Most of the Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination debated last night in Iowa, two days ahead of the crucial Ames Straw Poll, thought to be a leading indicator of which candidates are credible and which are less likely to win in January. Rick Perry, who has not yet announced his candidacy, was not in attendance, and Fred Karger—who met all the criteria for attendance—was not allowed to participate, some say because he is openly gay.
The questions were direct, tough and probing. Challenged on her claim that she could turn the US economy around in just three months, Michelle Bachmann fielded the first of many tough questions. She backtracked somewhat, claiming that she could not fix the economy in three months, but that she could enact policies that could eventually have a positive impact. She then trailed off into a “one term president” rant against Obama, which opened her to the critique that her policy plans lack substance.
Mitt Romney attempted to deliver an economic-policy stump speech. He launched into a Republican talking point, calling for a steep reduction in “corporate tax rates”, which are either the lowest in the industrialized world or the highest, depending how they are defined. He called for energy independence, suggesting new drilling, but not openly saying so, and vaguely said we need “the rule of law” to shore up our economy.
Romney’s reference to “rule of law” struck many as odd and off-topic, in part because the Obama record has been one of trying to force major corporate interests to follow existing law and end the regulatory non-action of the Bush years. But Romney’s meaning was far more likely to be about taxes: he has been facing criticism for having “raised taxes” while governor of Massachusetts, but has said he was able to bring in “new revenues” by “closing loopholes”, i.e. enforcing the law.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty got off to a very rocky start, showing either plain ignorance of active government policy and recent political history or a willingness to tell very big fibs in order to make difficult rhetorical points—alleging that Barack Obama has never presented a plan to reform Medicare. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—which Pawlenty likes to call “Obamneycare”—included Medicare reform specifically designed to cut $500 billion of “waste, fraud and abuse” from Medicare, without reducing benefits or access to care.
In fact, while it achieves those cost savings, it also establishes that no insurance managers, public or private sector, can interfere with doctor-patient decisions on appropriate course of treatment. So Pawlenty missed the mark dramatically, while saying little about his own plan, getting the facts wrong and leading research-minded voters to look up Obama’s already in place and very specific Medicare reform plan. The president has called for an expansion of that reform plan, again without cutting benefits.
Rick Santorum announced his plan to “cut the corporate tax rate to zero, for manufacturers”, and he did so with a smile, as if anticipating major new corporate financing for his campaign. Santorum seemed eager, throughout the night, to glisten with new ideas of this kind which he hoped would capture new support and new momentum, going into Saturday’s straw poll.
Chris Wallace—who consistently asked aggressive, difficult questions—asked Pawlenty if Bachmann was really unqualified, as he had claimed, and had no achievements, but he added the quip that Pawlenty might be attacking her simply because “she’s beating you in the polls”. Pawlenty repeated that her record is simply lacking, that she has no accomplishments at all as a legislator.
Referring to the Bachmann’s catch-line that she has a “titanium spine” and will never relent on her ideological demands, Pawlenty said “It’s not her spine we’re interested in; it’s her record of achievement.” He then addressed her directly, saying “If that’s your view of leadership with effective results, please stop, because you’re killing us,” implying that by sabotaging deals that get much of what Republicans seek, she is losing the wider policy war for the party.
Romney faced his toughest question when he was challenged on his record at Bain Capital, which acquired American Paper, closed two plants, and imposed 2,000 layoffs. Romney says not all of the companies Bain invested in while he was there worked, and so some had to fail. He sought to paint this record of experience as an education in what works to allow businesses to grow and create jobs, but he offered no specifics on how that education would play out in presidential policy.
Wallace asked Gingrich if his record on the campaign trail—top advisers resigning en masse—shows he is not fit for the presidency. Gingrich bristled and decried what he called “gotcha questions”. He criticized the press corps generally, for focusing on “campaign minutia” and ignoring the basic ideas that distinguish Republicans from Pres. Obama.
He made the most specific policy suggestion of the evening, saying the government should make “Lean Six Sigma”—a combination of Toyota’s Lean manufacturing model and Motorola’s Six Sigma production process—the national manufacturing standard.
He asked Huntsman if his record of service as Barack Obama’s representative to China means he is not a true Republican. He said he is proud to serve and that when your country calls, you step up and serve. Huntsman repeated throughout the night that he is proud of his record of public service and that he believes that experience is the best sign that he is prepared to be president.
