0 minutes. They call it a campaign, but it’s really a reality-TV show with eight contestants who compete for nearly a year. Each week or so, they get on a stage and are prodded to attack each other, equivocate and regurgitate sound bites. Dreadful stuff. At the end, viewers vote for one winner, who gets to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Welcome to Episode 11. American democracy as cheesy prime-time programming. CNN’s National Security Debate in Washington, D.C.
1 minute. After a quick introduction by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, we are lost in montage. Lots of images of war and dead Presidents. Voices from the past: A date that will live in infamy. Tear down this wall. Etc. Then the candidates get introduced, each with a sort of James Bond computer graphic that looks like an electronic onscreen dossier from Dr. Evil’s secret lab, if Dr. Evil’s secret lab was built in 1993.
3 minutes. Blitzer is back, delivering the requisite mumbo jumbo about Twitter and Facebook. He says tonight will be “unlike any debate so far in this presidential campaign.” This is what is known in the political/advertising business as “The Big Lie.” If you are selling belly-button lint, you might as well call it a mink coat. People will try to touch.
4 minutes. The candidates walk out onstage CNN-style, which means in a fashion designed to draw out the process as long as possible. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is perky, having traded his pink tie for a red tie. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann says, “Good to see you, Wolf,” as she passes him onstage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lumbers slowly. “Hey Wolf,” says former pizza-company executive Herman Cain. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gets the loudest applause, but walks as if his back is in a brace. Texas Governor Rick Perry shoots Blitzer with his hand pistol. Texas Representative Ron Paul couldn’t care less. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum looks like Woody from Toy Story.
6 minutes. The national anthem is sung by a guy from the Washington, D.C., production of Jersey Boys. His voice cracks at “rockets’ red glare.” If this were a more popular reality show, a British judge would follow the performance by telling the singer to jump in a lake because he sounds like a frog. If only.
8 minutes. Blitzer finally allows the candidates to stand behind their lecterns, and they all immediately start to scribble things on notepads. Except for Cain. He apparently doesn’t have any complex things he needs to remember. Blitzer prattles on a while longer. Then he asks the candidates for a brief introduction, like “I’m Wolf Blitzer, and yes, that’s my real name.”
10 minutes. Santorum goes first with a joke. “If you like what Barack Obama has done to our economy, you’ll love what he’s done to our national security.” High sarcasm. No one seems to get it. Paul says he is against “needless and unnecessary wars.” Perry introduces his wife Anita and talks about their 29 years of “wedded bliss.” Romney says, “I’m Mitt Romney, and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.” Except it isn’t. Romney’s first name is Willard. Typical. Facts be damned.
12 minutes. Cain declares that “our national security has indeed been downgraded,” as if it were an investment-grade bond. Gingrich says his dad was in the military and that at the age of 15 he “decided that national survival was worth a lifetime of study.” No doubt he was just as much of a showoff then. Bachmann praises the men and women in uniform overseas. Huntsman gives a quick bio, noting that he has two kids in the U.S. Navy.
(PHOTOS: Herman Cain Through the Years)
14 minutes. Finally the first question. Should the Patriot Act get a long-term extension? Gingrich gives a long answer about why terrorists should be treated not as criminals but as enemies on the battlefield, without really answering the question.
15 minutes. Blitzer tries again. “Just to clarify, you wouldn’t change the Patriot Act?” Gingrich says, “No, I would not change it. I’m not aware of any specific change it needs. And I’d look at strengthening it.” Of course, strengthening would be a change, but no one notices this because Gingrich quickly follows by describing a nuclear bomb exploding in an American city. The image clears the mind.
16 minutes. Paul, of course, disagrees with Gingrich and says criminal law is a fine way to deal with terrorists.“Timothy McVeigh was a vicious terrorist,” he says. “He was arrested.” This is a bad example to choose, since McVeigh’s bombing of a building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people.
17 minutes. Gingrich pounces. “Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point,” he says. “I don’t want a law that says, After we lose a major American city, we’re sure going to come and find you. I want a law that says, You try to take out an American city, we’re going to stop you.” Score one for Gingrich. But Paul then one-ups Gingrich’s end-times imagery. “This is like saying that we need a policeman in every house, a camera in every house, because we want to prevent child beating and wife beating,” he says. “You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state.” They will have to agree to disagree.
18 minutes. Bachmann is asked if she is with Paul or Gingrich on the Patriot Act. “I’m with the American people, with the Constitution and with the job of the Commander in Chief as the No. 1 duty of the President of the United States,” she says. Bold. Meaningless. Then she attacks Obama. “Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists,” she says, which is not really true, since the CIA remains involved in interrogations, according to the most reputable press reports.
