Thursday, September 8, 2011

A trip to the library: Republican candidates debate

The Republican presidential candidates debate Wednesday night at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was at least numerically democratic. With all eight of the Credible Candidates on the same debate stage for the first time, the crowd assembled in the hall got to see just about every flavor of Republicanism there is right now.

But when the smoke cleared later, the sense was that, despite the promising, uh, diversity of candidates set to start their campaign schedules for real, what’s shaping up at this point is a two-man race. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are, to go by the punditocracy and the opinion polls, the and only two true frontrunners in this GOP race for the nomination.

Their contrasting styles point to the challenge for mainstream Republican voters and those voters smitten with the Tea Party bug: Choosing between Mr. 3X5 Card Perry, whose high regional favorables make him certain to be a hit in much (but not all) of the South, and Mr. Power Point, the New! Improved! Mitt, a man eager to shed the dispiriting loss of his 2008 presidential run, and a man with the financial resources to do it. If he gets out of the primaries alive.

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The eight people in question — Perry, Romney, Michelle Bachman, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — went at it in barbed exchanges; they all had their highs and lows. But it took getting all of these people on stage at the same time to understand how collectively weak this Republican field still is.

As expected, they threw the conservatives more red meat than a butcher in a going-out-of-business sale. But out of all of them, only Romney kept his eye on the prize beyond the nomination process, at times making it clear he was speaking to a wider audience than the diehards in the hall. For Perry, thanks to a phrase of his own making, emotionally reaching that audience beyond the primaries could be a problem.

Perry, repeating his own comments in his 2010 book “Fed Up!” and parroting something that’s been common phraseology among conservatives, and some progressives, for years, called Social Security “a Ponzi scheme.”

"People who are on Social Security today, men and women who are receiving those benefits today, are individuals at my age that are in line pretty quick to get them, they don't need to worry about anything. But I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program, and it is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."

That went over pretty well with some in the assembled clap-on-cue crowd. But Perry’s absolutist pitch to the rock-ribbed Tea-drinking conservatives in front of him may not go over well with the bedrock of the Republican Party around the country: the seniors who’ve lived by and thrived on Social Security for years.

With one statement, Perry threw 75 years of American history, standing federal policy and accepted social practice under the bus, casting in an ugly and criminal light the one unassailable success of the modern federal government, one used by millions of the senior citizens who form the infrastructure of the party he hopes to lead to victory next year.

Can’t wait for Perry to explain himself when his ten-gallon campaign bus pulls into the retiree state of Florida.

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Maybe that’s why some GOP mentalists think that Perry needs to step up his game considerably. Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and former McCain campaign thinker told MSNBC Wednesday night: “I think Rick Perry had a good first 45 minutes in this debate, but he was almost like a boxer who ran out of steam in the middle to late rounds. I thought he was very unsteady in the back half of the debate. I don’t think that he did anything that knocks him out of the debate, or dislodges him from frontrunner status, but I thought he entered tonight as a soft frontrunner and … he leaves the debate as a soft frontrunner.”

What might be considered a campaign version of the soft bigotry of low expectations could redound to Perry’s favor; the longer he stays in the race, the greater those expectations will get. That’d seem to be the thinking of the organizers of a Perry SuperPAC, whose apparent intent is to pump $55 million into the Perry campaign and its enablers, the better to reinforce a sense of inevitability about Perry as the nominee months before New Hampshire.

That kind of hubris can backfire. You can’t help but think of the early days of the 2008 campaign, when Hillary Clinton sought to position herself in the same light going up against Democratic presidential hopefuls, including one upstart community leafleteer from Chicago. Some kid named Obama.

But it may not matter. Analysts are already praising Romney’s more polished, confident performance Wednesday. “I think he upped the presidential quotient for himself tonight,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

“Mitt Romney is an exponentially better candidate today than he was four years ago,” said Jim VandeHei of Politico, which co-sponsored the debate with NBC News. “He made Perry look small.”