Herman Cain was asked if his extreme statements—like calling on communities to ban mosques—and saying he knew little about the war in Afghanistan made him too ignorant to be president. Cain seemed to agree with Gingrich’s critique of unfair questions, and said he has learned, that as a businessman he knows the ability to learn and to develop more complex understanding of such complex issues makes a good leader.
On immigration, Cain said legal immigration is the already existing and appropriate “path to citizenship”. In what might be his most memorable remark of the campaign, he artfully threaded the needle of ethnic and ideological tensions relating to immigration, saying “America can be a nation with high fences and wide open doors.”
Gingrich took an extreme tack to the hard right, calling for moving millions of people to the southern states to police the borders, the establishment of English as “the official language of government”—a radical position that ignores the First Amendment and holds that we will not inform anyone who does not understand English of their rights, or what they may need to do in an emergency.
Gingrich also added that he would “distinguish between people who have been here a very long time and people who have come more recently”. This last comment seemed to some to mean he would allow for something like amnesty for those who have been here longer, while others were chilled by what seemed to be a nativist rejection of immigrants’ rights.
Romney was asked about how he used new revenues to fix the Massachusetts state budget, and whether he would raise taxes to balance the budget. By simple arithmetic, it looks nearly impossible to balance the federal budget any time soon without raising taxes, but Romney defended his record in Massachusetts, explaining that he balanced the budget every year, and that he only needed to close loopholes, not to raise taxes, while imposing sharp cuts.
Pawlenty was asked about his having increased the cigarette tax in his state, in order to balance the budget. He made reference to whether it was a “fee” or a “tax” and to court rulings on the subject, and said he would later regret having done it, but it seemed clear that this was instrumental to his budget policy and a sticking point that could be to his favor or to his disadvantage, depending on whether GOP primary voters include the majority of Republicans who favor raising revenues to balance the budget.
Bachmann said she had opposed the cigarette tax hike, when she was in the state legislature, and that she was determined not to support it. But she did in fact vote to increase the cigarette tax. She claimed Pawlenty forced her to do so, by attaching a rider that would “protect the rights of the unborn”, so that she was forced to choose between voting against rights for the unborn and voting to raise taxes.
Bachmann said her view was that you can get things wrong when it comes to money but not when it comes to life. The exchange, however, seemed to play into Pawlenty’s argument, that he is better at getting results than Bachmann, who is a hapless prisoner to her own ideological priorities, and who—despite this, and contrary to what she says—will vote against her principles.
Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, appeared to agree with Pawlenty’s critique of Bachmann, saying that a leader needs to know how to get a good deal and get results. Santorum sought to tout his record of “leadership” at the state and federal level, and argued that he was better able to serve the conservative ideals than Bachmann, because he knows how to negotiate.
When the question was posed if the candidates felt so strongly about opposing any increase of any kind in tax rates, would they oppose even a deficit reduction deal that made $10 in cuts for every $1 in new revenues, every member of the debate panel raised their hands. After-debate analysis suggested this moment may become “iconic”, indicating that the Republican party is only interested in tax cuts, not in deficit reduction, fiscal responsibility or protecting Medicare and Social Security.
The image of the Republican candidates dutifully—some with reluctance—raising their hands to support Grover Norquist’s radical anti-tax pledge could become the signal moment of the primary campaign, when Republican candidates announced their intention to enforce the tea party radical position of obstructing deficit reduction in order to prioritize tax breaks, at a time of historically low tax rates, perilously low revenues and escalating debt.
Santorum took issue with Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann’s reference to the 10th Amendment, and the question of states’ rights, saying their theories were “the 10th Amendment run amok”, and that “Our country is based on moral laws, ladies and gentlemen. Abraham Lincoln said the states don’t have the right to do wrong.” It was a moment of passion and principle that stood out, but which will require Santorum to make clear how he would deal with issues like same-sex marriage or abortion, where prevailing law conflicts with his views.
Asked about the entrance of Rick Perry into the race, Ron Paul said Perry “represents the status quo” and that he will make Paul’s own unique views stand out more. Herman Cain agreed, saying Perry would dilute the vote for “politicians” and make his business record stand out. Bachmann said there is room for another conservative in the race, though many strategists believe Perry will cut into her vote-getting ability.
