Debate Livethread: The Tussle in Tampa

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 12 2011 8:00 PM

Debate Livethread: The Tussle in Tampa

Let's do this again, shall we? The pregame commentary from Erick Erickson and Dana Loesch informs me that it's a "make or break" moment for Michele Bachmann.

8:00: The opening montage is admirably ridiculous. I count no fewer than three appearances from William Temple, the "Tea Party Patriot."

8:04: Newt Gingrich's appearance here, as the all-but-also-ran, is bittersweet. Gingrich, as chairman of American Solutions, was one of the first national Republican figures to endorse a Tea Party event -- he spoke in New York City. After criticizing Paul Ryan's political strategy, he is almost a pariah.

8:09: We are in minute nine of the intro, as you already knew. Diana Nagy sang the National Anthem at the TPX events I saw on the last tour; this is the best rendition I heard.

8:13: The first question from the crowd is the sort of thing Tim Russert used to ask all the time. If anything, the Washington establishment is more Social Security-skeptic than the Tea Party is; you hear Tea Partiers say that they don't want reforms that change the current entitlement regime, and you hear some who say they're ready to scale it back. This question comes out of the latter camp: "How will you convince senior citizens that Social Security must be changed?"

8:14: Perry at first sounds like he's trying to elide the controversy: For current beneficiaries, Social Security is a "slam-dunk guarantee." And then he comes back to pull out of the "Ponzi scheme" thicket by... repeating his position. Romney engages: "The real issue is that Gov. Perry pointed out in his book that in his view, Social Security is not constitutional."

8:18: Here is where the benefits and risks of the Tea Party audience come in. All Perry needs to say, to win the Social Security exchange -- for now -- is that Romney is slavishly defending the New Deal. "If what you're trying to say is that in the 30s and 40s," he says, "the federal government made all the right decisions, I'm going to disagree with you." Brilliant in the GOP primary. Is challenging every element of the New Deal brilliant in a general election? More than it used to be...

8:21: It's going to take a little while to recover from Huntsman's whiff of a Kurt Cobain joke. For the record, Kurt Cobain wrote "All Apologies," not "No Apology."

8:27: Some excellent pandering from Newt. "Strong America Now" is the group that shows up at every Tea Party he can to get the candidates to endorse streamlining government with Lean Six Sigma tactics. His "look over here, don't look over there" answer on entitlements: Listen to Strong America Now, and cut waste instead of entitlements! Some math-bending dodging right there, framed as a rejection of the media's silly questions.

8:36: Who predicted that Huntsman would have the most trouble connecting to this audience? You win... nothing, because that was obvious. The man with the easiest time connecting to independent voters sounds, in this venue, like he rehearsed the answers in front of the hotel room mirror all day. Bash "ObamaCare" and you get applause, but heck, I could do that.

8:41: As she fades, Bachmann gets less time to answer questions. As a result, she packs five or six campaign trail lines into each one. She's a tax lawyer! Who fought the debt ceiling hike! And will repeal Dodd-Frank!

8:44: Romney's a far better attacker than Pawlenty was. This argument that Perry's not ready for the presidency because he lucked out governing Texas, and not some horrible state -- who does this convince besides budget wonks?

8:45: Perry makes an excellent point about poker. You'd want a hand that would set up a royal flush more than you'd want four aces.

8:53: One thing we've learned -- questions from a party's base, when that base craves an election win and plans to vote for anyone who wins the primary, are not very difficult.

8:58: Perry gets a question on his "kill Bernanke moment" and repeats the thrust of it -- it's treasonous to use the Fed to grow the economy with inflationary monetary policy. Left behind in the answer: The fact that the Fed is mandated with keeping unemployment low. Also left behind: The fact that Bernanke is not doing what liberal supporters of the president think it should.

9:02: Newt's zinger on green technology and tax breaks sent me scurrying back to my copy of A Contract With the Earth, Gingrich's pre-campaign environmental book, and his discussion of tax credits for wind farms. He was against them, right?

