With a lead in national and state polls and the South Carolina primary days away, Mitt Romney is on the proverbial goal line with a first down. Would he fumble and give his rivals another chance, or would he do enough to put some points on the board and extend his lead? How would he perform now that all of his rivals are focused on stopping his Iowa and New Hampshire momentum?
The 15th GOP presidential debate kicked off with a question to Newt Gingrich on his decision to go negative after a Romney allied super PAC hammered him in Iowa. Gingrich turned the question around to discussing Mitt Romney’s record on job creation (47th in the nation at the time). The discussion that ensued found Gingrich accusing Romney’s Bain Capital of leaving companies with massive debt that led to their bankruptcy. Romney responded by highlighting his record in the private sector with Bain, and on helping save the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, before riffing on his record as governor. The open ended up a win for Romney, by contrasting his record in both the private and public sectors with Gingrich’s, which consists almost entirely of government work.
Rick Perry scored the first real points on Romney, by calling for Romney to release his tax records. Candidates have customarily released such records since the days of Nixon, but so far Romney has declined. Perry touted his Texas record as proof of his capitalist bona fides, 1,000,000 jobs created, before moving on to throttle Dodd-Frank for “strangling” the economy. Romney ended up having to defend more of his record, and then agree with Gov. Perry on excessive regulation. Romney could have ended the tax return debate with a dramatic flourish at this point, by releasing them on stage, but for whatever reason he declined and his tax returns remain unexamined by the voters. Perry’s campaign also sent out an email press release at the same moment, noting that Perry has released his tax returns going all the way back to 1987 while Romney, so far, has not.
A quarter of an hour in, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum sparred over negative ads, with Paul generating laughs by saying that his only regret with his anti-Santorum ad was that he could not say everything negative about Santorum’s record that he wanted to say in a minute. Paul hammered Santorum for his voting record of supporting No Child Left Behind and Sarbanes-Oxley, forcing Santorum to recant that vote. This was among Paul’s most effective moments in any debate, in succeeding to paint Santorum as something other than a stalwart, instinctive conservative.
Twenty minutes in, Santorum and Romney sparred over a super PAC ad that accused Santorum of supporting voting rights for felons. After much one-on-one squabbling on everything from said voting rights to the nature of the super PACs, Gov. Perry spoke up for nearly everyone watching by noting that the world was watching two insiders arguing over something that should be left to the states. Major applause and Romney agreed with Perry for the second time of the night.
After a break, question to Romney: You’ve changed your mind so many times on so many issues in the past, what’s to say you won’t do it again? Romney described his tenure as governor as “very pro-life” and noted longstanding opposition to gay marriage. He finished off the answer touting his belief in America and free enterprise and liberty, slamming President Obama’s desire to turn America into a European socialist model. Romney did well in answering the question he wanted to answer, and drew applause.
Juan Williams asked Perry about the federal government’s lawsuits against state immigration laws, attempting to frame the debate, on MLK day no less, as about race. Perry replied that Texas and South Carolina and other states are “at war” with the administration on a range of issues, from voter ID to right to work to freedom of religion. He finished with a line that could frame his path forward: “This administration is out of control.”
Gingrich was rough in the beginning but his intelligence broke through when Bret Baier asked him what the maximum length of time should be for anyone to receive unemployment benefits. The maximum is currently 99 weeks, which Gingrich noted is enough time to obtain an associate’s degree. He tied unemployment to job skills training. Like many Gingrich ideas, though, this one may be too cute: Many unemployed have fine skillsets, but jobs are scarce. And most who unwillingly enter the unemployed life have no expectation that they will still be on unemployment two years later. Connected to that, Romney followed up on a question about bailouts by noting that President Obama has opened up no new markets for American goods. That’s one possible reason that many Americans have found themselves on unemployment for so long.
Ron Paul on economics: Cut military spending, bring the troops home and have more bases here in the United States. He evidently hoped to recast himself as less dove than America-firster. But lost in his plan: Host countries like Germany and Japan actually pay much of the costs and pick up the bill for troop support infrastructure, costs which would be borne entirely by American taxpayers if those troops were based here. Bring those troops home and our costs go up. Plus, those troops are based overseas for strategic reasons, in Europe to keep the peace there, and in Japan to keep the peace in the Pacific. The troops based overseas would be less strategically useful in, say, South Dakota. This answer betrayed a disturbing lack of depth and basic knowledge of the world in Paul’s thinking.