19 minutes. Huntsman is asked to state his Patriot Act position. He talks about the balancing act between liberty and security and the need to share information. Another non-answer.
21 minutes. Romney is asked to comment on TSA pat-downs at airports. “Violation of civil liberty or a necessity to ensure national security?” He doesn’t answer. Says there are ways to improve TSA and that Gingrich is right about the limits of criminal law.
22 minutes. Perry says he would disband TSA unions and extend the Patriot Act. Then he says the Obama Administration “has been an absolute failure when it comes to expending the dollars and supporting the CIA and the military intelligence around the world.” He offers no evidence for this, nor does he try to deal with the evidence against it, like the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.
23 minutes. Blitzer asks Santorum if he supports ethnic or religious profiling of passengers on planes, to pick out potential terrorists. “Obviously, Muslims would be, would be someone you’d look at, absolutely,” Santorum says. Then he adds, “as well as younger males.” No need to worry about alienating constituencies when you are polling at 2%.
25 minutes. Paul starts waving his arms in disbelief. “That’s digging a hole for ourselves. What if they look like Timothy McVeigh?” This is a better use of McVeigh as an example.
26 minutes. Cain is asked about religious profiling of Muslims at TSA. He says he supports “targeted identification.” Wolf asks, “What does that mean?” Cain says, “We can do targeted identification.” A Cain tautology. Blitzer tries again. Cain calls him “Blitz,” says he would let intelligence agencies figure out what he means. Then Cain apologizes. “I’m sorry, Blitz, I meant Wolf, O.K.?” says Cain. Make it your ringtone.
28 minutes. New question about whether the drone campaign should be expanded in Pakistan. Huntsman responds with lots of facts and fancy pronunciations. “You have not President Zardari in charge but General Kayani over the military, which also is responsible for ISI,” Huntsman says. He says he supports an expanded drone campaign.
30 minutes. Bachmann is asked if Pakistan should continue to receive U.S. aid. Bachmann says yes, because of the national-security interests there. Perry disagrees. “I understand where she’s coming from, but the bottom line is that they’ve showed us time after time that they can’t be trusted. And until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America’s best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period,” Perry says. Since Pakistan, which is riven by internal factions, has never done anything “clearly,” this suggests Perry is ready to cut off Pakistan. “To write a check to countries that are clearly not representing American interests is nonsensical,” he says. In this, he rejects pretty much the entire history of American foreign policy.
33 minutes. Bachmann says, “With all due respect to the governor, I think that’s highly naive.” It’s an understatement. Perry says he just wants to stop writing blank checks. Bachmann points out that the U.S. is not writing blank checks. Perry looks down at the podium. He has sound bites but is not ready to engage on substance.
36 minutes. Romney is asked about Afghanistan, and he basically embraces President Obama’s entire approach to the region. “Our effort there is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a launching point for terror against the United States. We can’t just write off a major part of the world.”
37 minutes. Huntsman says, “I totally disagree,” and then says that the U.S. does not need to be nation building in Afghanistan with 100,000 troops. Then some exciting tit-for-tat ensues. “Are you suggesting, Governor, that we just take all our troops out next week or what? What’s your proposal?” Romney asks. “Did you hear what I just said?” shoots back Huntsman. “I said we should draw down from 100,000. We don’t need 100,000 troops.” It is a memorable moment, because Romney has been playing the role of alpha dog at these debates, and Huntsman just barked back a bit.
38 minutes. Romney looks flustered and tries again to get behind the Obama policy. “I stand with the commanders in this regard and have no information that suggests that pulling our troops out faster than that would do anything but put at — at great peril the extraordinary sacrifice that’s been made.”
39 minutes. Huntsman attacks again. “At the end of the day, the President of the United States is Commander in Chief,” he says. “I also remember when people listened to the generals in 1967 and we heard a certain course of action in South Asia that didn’t serve our interests very well.” Huntsman was 7 years old in 1967. Romney tries to come back, but he has lost this round. For the first time in all the debates, Huntsman has gotten to him.
40 minutes. Blitzer tries to surprise Gingrich. He doesn’t even ask a question. He just says, “Speaker?” Gingrich responds with pseudo-academic throat clearing. “Well, Wolf, I’m a little confused about exactly what we’re currently debating, because I think — I think we tend to get down to these narrow questions that — that, in a sense, don’t get at the — at the core issues,” he says, before saying he would change the rules of engagement in Afghanistan and care less about the opinions of the Pakistanis.
