The 11th GOP debate of the year began with an odd note. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer started things off by introducing himself to show the candidates how to introduce themselves briefly, and in his intro Blitzer noted that yes, his name is in fact Wolf Blizter. When Mitt Romney’s turn came, the former MA governor affirmed that yes, Mitt is his name too. But Mitt isn’t his first name, it’s Willard. Not that that matters, it was just an odd moment.
Other odd moments included Herman Cain calling Wolf Blitzer “Blitz,” and Ron Paul insisting that we’re not at war because Congress didn’t declare one. I would have preferred a declaration of war in 2001 myself, but against whom and what? The enemy is transnational, and larger than just al-Qaeda. Bin Laden is dead, the architect of 9-11 is in jail. But the war goes on. Michele Bachmann declared Rick Perry “naive” for wanting to zero out foreign aid, when asking foreign countries to explain why they deserve a dime of US taxpayer money before receiving any makes perfect sense. At one point early on, Jon Huntsman seemed surprised when the audience applauded something he said. Herman Cain seemed uncharacteristically nervous and continued to speak mostly in generalities. When asked whether he would support an Israeli attack on Iran to halt its nuclear program, Cain seemed to suggest he would run that plan through a corporate metrics analysis before signing off on it. Ron Paul just seems to carry all the world’s grievances against America to our doorstep, though he did win the exchange with Mitt Romney on the looming budget cuts. Congress has a year to dodge those, so they probably won’t happen, and Paul is right in saying that those cuts are, at this point anyway, just talk. But his overall foreign policy would leave the world exposed to the tender mercies of the enemies of freedom, and those enemies would not stay off our homeland. They have already attacked us here. His consistent appeals to moral equivalency between us and terrorists exposes just how ill-informed he is on what motivates the Islamist terrorists. Huntsman and Romney’s heated argument over what the commander-in-chief should do about Afghanistan — Huntsman wants our troops pulled out, Romney wants to win the war there — looked like a steel cage match between two versions of Pat Boone.
Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney clearly stood out as the most clearminded thinkers on foreign policy tonight, especially on Iran. Perry had his best night and delivered a great idea on how to deal with the TSA, privatize it and de-unionize it. He also has a solid idea on dealing with foreign aid — zero it out, then decide how and where to spend it, rather than just growing it year after year no matter what the recipients do or how they behave. Perry proposed a 21st century “Monroe Doctrine” to deal with foreign hostile powers meddling in Mexico and the western hemisphere, and that a secure border is key. Newt Gingrich came out strong for stopping terrorists before they strike, and for pursuing America’s interests ruthlessly when dealing with quasi-allies like Pakistan, and stood strong for exploiting our domestic oil resources to help break the Iranian regime and enhance US energy security. He swung for and reached the fences more often than not, but his idea for a guest worker program sounds bureaucratic and too close to being an amnesty by another name to reward illegal aliens who have managed to stay the longest. Hugh Hewitt tweeted, wanting to know what Gingrich’s cutoff would be for allowing illegal aliens to stay — 10 years, or 15, or 25? Bachmann won that exchange with Gingrich, who betrayed a technocratic, even big government, approach at times. Mitt Romney has very little experience on the border but otherwise continued to seem plausible and thoughtful in most everything he said. He tried positioning himself to Perry’s right on the “magnets” that attract illegal aliens to come to the US, but his record as governor suggests that it was just that — positioning. Romney had a much better response to a question on whether to establish a no-fly zone over Syria; he spent the bulk of his time assailing President Obama’s vision of America as unexceptional before quickly answering that he would not support one. Perry, who put the idea on the table, noted that we cannot effectively deal with Syria and enhance our ally Israel’s security without dealing with both Syrian and Iranian aggression. Rick Santorum also had a good night for the most part, but blipped when he said that Africa was a “country.” Michele Bachmann seemed reasonably informed but not as commanding as either Perry, Gingrich or Romney. As all of the previous debates, the high number of candidates dictates that each gets less time to speak, which forces them all to truncate answers to complex questions. Strong night for Perry, Romney, Santorum and occasionally Bachmann. Gingrich escaped delivering a “heartless” soundbite but on policy may have exposed a major fissure between himself and the GOP base.
Throughout the entire series of debates there has been a huge disconnect between what gets said on the stage and the records that the candidates actually bring with them. That disconnect between records and rhetoric isn’t coming through and may not before we get to Iowa.