In the Arena

The Republican Debate

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It is now a two-man race, with an asterisk. Everyone seems to agree that last night’s Republican debate devolved into a spitting contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Those who live on Planet Earth will believe that Romney won the debate; those who live on Planet Tea Party will favor Perry, with a slight hitch–did he actually order that 12-year-old girls be inoculated against cervical cancer?  Oh. My. God.

Since we don’t yet know whether the Republican Party has become the Tea Party, let’s nibble around the edges of the proceedings:

1. The Two Uncles–Ron Paul was very much the crazy uncle last night…did he actually suggest that the fence along our southern border (more on that red herring in a bit) is more dangerous because it keeps us in than that it keeps illegals out? Oh, I guess it was a metaphor–government shackling human liberty and all that…but still: crazy. Far more interesting was the performance of Newt Gingrich, who is trying to shed his previous image as the angry uncle and become the Party Elder Uncle, lecturing the media for trying to divide and conquer the GOP. There was still some of the frothing, rabid anger there–he called the President a socialist, which is ridiculous. But there were the first glimmerings of the reason and intelligence that have always been there beneath Newtonian bluster. I found it very heartening that he acknowledged the impossibility and injustice of kicking out illegals who had been living here for decades with their American-born children.

2. The Others–Michele Bachmann is doing a fast fade. Her answers weren’t nearly as clear, or forceful, as in the past. She absolutely avoided the immigration question. She took the perverse view that Obama had made the country less safe (even Perry gave him grudging credit for nailing Osama). She is melting into a pile of brown sugar. Herman Cain sounded like a Japanese knife salesman on late-night TV with his 9-9-9 plan. Rick Santorum also attended.

3. Oh, and Jon Huntsman–had a nice, forceful debate. But he seems a time traveler from some previous Republican party. He defended science–particularly global warming–which led to an embarrassing Rick Perry duck-and-cover moment when asked which scientist’s work on climate change had convinced him that it really isn’t man-made. His mouth fluttered for a bit like a kitchen-moth, spewing jargon and cliches, then he receded into befuddled silence, macho gusto gone. Huntsman also called out Romney on his China-baiting, a fascinating Mitt-tactic that deserves further exploration. (One still wonder why the President hasn’t explained his position on China to the American people, who surely are curious and anxious about this.)

4.Immigration–a bunch of fence nonsense. Didn’t any of these people get the memo that illegal immigration has dropped precipitously over the past few years, a consequence of better fencing and a worse economy?

5.Energy–As the New York Times and others pointed out this morning, Romney was 100% wrong when he accused the President of blocking offshore drilling, coal, nuclear power and other assorted traditional power sources. There is a conservative argument–and a liberal one–to be made against the President’s alternative energy program; it hasn’t been notably successful. But Romney’s willingness to shred the facts on this issue will surely come back to haunt him if wins the nomination.

6. The Jobs Debate–between Romney and Perry was the heart of the show, and it quickly descended into a yours-is-smaller-than-mine silliness (although Romney showed a cool facility that has eluded him in the past). But if Romney is to win this nomination, he absolutely has to win this debate–for most Republicans, there’s no other reason for voting for him. He didn’t win it last night, but the show has just begun.