42 minutes. Santorum then sides with Romney, but does it better than Romney did it. “You’re doing exactly what all of the radical leaders are saying that America will do, that we are not in this to win, we are going to play politics with this, and then we will find this problem in Afghanistan on our shores in a very short order,” Santorum says to Huntsman.
43 minutes. Blitzer interrupts, saying he wants to get to “Congressman Cain in a minute” but first has to take a commercial break. Sounds like retribution, since Cain, who is not a Congressman, called Blitzer “Blitz.” But the break comes before Cain can blitz Blitzer back. Say that 10 times fast.
47 minutes. We are back with a question from the audience, except there is no question from the audience. An awkward minute or so later, a questioner appears: “If Israel attacked Iran to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, would you help Israel launch the attack or support it otherwise?” Cain answers without any answer. “I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success. Remember, when you talk about attacking Iran, it is a very mountainous region.” Imagine President Cain on the phone with the Israeli Prime Minister. “We will attack at dawn,” says the Prime Minister. “Have you considered the mountains?” inquires President Cain.
49 minutes. Would Paul support a bombing of Iran? “No. I wouldn’t do that.” Saw that one coming.
51 minutes. Cain still talking about “the mountainous terrain in Iran.” Note to American enemies: If Cain wins the White House, take Switzerland first.
54 minutes. Perry is asked if he would support new sanctions against Iran. He sure would, especially against the Iranian Central Bank. Then Blitzer points out that sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank would stop most oil exports and deal a potentially crippling blow to an already weak European economy. Perry is not going to touch that one. So Gingrich goes. He says he would still support sanctions on the central bank, because the alternative is war, nuclear or otherwise. “I agree with all of that,” says Bachmann. “And energy independence is something that President Obama certainly has avoided.” Just follow the bouncing ball.
57 minutes. Paul Wolfowitz asks the next question, introducing himself as “a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute” and not “the former Defense Department official who testified that the U.S. could secure Iraq after Saddam’s fall without additional forces.” He asks if the candidates support continued funding to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa. Santorum says yes, noting that “Africa was a country on the brink. On the brink of complete meltdown and chaos” before the funding appeared. A country.
59 minutes. Cain is asked directly if he would support the current foreign-assistance programs for AIDS and malaria in Africa. “It depends upon priorities. Secondly, it depends upon looking at the program and asking the question, Has that aid been successful?” he says. By inserting the word secondly in his answer, Cain gives the impression that he knows what he is talking about. But he has no idea.
60 minutes. Ron Paul? “I think all aid is worthless.”
61 minutes. Instead of dealing with the question, Romney goes on a rant about the defense budget being cut by Obama. “They’re cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget, which just happens to equal the trillion dollars we’re putting into Obamacare,” he says. This is doubly misleading. Obamacare is expected to save money over the first decade of its existence, not cost $1 trillion. And the defense cuts are still speculative.
62 minutes. Paul knows nonsense when he hears it. “Well, they’re not cutting anything out of anything. All this talk is just talk,” he says. If the debates could be killed, that last line would be written on their tombstone.
62 minutes. First Huntsman, now Paul. What’s going on? Romney may have missed his weekly testosterone shot. He tries to get back at Paul by rattling off numbers, but his numbers admit that most of the cuts he is speaking of are speculative. So for good measure, Romney says, “The right course in America is to stand up to Iran with crippling sanctions, indict Ahmadinejad for violating the Geneva — or the Genocide Convention.” Ahmadinejad has not committed genocide but has said he wants to get rid of the state of Israel and has denied the Holocaust. This is not the same as saying he wants to commit genocide. But why quibble over the details when discussing mass murder?
63 minutes. Newt gets a question about defense-budget cuts in a time of high deficits. He says he will try to cut the military, then pivots. “Let me make a deeper point,” he begins. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, imperial Japan, Lean Six Sigma, the Millennium Challenge and more oil drilling in the U.S. all get mentions. Hard now not to think of a 15-year-old Gingrich trying out this same act on a girl in the high school hallway.
66 minutes. Huntsman says everything has got to be on the table. Then he evokes the long-passed spirit of Sarah Palin. “It used to break my heart, sitting in Beijing, the second largest embassy in the world, looking at neighboring Afghanistan,” he says.
68 minutes. Perry is asked if he would compromise with Democrats to avoid budgetary gridlock when he becomes President. Perry doesn’t answer. Instead he calls Obama a failure in a few different ways and says Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would “resign in protest” if he were “an honorable man.” So Perry just questioned the honor of the man in charge of U.S. armed forces in a time of war. We will see if that one pays off down the road.
