CBS wins the epic fail of the week award for first choosing to broadcast only an hour of the debate nationally, and then botching the live video feed of the CBS/National Journal debate on the Internet. Most viewers, myself included, only got to see the first 60 minutes of a 90 minute debate. We would never ever see CBS or any network do anything like this during, say, a live football game. Or the season premiere of Two and a Half Men.
That aside, to score the 60 minutes I saw isn’t difficult. Foreign policy is an area where most Republicans agree — a strong United States is key to maintaining peace in the world, and fighting terrorists beyond our shores is preferable to fighting them here. For the most part, GOP foreign policy is organized around those two related ideas. Texas Gov. Rick Perry had his best and most consistent debate by far. Twice he managed to take Wednesday’s gaffe and show his ability to laugh at himself even while making substantive points. His suggestion that we need to establish zero-based budgeting for the federal government is right on target, not just on foreign aid but generally. Baseline budgeting allows the Democrats and the media to portray even spending increases as “cuts.” Zero-based budgeting would end that game and begin restoring some sanity to our federal spending.
That’s not to say that Perry won the debate. I didn’t see a clear winner tonight. Perry was engaged and showed command of foreign policy issues, with strong answers on border security, how China’s Communist regime will end up on the ash heap of history, and on the special US friendship with Israel. Newt Gingrich was very agile and informative, even if his tussling with the moderators is getting a bit predictable. It’s red meat for the audience — I admit I love it too — but it’s starting to seem a little bit forced. As soon as a moderator even starts asking a question he doesn’t like, you can see him winding up like a Rock’ Em Sock’ Em Robot to punch them hard enough to make their head bobble up. Mitt Romney was solid, as was Michele Bachmann. Herman Cain answered a question on waterboarding fairly well, but for the most part spoke in platitudes and insisted that he would surround himself with the “right people” who know more about foreign policy than he does. There’s a punt lurking in most of his answers, and an open invitation to take a look at who’s running his campaign and what their presence says about Cain’s personnel choices. Rick Santorum let off an odd riff about how Pakistan “must” be America’s friend and so we have to redouble our efforts to make that so. The problem with that is we have lavished Pakistan with aid and assistance, for decades, yet the Pakistanis deal with us in duplicity and deception. Every relationship is two way; no friendship can be forced. Saying that they “must” be our friends doesn’t recognize the depth of the problems in the US-Pakistani relationship. Huntsman was often too smug for his own good. And Ron Paul was Ron Paul, the isolationist outlier who would turn our Iran policy over to Congress. The same Congress, it’s worth pointing out, that already shirked its budgetary duties by punting the hard choices over to the debt super-committee. You’d trust that bunch with reining in Iran’s nuclear program? Good luck with that.
All in all, it was a good night for most on the stage, and a bad night for Barack Obama, who clearly is a failed president on foreign policy, and who is clearly inferior to almost everyone who was on stage tonight. This was also a bad night for CBS, whose moderators lacked anything close to a pulse and whose broadcast decisions served America poorly. If you intend to host a debate on a Saturday night, at least make sure the nation can see it.