Thoughts on the 3rd Republican Presidential Debate

Now that Texas Governor Rick Perry is in the race, the Republican field of 2012 Presidential hopefuls includes not just ideological diversity (every type of Conservative represented!) but ideological diversity among serious candidates.  Perry has taken the lead among Republicans and Conservative independents, consistently out-polling former Massachusetts Governor and previous leading hopeful Mitt Romney as their preferred candidate.  His lead is close, however, and Perry is not a tested debater.  On Wednesday night he was forced to give an account of himself in a forum where the other hopefuls could raise objections to both his philosophy and his administrative record; his self-accounting was adequate for now–no better.  Other candidates, especially an enthusiastic and even studied Herman Cain, ran circles around him in giving policy proposals (though Cain’s ideas are too radical for his recent refinement to help him politically).  Perry has been Governor of Texas longer than anyone else, has been in the Republic of Texas’s government since the 1980s, and while Governor he has enjoyed a large partisan majority in the Texas “‘Leg.”  As such he is the executive of record, and must defend by what his State looks like today.  The Liberal Ironist offers these thoughts on last Wednesday’s performance by the Republican presidential hopefuls, in order of the size of their support in the last Washington Post poll.

Fair warning: I’d hoped to post this response for last Thursday; I am offering it on Monday morning because it grew into the largest blog entry I have written by far.  If you wanted to know my thoughts about a particular candidate’s performance, you might just want to skip down to it.

Rick Perry knows nothing, more or less, about climate science. This and all images in this post are the work of MSNBC.

Rick Perry: Perry’s 1st critique of Federal Government power during this debate wasn’t in his strong suit.  As the Governor of Texas, he has presided over the State with the largest proportion of uninsured citizens.  His culprit? Medicaid, the Federal health care entitlement for the poor!  (Strange that Medicaid’s benefits haven’t been so clearly-linked to reduced rates of insurance coverage in the…49 states where a larger percentage of the population is insured.)  Perry raised some good points about how allowing States to design different payment and benefit schemes through Medicaid might allow the States to spread their resources further and insure more people; they may also have little to no effect, as being poor, you know, makes buying insurance a daunting proposition.

The lack of mandatory insurance coverage, meanwhile, creates a twofold problem for our health care system that only Governor Romney (through top-down “Romneycare”) has addressed through policy:

1) Being uninsured, many young people don’t go in for check-ups with a primary care physician, thus missing out on sound lifestyle advice they may not get anywhere else as well as early detection of emerging health issues.

2) Health insurance markets fail in part because it is rational for a young person to risk going without health insurance to save money for many years; once that bet fails (as it does for all of us) and a person has a chronic health problem, treatment is expensive and private insurance companies don’t want to compensate because an insurer can’t profit off of taking care of sick people.  (Conservatives somehow evade this basic problem, but this is why Medicare and Medicaid were so much less-controversial than universal health care in 1965.)  Medicare and Medicaid each assume part of the cost burden for such preventable health emergencies among the long-uninsured.

When asked about his book Fed Up!, in which he asserts that Social Security was just a sly swindle by a corrupt President who acted like a dictator (certainly not a view which the Liberal Ironist accepts or even condones), Perry averred that he didn’t want to end the program: “Well, I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what’s been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time,” (This may actually have been intended as a barb at Ron Paul) “and rather than spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doin’ back in the ’30s and the ’40s–It’s a nice intellectual conversation, but the fact is that we’ve got to be focused on how we’re gonna change this program.  And people who are on Social Security today, men and women who are receiving those benefits today, individuals my age who 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’s a monstrous lie–it is a ponzi scheme–to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, ‘You’re payin’ into a program that’s gonna be there.’  Anybody that is for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”  Perry wanted to have his cake and eat it, too, but to his credit Governor Romney didn’t allow this.  He noted that Perry wrote in his book that by any measure, Social Security is a failure.  It is a fallacy to say that a program that most Americans depend on in their retirement, which simply happens to have a long-term projected funding shortfall that could be addressed with any of a number of controversial yet simple tweaks in its financing or benefit schedule, is a failure.  Social Security is an enormous success, and while this might not be ideologically-congruous to some Conservatives, Social Security really is one of our central privileges as Americans.  As currently conceived, Social Security will become unsustainable over the next quarter-century.  But this doesn’t mean the program isn’t viable.  Businesses have balance sheets that couldn’t hold up through 2037 without radical changes in their revenue sources or their overhead costs, but no one would call those businesses “failures” as long as they undertake the necessary restructuring to stay in the black.