71 minutes. Santorum gives a much more reasonable answer. He says that it is O.K. to compromise; it just depends on the details.
73 minutes. A new question gives Gingrich a chance to ring the Chilean Social Security reform bell. “I think you can have a series of entitlement reforms that, frankly, make most of this problem go away without going through the kind of austerity and pain that this city likes.” Haven’t mentioned this, but in many of Gingrich’s answers, he is speaking “frankly.” It’s like a tic.
76 minutes. Second break.
80 minutes. We’re back. Quick live shot of Tahrir Square in Cairo. The crowd at Constitution Hall has clearly been forced to stand and applaud as Blitzer says there will be more commercials.
83 minutes. We’re back. Immigration time. You know how it goes. Secure the borders, etc. Perry says he would do it, because he knows how to do it.
86 minutes. Paul sees a chance to say that the war on drugs is a “total failure.” “Why don’t we handle the drugs like we handle alcohol?” he says. “Alcohol is a deadly drug. What about — the real deadly drugs are the prescription drugs. They kill a lot more people than the illegal drugs.”
88 minutes. Cain says Mexico is in trouble and then offers a four-point plan to deal with it, none of which have anything to do with Mexico. He would — wait for it — secure the borders, enforce immigration laws, empower states and “promote the current path to citizenship.” Not clear what kind of promotion he has in mind. Bunting? Signage?
90 minutes. Another question with already-answered potential: What about highly skilled immigrants? Everyone onstage is in favor of attracting more highly skilled immigrants.
91 minutes. Blitzer interrupts the inanity with a direct question about the topic no one wants to talk about. What to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country? Gingrich says, “If you’re here — if you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.” This is what will eventually happen. But it is generally verboten to discuss this publicly in the Republican Party. Gingrich is putting himself out there.
93 minutes. Bachmann pounces. “Well, I don’t agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty,” she says. “And I also don’t agree that you would give the DREAM Act on a federal level.” Gingrich struggles to explain himself but does not back down.
95 minutes. Romney pounces. “Look, amnesty is a magnet,” Romney says. It’s a good bumper-sticker answer. It’s one Romney has used before. It does not explain what Romney would do with the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
97 minutes. Gingrich still holds his ground. “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, Let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families,” he says.
98 minutes. Question gets pushed to Perry, who already stepped in this issue big-time a few debates back. He is cautious. But he still agrees with Gingrich and says there is a way to “keep those families together.”
100 minutes. Blitzer returns to Romney, who is now admitting that he might make an exception for those who have been in the U.S. for 25 years. “You would let them stay?” Blitzer asks. Here Romney reveals himself a bit. “I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” says Romney. This is an admission that lines would be drawn. Romney is playing it safe. Clearly he does not want to say what he really thinks.
101 minutes. Commercial break. There is a reason other reality shows tend not to last this long. Or if they do, they involve people wearing much less clothing.
105 minutes. We’re back. Question about Syria. What are the U.S. interests? Would you support a no-fly zone? Cain has no real idea. He says he is against a no-fly zone but can’t say why. “The most effective tools that we have in any of these situations are a strong military, which it is getting weaker, unfortunately, and our own economic strength,” he says. Then he tries to pivot to a discussion of the domestic economy.
106 minutes. Perry came up with the idea for a no-fly zone, even though rebels in Syria are not being bombed from the air. He calls it “one of a multitude of sanctions and actions” he would support. Huntsman then weighs in, showing that he is basically the anti-Cain, in that he knows stuff about foreign policy. Paul talks about the threat from “the al-Qaeda,” which is redundant. Romney grabs an opportunity to attack Obama for just about everything. Then Romney points out that the Syrian regime is using not planes but tanks on its own people. “Maybe a no-drive zone,” Romney jokes, but he doesn’t support that either. Just sanctions.
114 minutes. Final questions. The candidates are asked to mention the foreign policy issue they are most concerned about that has not been talked about. Santorum says socialists and radical Islamists in Central America. Paul says more U.S. wars. Perry releases his talking points on “communist China.” Romney, always the safe one, says both China and Latin America. Cain says cyberattacks. Gingrich says cyber, nuclear or an electromagnetic pulse attack. Bachmann says homegrown radical Islam. Huntsman says he could say China, but the biggest problem is right here at home. “It’s called joblessness,” he says. “It’s called lack of opportunity. It’s called debt, that has become a national-security problem in this country. And it’s also called a trust deficit, a Congress that nobody believes in anymore, an Executive Branch that has no leadership, institutions of power that we no longer believe in.” True that.
119 minutes. We’re done. Until next time. There will be a next time.