When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John “Silky Pony” Edwards are on stage, I feel like I’m looking at the Charlestown Chiefs. The fights are dirty, bloody and entertaining, but everything in between lacks substance.
Thankfully, the personal hostilities shown in the recent Democratic candidate debate were not continued in last night’s GOP festivities. To some, that may have made the debate boring; to me, it provided more time to listen to candidates’ stances on issues that actually matter.
Rather than break down what was said by issue, I’ll do it by candidate, in the order of worst to best performance (according to my amateurish opinion):
5. RON PAUL
I’m convinced that when Paul is not twitching, spitting and pursing his lips with rage, he actually makes quite an attractive candidate. I absolutely love the fact that he looks at every new piece of legislation and asks “where is that in the Constitution?” before making any decisions. I really agree with many of his isolationist ideas as well. It makes me wonder if, should somebody transplant his ideals into a more likable, less creepy package, he’d play even better with conservative voters.
For tonight, though, he seemed fairly restrained and, at the very least, supplied some good comic relief.
4. MIKE HUCKABEE
I read somewhere that Tucker Carlson picked Huckabee for the win tonight. While I can certainly see it, as Huck is a phenomenal speaker and has such a quick wit, I saw more and more of the populist message he’s been spreading since Iowa. His answers on social security, his answers on taxes were solid but maybe even a little on the idealist side. His response to a question about whether or not he agreed with supporter Chuck Norris’ assertions that McCain is too old for the presidency was absolutely priceless.
“I did hear what Chuck said, I was standing with him, and I didn’t disagree with him at the time, because I was standing next to him,” Huckabee said. “It is as simple as that. This is a guy that can put this foot, on that side of my face, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I have said publicly many times, I don’t think Senator McCain lacks the rigor or the capacity to be president. And I said if you look at his mother, and see her strength at 95, of all the things we can pick on Senator McCain for, that ain’t one of them.”
Huckabee, as always, mixed his populist message with a great deal of well-timed and effective wit. The difference this time, however, was that unlike the last few debates, Huckabee was not speaking from behind the label of front-runner, and I think that while he did very nicely, he needed to do a little more to make up such a great deal of ground in the Sunshine State.
3. JOHN McCAIN
I’ve been very critical of Sen. McCain, and I tried my best to not let it affect the way that I looked at the debate. As always, he did very well when confronted with the rare question about the Global War on Terror, but he really struggled when it came to discussion of the economy, which dominated about half–if not more–of the 90-minute debate.
He started off on the defensive, confronted by Tim Russert on his command of the biggest issue of the recent news cycle.
RUSSERT: Senator McCain, you have said repeatedly, quote, “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” Is it a problem for your campaign that the economy is now the most important issue, one that by your own acknowledgment you’re not well versed on?
McCAIN: Actually, I don’t know where you got that quote from.
As it turns out, he said that to The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore during a 2005 interview. His words, in their entirety, were “I’m going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics that I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” More recently, McCain hasn’t been any less honest, stating in a December 2007 Boston Globe article that “the issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should. I’ve got Greenspan’s book.”
To his credit, he did make up some ground in that regard by saying, in a response to a question about the economy posed by Ron Paul, that his economic decisions and policy would be made and created through “inclusive leadership,” that he would solicit the help of Jack Kemp and others. The statement could have been made to temper concerns about his ability to handle a troublesome economy, but the first thing that hit me was that the comment was a veiled attempt to close the economic policy gap between he and Mitt Romney, who just the other day told voters, “look, I’m the one guy in the race who understands how the economy works. It’s not something I need to get briefed on.”
McCain did lose points however, when he failed to diffuse concerns about his advocacy of anti-growth initiatives–such as the one co-sponsored with Joe Lieberman–and actually smiled when he talked about the now-Independent senator and how “climate change is real, my friends.”
It first came up when he was responding to a question posed to him regarding Rudy Giuliani’s proposed National Catastrophic Fund, which would provide people in Florida with homeowner’s insurance that they otherwise could not get, when he parroted the post-Katrina environmentalist alarmism that man-made global warming was causing hurricanes.
“This is a terrible problem, not only here in Florida but across the states that are subject to hurricanes,” McCain said. “And as more and more violent weather patterns take place, people’s homes are more and more in jeopardy.”
He became more willing to speak overtly about global socialism, er…warming over time, saying “…and suppose that we are wrong and there’s no such thing as climate change and we hand our kids a cleaner world. But suppose we are right and do nothing. I think that’s a challenge for America. We can meet it.”
For a guy so happy to curb spending and veto every bill with earmarks and “make the authors famous,” McCain seems awfully happy to embrace Al Gore’s vision of catastrophic climate change and explore policies which would drastically slow the growth of the American economy.
As much as he shined, as always, when speaking of the greatness of this country and how best to fight our fights abroad, he looked unsure of himself with regard to the economy and may have really looked bad to center-right voters on the embrace of global warming.
2. RUDY GIULIANI
Answering questions of his own regarding global warming and a mandatory cap on greenhouse gases like those proposed in McCain and Lieberman’s 2003 bill, Giuliani distinguished himself by stating that America needs another 1960s-style moonshot, a “major national project” to achieve energy independence and augment national security through the development of new technologies, coal power and carbon sequestration, nuclear and alternative energy.
“If we did everything we could–we put all these caps on it, all these negative incentives on it, we would crush American industry, and China and India would be sending out more greenhouse gases than we could ever match,” Giuliani said. “It needs new industries. They’re there, they need to be supported, and it needs to be done in a positive way, not a negative way.”