Newt Gingrich was asked if he has a clear vision of what should be done in Libya, after taking two diametrically opposing views within a few days, at the start of the conflict. He said he recently spoke to Gen. Abizaid, who speaks Arabic, is one of the foremost security policy experts on the region, and who said we have a “strategic deficit” that needs to be closed through intelligent, persistent diplomatic engagement.
In what is perhaps an interesting angle, politically, Abizaid has been a supporter of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts in the region, which taken with Gingrich’s characterization of the state of affairs, suggests the Obama administration’s policies are potentially closing that deficit.
Gingrich did not offer a clear policy position on the current situation in Libya, but complained that the press were criticizing him for Pres. Obama’s having coordinated a humanitarian crisis response in Libya.
Huntsman was asked what it meant that China has been hacking into US corporations and US government servers. He said he has long experience with China, and believes the United States needs to have a robust, informed, collaborative and secure relationship with the rising world power. He also said it would be naïve to expect China not to behave like a rival, and that we nee a president who understands the relationship.
Ron Paul decried sanctions against Iran, saying that military threats and sanctions are precursors to real military conflict, costly policy mistakes and would only worsen the security situation worldwide. Paul believes that foreign wars that are not of absolute defensive necessity are contrary to democratic values, undermine the principles of liberty and create enmities that would continue to threaten US interests far into the future.
Cain was asked by Wallace about his comment that US energy independence would be the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The suggestion was that it might be irrational to claim that drilling for oil in North America would persuade Iran’s hardline regime not to develop nuclear weapons. Cain explained that he views economic policy as one element of a complex foreign policy, where economic pressures can be brought to bear to incentivize the behavior of even extreme governments.
When Ron Paul was asked why he disagreed with Michelle Bachmann’s view that accused terrorists should not have due process rights, he said “she turns our rule of law on its head.” Paul explained that for individuals accused of terrorist activity to be treated as terrorists, “They have to be ruled a terrorist. Who rules them a terrorist?” He said the Constitution requires due process and a court ruling based on evidence. Bachmann, he said, is rejecting the rule of law and the traditions of American democracy, instead proposing “mob rule”.
Santorum said that under the regime of the Shah, the Iranian people were “free”—disregarding the police state, disappearances and torture used by that regime. He then complained that the “mullocracy” in Tehran “tramples the rights of gays”—a remark that surprised many, given his relentless pursuit of a national ban on same-sex marriage.
Gingrich was asked why he proposed a “loyalty test” for any Muslim that might serve in his administration. He said he would impose a loyalty test on every person who would serve in government, but gave no specifics as to how that test would be carried out. He cited incidents of Cold War espionage, where people that seemed above suspicion turned out to be foreign spies, and one case where an alleged terrorist conspirator said he “lied” when asked how he could take an oath of loyalty and then behave as America’s enemy.
Herman Cain was asked what it was he believes southerners “find objectionable about Mormonism”? He said that he, personally, has no problem with it, but that he believes many southerners simply don’t understand how Mormonism fits into the culture of protestant Christianity that they are familiar with.
Asked about her having said she hated her husband’s idea that she should study tax law, “But the Lord said, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,” Rep. Bachmann seemed genuinely embarrassed and stunned. She paused for an uncomfortable length of time, then offered the explanation that she meant by this term “respect” and that her husband respects her as well.
Romney may have waded into waters that will hurt him in the general election, when he shed the moderate tone of his campaign, saying “our marriage status relationship should be consistent at the national level” and he supported a national law to define marriage as between a man and a woman. He justified this by expressing concern that some same sex couples might have a hard time divorcing if they are in states that have different marriage laws from those where they married.
Huntsman supports civil unions, and spoke of “reciprocal beneficiary rights”. He said “I believe in traditional marriage, but subordinate to that, I believe that we haven’t done a good enough job at equality.” This helped to define Huntsman’s position as the true moderate conservative in the field, and a pragmatist. Many critics have been wary of the conservative candidates’ unwillingness to admit that any injustice could be in need of correction that does not need conservative ideological solutions.
