find Romney to be a somewhat uncompelling candidate, but is qualified to be President. As a "compromise" choice, he may be the best bet to win the nomination. But query whether he can win the general election?
So how well would Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson have performed during the debate? I suspect they both would have done better than most of the other candidates. Gingrich is brilliant, with a treasure trove of knowledge, and an unparalleled ability to articulate complex ideas in relatively short soundbites. It is hard to predict what impact a Gingrich candidacy will have, however, because Gingrich does not fall into any neat political box. As for Thompson, his acting and radio experience would have served him very well in this format. I think a Thompson candidacy is likely to draw support away, at least initially, from Romney and Gilmore. Thompson will become the "conservative" alternative to Giuliani and McCain. Whether Thompson will be able to withstand the scrutiny of a presidential campaign remains to be seen.