So went Giuliani’s night. He looked rested, he looked polished. He said a bunch of the right things, and he even did a nice job after the debate when MSNBC blowhard Chris Matthews was trying to trap him into a misstep on the Second Amendment. Matthews is just such a complete jackass, that I had to reproduce the entire segment here.
MATTHEWS: Do you really feel at home in a party that believes in … a literal translation of the Second Amendment? People like Governor Huckabee, who actually believes that everybody should be able to have a gun. I mean a generally, literally, fundamental right … Do you really believe in the right for everybody to have a gun?
GIULIANI: The Second Amendment gives you a personal right to bear and carry arms. There are restrictions. The restrictions have to be limited. I agree with the Parker decision, Chris … I am comfortable in the Republican Party, I’m comfortab—
MATTHEWS: Can you imagine New York City if everybody on the subway had a gun? If everybody walking down the streets of New York had a gun? Do you really think that’s the way the Constitution intended the Second Amendment?
GIULIANI: The reality is that we can have restrictions. In the case of the District of Columbia, the restrictions were so severe that they violated the Second Amendment …
MATTHEWS: But I can’t see you — weren’t you feeling squeamish tonight, Mr. Mayor, when these two guys, Huckabee and Romney, were outbidding each other on who was more for semi-automatic weapons, who was more against the Brady Bill? I mean, do you really feel comfortable in that kind of political setting where they’re outbidding each other for better armaments?
GIULIANI: I don’t know how to explain this any better, Chris. I’m very comfortable in the Republican Party. I’ve been a Repub—
MATTHEWS: Oh, okay.
Rudy’s answers, while not perfect, were pretty good and said with a whole lot more confidence than Mitt Romney’s related comments during the debate an hour before. All in all, Rudy had a good night — he didn’t do any damage, by any means, but I’m not so sure that he made up much ground, either.
1. MITT ROMNEY
My biggest problem with Mitt Romney was his handling of a nicely-asked question about the assault weapons ban from Mike Huckabee. Unlike Rudy Giuliani, who did well in the face of Chris Matthews’ hot air after the debate, Romney stumbed a bit through his answer, though he did manage to state that he believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right before awkwardly contradicting himself.
ROMNEY: I also, like the president, would have signed the assault weapons ban if it came to his desk. I said I would have supported that, and I signed a similar bill in our state. It was a bill worked out, by the way, between pro-gun lobby and anti-gun lobby individuals, both sides of the issue came together and found a way to provide relaxation in licensing requirements, and allow more people to have guns for their own legal purposes. And so we signed that in Massachusetts, and I said that I would support that at the federal level, just as the president said he would. It did not pass at the federal level.
My problem with that statement is not so much that, on July 8, 2004, Romney signed a bill banning certain weapons in Massachusetts regardless of what was done on the federal level and stated: “Deadly assault weapons have no place in Massachusetts. These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.” My problem with that statement is that, less than five seconds after he made it in response to Huckabee’s question, he said this:
ROMNEY: I do not believe that we need new legislation. I do not support any new legislation of an assault weapons ban nature, including that against semi-automatic weapons. I instead believe that we have laws in place that, if they are implemented and enforced, will provide the protection and the safety of the American people.
So, which one is it? He passed a ban on so-called “assault weapons” in Massachusetts, essentially touting the weapons as instruments of death and the ban as an important step in decreasing crime, yet he says that further legislation is off of the table? It seems to me that, by signing that ban in the first place, Romney has admitted that he buys into the standard talking point for the Brady campaign and its ilk: Guns are bad, and they kill people. It seems to me that, by signing that ban in the first place, Romney has shown a lack of understanding that only law-abiding citizens abide by gun laws. It’s talk like this, as well as his learned propensity for dealmaking, that makes me worry about a Romney nomination. The gun-grabbers on the left have TiVo’ed this part of the debate just in case he gets into the White House, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d take advantage of his soft spot for gun legislation before you can say “flintlocks for everybody.”
Other than that, Romney excelled. Early on, while McCain was faltering, Romney dominated talk of the economy. He spoke as if he didn’t need prompts or cards. The guy knows about the economy, and it showed.
His real high point, however, were on a pair of difficult questions asked about three-quarters of the way into the debate. After Romney fielded a question about Hillary Clinton with attacks on her “old Europe” beliefs and her stance on the war in Iraq, Tim Russert asked a series of pointed questions about Romney’s personal financial contributions to his campaign, at one point asking for the actual dollar amount which will be released on January 31, asking “don’t you want to ensure the people that you’re not trying to buy the vote?”
Romney, at first, dodged the question about the actual dollar amount. “You’re just going to have to wait, Tim,” he said, as I winced on my sofa. Then, however, he went on to explain his own personal contributions as an assurance that he could never be bought. He said that he had raised more than any Republican candidate, and has made a “substantial contribution” to his own campaign, but not as much as John Corzine did in his run for New Jersey governor, as Steve Forbes did during his campaign, as Michael Bloomberg has done in the past. “There is nobody that can call me,” Romney said, “and say ‘you owe me.’”
He then answered a question about his Mormon faith in about the best possible way he could, speaking about the founding fathers’ reservations against religion being a determinative factor in seeking public office.
All in all, Mitt Romney won the night, and perhaps the nomination. He showed, in a few instances, a passion that I hadn’t seen from him before, that made him seem a bit less robotic and reminiscent of a car salesman, and more like a guy who is actually running for president for noble reason.