In the Arena

The Debate in Vegas: BAM! POW!! OOOF!!!

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I am just loving these Republican debates. There was a moment last night, when Mitt Romney put his hand on Rick Perry’s shoulder and Perry gave him a cowboy glare and it seemed that it might come to fisticuffs. The moment was averted when Perry froze in catatonic anger, as is his wont, and Romney retreated into smartest-kid-in-class complaints about Perry not playing by the rules. “Anderson?” he asked. Not a good moment for the best Republican debater. I mean, you don’t go to the International Criminal Court when you can send in the Navy SEALs to whack Osama.

But others are offering performance scorecards. I thought I might score the occasional moments of actual substance–and there were several significant ones–on health care, immigration, 9-9-9, foreclosures and foreign policy:

Health Care

Santorum v. Romney: Santorum scored with a basic truth here–Romneycare is Obamacare. And the most basic weakness of both is, as Santorum concisely pointed out, they deal with universal coverage rather than cost containment.

Romney v. Gingrich: Romney scored with a basic truth here–the individual mandate is a Republican idea, which came out of the way-conservative Heritage Foundation in the early 90s and that Gingrich supported it. This is an absolutely crucial truth about both Obamacare and Romneycare: its most basic provisions–the individual mandate and health-care exchanges (the superstores where consumers will be able to shop for coverage)–are both Republican ideas. To be sure, Obama’s vast expansion of Medicaid did not come out of the Heritage foundation and it isn’t a very good idea in the long term. But this was, as the President might say, a teachable moment. It is important for rank-and-file Republicans to understand that their idea factories gave birth to Obamacare.

Immigration

Romney v. Perry–Both candidates lost this one. But I doubt that Perry gained much sympathy with Republican voters by accusing Romney of hiring undocumented gardeners. I mean, how many Republicans (or Democrats) who don’t mow their own lawns, don’t hire illegals? Romney’s candid response was a rare slip for him: “I’m running for President, for Pete’s sake, I can’t hire illegals.”

It should also be noted that all this macho posturing about electrified fences, crocodiles etc. avoids the most basic fact about illegal immigration–it is down dramatically. The bad economy means there are fewer jobs to lure illegals. The efforts of the last several Presidents has significantly beefed up Border Patrol, fencing and high-tech surveillance. And the Obama Administration has been very tough on illegals–almost 400,000, a record, have been deported in the past year. (Of course, you won’t hear the Obama Administration touting this since it might turn away Latino votes…the President, like a strict Franciscan Friar, does not tout his good works, like tax cuts and tightening the border. Weird.)

9-9-9 

Romney v. Cain–This was a clean kill for Romney, and an impressive bit of debating. He led the in-over-his-head Cain into a dialogue about apples and oranges, Cain’s chosen metaphor, as if the Hermanator were a third-grader. The Nevada state sales tax was an apple. The 9-9-9 sales tax was an orange. The citizens of Nevada would be paying both. QED and Sayonara.

Newt Gingrich v. Herman Cain–Right after Romney and the others had pummeled Cain, Cooper noted that Gingrich had said that 9-9-9 would be a hard sell and asked Gingrich if he still believed that. “You just saw it,” said Newt, who had another fine debate. (This reminded me of Joe Biden’s excellent 2008 moment when he was asked if he could control his mouth and not make so many gaffes and he said, “Yes.” The brief, no-bull answer is a tactic that far too few political debaters employ.)

Foreclosures

The Republican Field v. Itself–Not surprisingly, none of these folks had anything of use to say. Michele Bachmann was the most hilarious with her passionate appeal to “Moms” afraid of losing their “nests,” which dribbled off into a promise to do…well, nothing specific. Sooner or later, the banks are going to have to take haircuts on their bad loans. A great many aren’t salvageable, but giving a break to otherwise solvent clients whose home values had plummeted might help to restore value to the housing market, cash to middle class consumers and reality to the banks’ balance sheets. You won’t catch any Republican talking about that, though.

Foreign Policy

Herman Cain v. Himself–Earlier, Cain had told Wolf Blitzer that he might negotiate with Al Qaeda–Al Qaeda!–for the return of an American hostage. He might even release all the prisoners in Guantanamo. When asked about this during the debate, Cain denied it. After the debate, Anderson Cooper showed him the tape. A clean kill. Cain immediately acknowledged that he “misspoke.”

By the way, Blitzer’s question was a very clever one. I would have liked to hear all the Republicans answer the following question: “Did Benjamin Netanyahu do the right thing trading hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of them well-known terrorists, for Gilad Shalit? Would you have made that deal?” Would any Republican have been willing to criticize Netanyahu? It would have been interesting to see.

All in all, a fascinating debate. I can’t wait for the next one.

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