The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA was the host of the first of several Republican debates as we wrap up the 'invisible primary' season in preparation for actual voting beginning early in 2012. There are at least two more debates scheduled this month with a few more in October and November as the candidates try to improve their support among Republican voters before the primaries.
The Reagan Library is situated on a bluff overlooking Simi Valley and is a stunningly beautiful facility. I've had the pleasure of visiting the library on two occasions and eagerly look forward to another visit when I return to California. It is a tranquil place that opens itself to much reflection in the midst of our ever busier lives and beckons one back to a time when things were a bit simpler, or at least it seems that way. One of my favorite exhibits is the replica of the Oval Office replete with a jar of Jelly Belly jelly beans on the president's desk. Call me nostalgic. Whatever.
Last evening at the library eight GOP hopefuls gathered for a debate sponsored by Politico and NBC News that was televised on MSNBC. It marked the first debate for the Republicans since the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the race in mid-August. His announcement catapulted him into the lead in all major polls taken since August 15th so it was highly anticipated that the media and the other contenders on the stage would be gunning for him. We were not disappointed. I won't bother to recap the entire debate as you can read about it here, here, and here. I will, however, endeavor to give you my thoughts on how each candidate performed. I'll begin with the frontrunner, Governor Perry.
Texas Governor Rick Perry: Perry has come out swinging in the race for the GOP nod and the right to face off with President Obama next fall. I want to like Rick Perry, even if there is little chance I'd ever vote for him. But I can't. In his first opportunity on the national stage I was listening for solid policy proposals, intelligent discussion of issues, ideas for turning around an educational system in crisis, and so on. I heard none of that. What I did hear is Governor Perry pandering to the rabid right wing of his party, talking about Social Security as a ponzi scheme and a monstrous lie. I heard him call the president of the United States a liar and bumble a question about climate science with an answer about how the 'science isn't settled' yet and how irresponsible it would be to impose environmental regulations on polluters when only 98% of climate scientists agree that man made pollution is contributing to climate change. I heard him dodge questions about the failure of Texas education system (test scores have improved because the tests have been made easier, not because students are learning!) and talk about how the $4 billion cut in education was 'responsible.' I have a feeling many educators in Texas might disagree. Overall, I think Perry helped his standing with the hard right but probably lost the moderates in the party and many independents.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney: Romney has been sliding in the polls since Perry entered the race. He needed to take on Perry directly in last night's debate and he did just that. The two men locked horns and challenged each other on jobs creation, social security, and a few other issues. In each case, Romney displayed the acumen and vocabulary of a serious contender for the presidency. Most of Romney's dialogue was on message with a few jabs here and there at Perry, especially on the social security issue when he stressed that any Republican nominee who wants to win the presidency must be committed to saving what he called a successful system for millions of senior Americans. Romney has a clear vision about what it will take to win Florida for a Republican nominee. Anyone committed to the destruction of the program has no chance in Florida due to it's huge senior population. The same can be said about Nevada and, to a lesser extent, Arizona. In terms of winning the debate, Romney came out clearly ahead and appeared the most presidential and the most like Ronald Reagan, a pragmatic conservative.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul: Paul seemed some what off his game last night and really looked much more like America's cranky uncle than a serious presidential contender. Of course, he wasn't given all that much time to speak as it is now clear that the media establishment believes the race for the GOP nomination is down to the top two candidates. Paul's temper came through when he chastised Brian Williams for portraying libertarians as lacking compassion when Williams mentioned Lyndon Johnson's commitment to provide nutritious school lunches for children after seeing some children in Texas come to school with distended stomachs. Overall, Paul looked much more like a candidate whose star has faded than one who is on the rise.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann: Talk about a meteoric fall from grace! Less than a month after becoming the media darling by winning the Ames Straw Poll she has sunk to 4th place in the polls, shaken up the staff of her campaign, and promised to lower gas prices to $2 a gallon if elected president. Bachmann is clearly out of her league and exemplifies all the criticism often dished out to the tea-party. Like Paul, her face time has diminished as Perry's has increased. It is far more difficult finding a path to the nomination for Ms. Bachmann today than it was just a month ago.
Former Senator Rick Santorum: Steady and smooth as he always is but simply lacking in appeal to anyone other than social conservatives. Sure, he's probably a fiscal conservative as well but he just isn't electable on the national scene. His claim that nobody worked harder than he did on poverty issues in the U.S. Senate and his claim that the 1996 welfare reform wasn't about spending cuts and punishing the poor was laughable. I'm not even sure he believes that.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich: Perhaps the smartest man on the stage but also the one with the loosest tongue. Gingrich frequently invoked Ronald Reagan and how he worked with Reagan in the 1980's but apart from that had little to say substantively. He did praise President Obama's 'Race to the top' initiative for providing education funds to innovative schools but then returned to the traditional 'school choice' language, which is really just conservative code for busting the strength of teachers unions. Gingrich did not hurt himself but neither did he help himself. He's just there as a sideshow now.
Pizza Mogul Herman Cain: Why is he here? He has no chance of winning the nomination no matter what he says. The Republican Party today is a regional party that is very strong in the old confederacy and virtually nowhere else. And the confederacy simply isn't ready to support an African-American candidate, regardless of party. Cain is entertaining to listen to and may have had the best line of the night in reference to his 'ni-yun, ni-yun, ni-yun' plan to cut corporate taxes, income taxes, and impose a national sales tax rate of 9% when he said 'if 10% is good enough for God then 9% should be good enough for the government.' Ok, but he won't win anyway.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman: Definitely the George H.W. Bush wing of the party candidate. He is smart and articulate like Romney, unafraid to disagree with the anti-science crowd, and willing to call many in his party 'cranks', though he shied away when given a direct opportunity to name one on the stage...though he clearly eyeballed Rick Perry and Ron Paul. Huntsman's problem isn't that he's not a smart guy or likable. It is that he is too smart and too pragmatic for today's Republican Party. If this were still the party of Ronald Reagan, Huntsman would wipe the floor with the other seven candidates. It isn't and because of that Huntsman can't gain any traction with prospective GOP voters, though I'd be willing to bet if he did he would become Barack Obama's biggest nightmare. Huntsman helped himself immensely with his performance last night and if the GOP takes a moderate turn in the near future, he could be a star for the party. As long as the party remains well to the right of Reagan, Huntsman has no hope.