[T]he tax credit is set to expire again in 2007. To continue to develop this unique source of power, the least that can be done is to extend the credit for a longer period, for example, five to seven years as some have recommended. The longer a tax credit remains on the books, the more significant its financial impact.

Oh, well.

9:09: Ah, the HPV vaccine -- this year's "drivers licenses for illegal immigrants." What do I mean? In 2007, Hillary Clinton was put on the ropes by a question about that long-forgotten issue. She stayed on the ropes as Chris Dodd -- Chris Dodd! -- claimed she was dissembling. We just saw a repeat of that moment, as Bachmann dug in on Perry's support of an opt-out universal HPV vaccine program in Texas, and Santorum pounced.

The issue sounds sort of nutty. Viewing it as a window into Perry's decision-making, as Santorum and Bachmann did, is not nutty. Bachmann is correct that Merck stood to benefit from the decision; she is correct that Perry's former chief of staff lobbied for Merck. Santorum is right that someone who viewed the "life issue" in absolutist terms would not have signed anything that (this is the nub of the issue) appeared to wink at teenage, unprotected, unmarried sex. And the absolutist vote is what Perry is surging with.

9:20: The conventional wisdom will be right. Bachmann, given abundant opportunity to attack, has done so. Has she done so on an issue that voters really care about? May not matter -- she's been as crisp as ever, whereas Perry has come off a little listless. (Compare his "uhs" to her utter lack of pauses.)

9:53: Apologies -- I had to listen to the end of the debate on the radio as I went to the studio. A wrap, with transcript, coming after the show.

CONCLUSIONS: How'd they do? I realized last time that assigning letter grades to every candidate was frivolous, because there will never be such a thing as a "President Rick Santorum." Not outside of Tony Perkins's personal fanfic library. Come on: Herman Cain's post-debate e-mail was titled "Cain Participates in CNN/Tea Party Express Debate." Participates!

But maybe he's on to something. Let's assign trophies.

Most Awkward: Jon Huntsman. Is it churlish, at this point, to remember Huntsman's "no personal attacks" campaign pledge? His policy-based criticisms of the candidates have been replaced by imitations of tough talk -- Perry's border control skepticism is "treasonous," and "we can spend all night talking about where Mitt's been on all the issues." Here was how Perry reacted to the immigration slam:

photo(21)

No, Huntsman isn't quite believable when he attacks.

Most Romneyesque: Mitt Romney, comfortable attacking Perry, and even more comfortable in the role he's enjoyed all year -- the guy who no one is particularly interested in laying a glove on.

Most (Hillary) Clintonesque: Rick Perry, who had to eat his dog's breakfast on HPV and immigration positions that are totally mainstream outside of a room of Tea Party activists. Like Hillary, he was briefly tripped up by what will be a non-issue in the election: the vaccine. Like Hillary, he took no crap on his old positions, preferring to elide the distinctions and avoid details.

Most Scrappy: Michele Bachmann. Whoever that adviser was who told Byron York that she'd attack Perry on Social Security was clever: She ignored that and became the paladin of "young girls" who would only avoid "government vaccinations."

Most Consistent: Ron Paul, who said nothing he couldn't have said in 1971, with the names of some wars changes.

Most Pathetic: Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator reduced to picking a fight (which the moderator allowed... why?) with Ron Paul, realizing his flabby neoconservatism was still more popular than Paul's isolationism.

Most Invisible: Herman Cain. The rationale for including him and discluding Johnson or Roemer becomes harder as he fades into the scenery.

Most Likely to Induce Amnesia: Newt Gingrich, liberated by his political weakness to deliver Fox News attack lines on Barack Obama. (Credit him for sticking to the opposition party, unlike some fringe candidates who use their invitations to do the dirty work of other candidates.)

Most Easily Pleased: The Tea Party. News flash: Partisans who want to vote for their party's candidates anyway will ask fairly easy questions. For example, the big energy question:

The United States has an abundance of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium. The American people have been told for decades that energy independence is a top priority. What will you do in your first 100 days in office to assure the American people that energy independence will finally become reality.

Quite the stumper! The most pointed questions ended up coming from the other candidates.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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