The PJ Tatler

Arizona Debate Score: The Candidates Were Fine, but CNN is a Joke

Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran denied access to a military base suspected of being used to develop nuclear weapons. Our ally Israel views Iran’s potential possesion of a nuclear weapon as an existential threat. Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons opens up the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons. But in CNN’s Republican debate, nothing was asked or said about Iran until deep into the night, and after a ridiculous question about contraception gained higher priority.

The debate opened as debates usually do, with candidate introductions. During the opening moments, Mitt Romney received the largest applause for his appeal to restore America’s promise, despite going third in the introductions. Then he joked that as George Costanza would say, when they’re applauding, you stop. Overall, Romney was feistier tonight than in debates of the past. Rick Santorum challenged his conservative bona fides, accusing Romney of adopting Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, and Romney shot back that he wants to cut taxes on everyone, including the so-called one percent.

Ron Paul won the first laugh line for answering a John King question, why did you run an ad calling Rick Santorum a fake? “Because he’s a fake!” And Paul assailed Santorum’s record of voting for programs like No Child Left Behind, a vote Santorum admits he now regrets. Paul finished the exchange calling Santorum’s baseline credibility into question, and ripped everyone who has voted for foreign aid. Foreign aid, by the way, is about one percent of the overall federal budget. It should be cut, but eliminating it outright doesn’t solve the nation’s fiscal problems. Santorum’s response to Paul: Citizens Against Government Waste gave him a hero award and found him to be one of the most fiscally conservative senators during his time in the Senate. Santorum also noted that Paul has ranked 145th among Republicans in the House this year. Paul attempted to discredit conservative ratings, and came very close to outing his past as a capital-l Libertarian. Paul dropped out of the GOP to oppose Ronald Reagan as a Libertarian candidate in the 1980s.

Gingrich seemed to stay around the edges until about 22 minutes in, when he bashed the current federal government’s role as a “disaster” and hammered the Obama administration for suing Arizona rather than helping it with border security. Gingrich called for balancing the budget, lowering taxes and modernizing the entire government as the way forward. He was at his professorial best, displaying forward thinking and creativity while noting the current president’s hostility toward border security.

Fireworks touched off at the 27 minute mark, when Romney and Santorum sparred over earmarks. Romney promised to ban earmarks in Congress, and noted that while he was asking for earmarks for the  Olympics, Santorum was voting in favor of earmarks for the “bridge to nowhere.” Romney and Santorum waded into the process weeds and earned boos. Romney criticized Gingrich for leading earmarks as speaker, Santorum criticized Ron Paul for championing earmarks, and everyone seemed to agree that earmarks are bad. But they’re a fact of the past and largely of the present. Boos peppered the exchanges until Gingrich capped the debate. Paul finished it off with a passionate defense of earmarks, and yet another slam on spending money “on all these wars.” For a Constitutionalist, Paul consistently rails against spending that is actually allowed by the Constitution, on national defense.

After the break, a question that CNN plucked from its website earned a heavy round of boos. The question was: Which candidates support contraception and why? Gingrich took the question and thrashed the media for failing to ask Barack Obama about his extremist position on infanticide during the 2008 campaign. Romney then stepped up and ripped Obama for the ObamaCare abortifacient mandate, calling it “unbelievable.” Romney offered details about a previous Obama decision, struck down 9-0 by the US Supreme Court, to have government determine who in a church is or is not a minister for taxation purposes. King turned the question back on Santorum, to push him into a corner for speaking to the problems of illegitimacy in our culture. Santorum did not back down, but also noted that just because he talks about it doesn’t mean he wants a government program to fix it. “That’s what they (liberals) do!”

Newt Gingrich sounded the line of the night at the end of the debate over religious freedom: “When you have government as the central provider of services, you inevitably move toward tyranny.” ObamaCare’s abortifacient mandate stands as proof that Gingrich is right, no?

Santorum earned boos for attempting to defend Title X funding, which was tucked into larger appropriations bills and provides funding for Planned Parenthood. Ron Paul criticized him for voting for such spending at all. Santorum deflected the debate by criticizing Romney’s RomneyCare law in Massachusetts. Santorum came prepared to be the center of attention, but came off in this section as weak and a bit dissembling. Romney’s response: Rick, you went on the Laura Ingraham Show and endorsed me, saying voters could trust me.  And Romney went for the coup de grace, noting Santorum’s support for former Sen. Arlen Specter, who provided a critical vote to pass ObamaCare. There was a more conservative opponent to Specter in that primary, Pat Toomey, but Santorum chose to support Specter, who won and later switched to the Democratic Party before casting that critical vote. Message from Romney: If I’m dirtied by RomneyCare, you’re dirtied more by supporting Specter.

An hour in, we finally hear a question about border security. And still nothing about the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day: Iran’s nuclear program. Also not addressed: Fast and Furious. To CNN, a question about contraceptives was more important.

None of the candidates committed a major gaffe. Santorum was wobbly at times as the central target, but never came off as unsuited to leadership. Romney was agile, Gingrich offered his usual mix of high level policy shrewdness and cynicism toward current federal practices. Ron Paul assailed spending and put himself to the left of the field on foreign policy. None of this was particularly new.

CNN, though, deserves serious criticism. These four men have put themselves forward as candidates to replace President Barack Obama as commander in chief. The economy is soft, gas prices are skyrocketing, the border is a violent mess and the world awaits the inevitable news that either Israel has launched a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, or Iran has conducted a nuclear test. That’s the binary choice the world is looking at. Whichever event happens, and one of them will, the world will change drastically and immediately. If Israel strikes, will Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz? Will it activate Hizballah not just in Lebanon, but in South America and Mexico? Will the resulting oil shock from either event drive the economy over the brink into depression? If Iran is allowed to complete a nuclear weapon, will the rest of the Middle East follow suit? Instead of exploring these serious issues at a length that respects the gravity, CNN chose instead to waste time asking the candidates to define themselves with one word. Moderator John King teased that inane question both before and after a break, to make it the climax of the night.

This is CNN, and CNN is stupid. It is unserious, lacking in judgment, unfair, ridiculous, petty and malignant. The GOP should consider disallowing CNN’s participation in any future debates.

Instead of a serious security question, King asked, 81 minutes into the debate, about the role of women in combat. Romney took that question as an opportunity to discuss the Iran threat. The first actual question about Iran’s nuclear program came from an audience member, fully 85 minutes into the debate. Fifteen minutes later, the debate moved onto other issues.

To rank the candidates is always subjective, but Romney probably comes off as the strongest leader with the broadest experience, with Gingrich the most interesting and expansive thinker, Santorum the most passionate advocate and Paul the most consistent in his positions, though his positions are often at odds with the Republican Party and mainstream America. CNN badly mishandled this important debate, which may be the final one before the GOP convention, and did a disservice to the American people.