Forty minutes in, Kelly Evans of the Wall Street Journal asked Romney directly if he will release his tax returns. He said that he anticipates, most likely, he will release his tax returns in April. He came off as unsteady, a bit waffly, as if he is unsure if he has anything to hide. Expect this delay/whiff to dog him for the next few days or even weeks.
Just before the hour mark, Gingrich won a standing ovation after an exchange of several minutes with Fox’s Juan Williams over the subject of minorities, work among the young and poor, and food stamps. Gingrich finished off the exchange stirring up the strongest applause of the night, pledging that while “wealthy elites despise earning a living,” he will do everything he can to make it easier for the poor to get jobs and earn their own living rather than becoming dependent on food stamps under President Obama, whom Gingrich has dubbed the “food stamp president.” Williams framed the initial question and follow-ups as though Gingrich has belittled people who are dependent on food stamps. Creating economic dependency, which Gingrich forcefully opposed, does more to belittle people across whole generations than rhetoric probably ever can. Williams’ cheap shots on race earned him boos from the audience. He deserved them, but the Democrats are almost certain to play this as “Republicans boo black man on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”
The second hour opened with Ron Paul justifying his opposition to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Seriously, this is a leading Republican contender? Paul consistently positions himself in ways that blame America and suggest that we are wrong no matter what we do in regards to terrorism. He analogized Osama bin Laden to a Chinese dissident. He accused faceless operators of itching for war with Iran, despite the fact that practically no one wants that, and despite that fact that Iran has considered itself at war with the US since 1979. This exchange was Paul’s second run at full spectrum incoherence in tonight’s debate. The consistent thread running through all of his foreign policy answers to date is that Ron Paul simply would not forcefully represent the United States on the world stage. He lacks the moral clarity needed to defend the nation as her commander in chief.
Perry, while answering when asked about the rise of Islamists in Turkey: “This president has a foreign policy that makes our allies very nervous and emboldens our enemies.” Whether Perry wins or not, this thought should carry forward through November. Perry moved from there to perhaps his strongest statement, in reaction to video of Marines urinating on killed Taliban, by reminding the audience that the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s brutal beheadings and murders deserve far more condemnation. Paul finished up, noting that the people who later formed al-Qaeda were our allies against the USSR in Afghanistan. This is common knowledge, and also irrelevant to their brutality now and what we as a nation should do about it, especially when perpetrated against American citizens. Once again, the message from Ron Paul: America, it’s all your fault. You killed Daniel Pearl.
Following Paul’s indictment of American past foreign policy, Romney finished up an exchange on the president’s proposed defense cuts when he agreed with Perry for a third time of the night in noting that it’s despicable to keep cutting defense when the world needs American military superiority.
A few scattered takeaways from the debate: Romney agrees with Perry more often than any other candidate on policy. I counted four times Romney used some variation of “I agree with Gov. Perry” versus one “Rick is right” nod to Santorum. Santorum opposes privatizing Social Security in any way and had to answer for past policy misjudgments. Gingrich is extremely intelligent but has a tendency to wander off into the weeds on policy discussions. He spent less time attacking the moderators of this debate than previous ones. Perry had his best debate so far, despite having little time at his disposal. He was deft on economic and foreign policy, strong on his defense of our troops and on border security. Ron Paul’s foreign policy consists of irresponsible attempts to create moral equivalence where it does not exist, and to blame America where it is not justified. Super PACs have done what seemed impossible, and made our politics less honest while giving politicians more incentives to lie to the voters.
Rick Perry was at his strongest and most presidential tonight. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich performed well at times but both reverted to their sour pre-Iowa personas more often than they will find helpful. Ron Paul will probably pick up more support from disaffected former Obama supporters, further distorting the Republican primary race. But in returning to the beginning of this article, Mitt Romney weathered the fire well and did not fumble the ball, but the pressure to release his tax returns will grow.