Paul took a position that many find hard to grasp, given his arch-libertarian tendencies. He said “just so long as they don’t impose their vision of marriage on you”, that his priority was to ensure that no one had their private life defined by the government. This was in line with his libertarian principles, but he also specified that he believes marriage should be between one man and one woman, a concession to the conservative ideology he is known for criticizing.
Bachmann offered the awkward statement that “I have an absolutely unblemished record when it comes to this issue of man-woman marriage”. She has not supported same-sex marriage, certainly, but there have been questions about “blemishes” to her record, including alleged support for the extreme and discredited “treatment” option of prayer to cure homosexuality. Questions have also been raised about whether she and her husband have been spokespeople for this policy.
Romney may have made his most significant slip-up of the night—in line with his statement the previous day that “corporations are people”—when he said that “We’ve got to find a way to reduce our spending on a lot of anti-poverty programs”. He said this in responding to a question about whether he would extend unemployment benefits.
Romney has sought to blame both general economic pathologies and the president’s policy response for prolonged unemployment, which would suggest those who are suffering the impact are not in any way responsible for their predicament, so his admonition that in times of economic hardship the government should roll back its anti-poverty efforts seemed more than a bit awkward.
He said he would “go to Congress with a new plan for unemployment benefits”, but that he would not extend the current program of unemployment benefits. He was not pressed on what he would do should Congress fail to give him the option he prefers.
Huntsman took issue with the regulatory system and made what might be his most immoderate policy assertion of the night, saying that “If you want to build a facility in this country, you can’t, because of the EPA’s regulatory reign of terror“. He was defending the Huntsman company’s chemical operations, and by implication was suggesting chemical plants need more leeway to release dangerous toxins into the environment.
The use of the phrase “reign of terror”—a reference to the French revolutionary period and a campaign of torture and mass execution of “enemies of the revolution”—echoed the much maligned rhetoric of bloodshed and exaggeration increasingly used by Republicans since the summer of 2008, and through the 2010 elections. Huntsman did not backtrack, but repeated his allegation of a “reign of terror”, without giving any specifics about how that “terror” was imposed.
Newt Gingrich was asked to explain why he does not favor Ron Paul’s demand that the Federal Reserve Bank be “abolished”. “Having some sort of central bank”, he said, is necessary for dealing with the money supply “in the modern world”. He added, “I think the fact that the Fed is secret is a scandal” and repeated his demand that the Federal Reserve Bank be audited, that its books be open to public scrutiny.
Ron Paul celebrated what he called an awakening of the mainstream to the need to audit the Fed, but said we need to phase out the Fed, and that it is important to “understand the business cycle” in order to prevent recessions.
On education, Huntsman was firm, saying “No Child Left Behind hasn’t worked for this country; it ought to be done away with.” He called for a greater emphasis on governance at the local level, and said there is no one so interested in schools succeeding as the communities they serve. Herman Cain seconded this response, saying he would abandon NCLB and focus on local control of schools.
Huntsman added that he stood against letting the nation default, because the United States is 25% of the world’s GDP and by far the largest financial services industry in the world. This was a critique of the radical factions in his party, including Bachmann, who have said that they believe default could be beneficial for long-term fiscal solvency, acting as a kind of spur to activate serious budget reform.
The debate showed new rifts between and among the candidates and allowed them to stake out certain clear positions: Gingrich emerged as the “ideas” candidate, demanding that everyone focus more on ideas and less on rhetoric, style and the “minutia” of what goes on along the campaign trail. Romney sought to remain largely above the fray, and managed to do so, but gave few specifics. Ron Paul staked out a position of radical reform, in language many voters support.
Herman Cain talked up his business record, but mostly offered what he considered common-sense ideas. Rick Santorum promised bold leadership, offered some radical positions on taxation, and confounded some of the most problematic critiques of his ideas. Huntsman stood as the principled moderate, and a conservative problem solver.
Bachmann was on the defensive, but was poised; she moderated some of her most hardline views, but gave few specifics. Pawlenty became something of an attacker, and began what could be the most effective argument for his campaign: getting things done. It was not clear if anyone “won” the debate, though Romney, Bachmann and Gingrich were all given praise for their demeanor, for different reasons. Pawlenty may have made a dent in Bachmann’s armor, however, and some now expect him to be a tougher campaigner.