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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman looked good Wednesday: sharp, crisp, on message, on his game. But Huntsman’s best efforts may be undercut by his own history. Despite making salient, concise points on stage, his polling — consistently in the single digits suggests that his White House experience under Obama may not count for much to the conservative zero-sum-gamers who insist on absolute loyalty. In their eyes, Huntsman remains an apostate — a centrist apostate, at that — and not to be trusted.

Maybe Huntsman is angling for the veep spot on the Romney ticket, or a Cabinet-level post with more clout than ambassador to China. You have to hope there’s at least that much Machiavelli in the dirt-bike rider millionaire from the Beehive State. Otherwise, he’s jerking our chain. Otherwise, he’s wasting our time.

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Like Gingrich and Ron Paul. Neither the former House Speaker nor the Republican congressman from Texas is electable, but for completely different reasons. The staunch libertarian lion Paul, at least, has assumed a philosophical stance and stuck with it, expressed its geopolitically improbable principles consistently and done so with a minimum of bombast and showboating.

Newt Gingrich? Not so much. He Who Speaks With Index Finger Pointing Skyward has a history of political and philosophical inconsistency we won’t even bother with here. That plus a freight car’s worth of personal baggage makes him another odd man out.

Other candidates whose polling numbers still track in single digits did their best. Herman Cain tacked to the center with an unequivocal support of FEMA, the agency reviled after Hurricane Katrina, and a call for immigration reform without demonizing. He also reasserted his business bona fides, calling for a “9-9-9 plan” — 9 percent national sales tax, 9 percent income tax, and 9 percent corporate tax — a concept that, for all its possible merits, sounds like the price of a Godfather’s Pizza promotion.

Bachmann was doing her best again to slap the president around on health care. “Kids need jobs!” she said. “Obamacare is leading to job-killing regulations.” Rick Santorum doubled down on moral and cultural issues and his own full-throated conviction that he can reach “a sector of the economy that can get Democratic votes.” For all their fervor, these are the kings and queen of presidential wishful thinking.

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Barring any last-minute deus ex machina move by political personality Sarah Palin — and probably even if she does jump in — it’s really down to Romney and Perry. Some of the distinctions to be made between them by primary voters may well come down to style points. Perry’s already shown himself to be something of a voluble, glad-handing showman whose outward can-do rhythms mirror the general outsize perception of Texas politicians. And as the others have observed, Romney may have finally tamped down his Central Casting aspect, the car-salesman mein that didn’t serve him well in 2008.

Will those older voters be more willing to forgive Romney for the health care program he instituted in Massachusetts, thought by some to be a template for the Obama health-care plan? Or will they overlook Perry’s previous period as Texas campaign chairman for the Al Gore campaign in 1988?

That’s the problem with appealing to the Tea Party, as both men have tried to do in recent weeks. Perry, Romney, everyone seems to fall short of the absolutist Tea Party benchmark; there is no one true church but the one the Tea Parties decide on. How willing is the Tea Party cabal to overlook a candidate’s past in order to achieve the future?

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There were eight people on that stage at the Reagan Library on Wednesday night, each of them building their part of the Rashomon narrative of the Republican Party in presidential campaign mode. But what was really being debated was the future of the Tea Party itself: its viability not just as a legislative apparatus of the conservatives but also as a force in helping to elect a presidential candidate — something the Tea Party movement’s never done before.

While the cry-on-demand Tea Party outrage carries well with like-minded partisans — other Republicans — ramping up that kind of nasty, automatic vitriol among the people in the broad cross-section of the American public will be another matter entirely.

We’ll see what other levels of insight, or indignation, the Tea Party is capable of next Tuesday, when CNN sponsors the (official name) Tea Party Republicans Debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. That debate will feature the same eight candidates that were on stage Wednesday. And if you wanted proof there’s no difference between the Tea Party and the GOP, that fact alone should do.

Image credits: Perry and Romney: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press. Candidates: NBC News

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