After Social Security Dr. Paul got a question about Governor Perry.  (Does this tell you something?)  Paul had attacked his Governor for using an executive order to mandate vaccination of girls for HPV, in order to prevent cervical cancer.  In this case the Liberal Ironist applauds Governor Perry’s action.  Parents were allowed to opt-out of the vaccination mandate (even though the study linking vaccination to autism turned out to be a complete fraud, and I have yet to hear just what precepts of theology or moral philosophy are offended by the standard regimen of toddler vaccines).  I understand that this is a control issue for parents, but I also understand that what they are controlling in this case is simply their child’s susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.  Governor Perry’s reasoning was simple: “I hate cancer.”  He also went on to discuss the incubator Texas has provided for cancer research–a $3 billion fund.  For him, the mandate contained in the executive order was the most-effective way to build awareness that HPV leads to cervical cancer.  He didn’t want to wait for people to catch on to this issue; he wanted to save lives.  The Liberal Ironist applauds his concern for the most-vulnerable, and his pragmatism.  (See? Liberal, and ironist.)

Moving forward in the debate, Perry resorted to epithets in excess of what we normally hear from a presidential candidate at any point in the cycle.  “For the President of the United States to go to El Paso, Texas and say that the border is safer than it’s ever been, either he has some of the poorest intel of a President in the history of this country or he was an abject liar to the American people…”  It’s possible that Governor Perry is simply angry about some pervasive condition of lawlessness along the US-Mexico border; it’s at least as likely that we simply saw another opportunity to take his signature potshots at an opponent.  Governor Perry is a dirty campaigner; if he is the Republican Party nominee for President in 2012, the 2012 elections are almost guaranteed to have less light and more heat than if Romney is the candidate.

While he probably took a substantively similar position, Romney easily bested Perry on this question with references to the supposedly perverse incentives that attract illegal immigrants to come to the United States.  There’s a good test for Perry’s credibility: Does he resort to name-calling when he feels strongly about something but doesn’t really know what to say about it?

Perry expressed his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution during the debate.  Unless he or she has found $1 trillion in annual spending that he wants to cut, or is prepared to raise taxes by several hundred billion dollars, any politician who proposes a balanced budget amendment is just playing politics.  The House of Representatives–which hasn’t produced a budget plan which its members claim can balance the budget–just did this with their phony “Cap, Cut, and Balance” bill, which justifiably died in the Senate.  In order to pass an amendment to the Constitution, 2/3 of Congress or 2/3 of State legislatures must recommend the amendment, then 3/4 of State legislatures or State-appointed conventions (the latter method employed only once, during the repeal of Prohibition) must ratify the amendment.  Republicans engage in unaccountable talk on this issue, much as they do on abortion and gay marriage, because they know they’ll never have to follow-through on their most-radical proposals.  Their supporters buy into these coy calls for Constitutional amendments that are too controversial ever to pass, because they sound nice.  In reality, a Federal balanced budget amendment would be a disaster, requiring drastic spending cuts or tax increases during an economic downturn.  How would either of these measures be well-advised?  Rejecting Keynesian stimulus during a deep recession or depression is to be unduly-optimistic about the prospects of recovery; to impose the opposite of a Keynesian approach, essentially imposing damaging austerity measures in every downturn, is just foolish.  If businesses and citizens can borrow money, why should a much larger fiscal entity, with the power to tax and responsibility for providing some public goods to all of us be unable to?

For better and for worse, Republicans love their slogans.  “Cap, Cut and Balance” is definitely for worse; those 4 words cannot contain a serious rationale for the blunt way they seek to tie the hands of a government responsible for 310 million people.

When asked about his global warming denialism, Governor Perry’s argumentative acuity simply collapsed, as we should have expected it to.  Try listening to this segment of the debate–which starts with about 13 minutes left in the debate–in audio (without Perry’s Presidential good looks).  He sounds off his depth, not just while he’s talking but even while he’s coming up for carbon-laden air.  He makes what is now a standard Republican case that regulations on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions by industrial processes and vehicles would pose unacceptable costs to our economy, but he was unable to get specific.  He spoke enthusiastically about improvements in Texas’ air quality on his watch, a much greater comfort level which suggests to me that as Perry becomes more-acquainted with national political discourse and issues he will grow as a Presidential candidate.

When Brian Williams noted that Perry had presided over the execution 234 death row inmates–a national record–a sizable share of the attending audience clapped loudly.

Perry, in one of several allusions to his professed preference for power devolution to the States, averred that the death penalty was appropriately “a state by state issue,” but insisted that capital punishment was warranted by the severity of the crimes in question and by its popularity in those cases with the public.  A late-2010 Gallup poll found 64% of Americans supported the use of the death penalty, fairly-stable throughout the past decade but a significant decline from the 70%-80% support the death penalty enjoyed in annual polling in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Liberal Ironist cares about the morality of the issue: Killing by the state of individuals utterly within its power is perverse and in a way, superstitious.  The possibility that 1 person could be executed by mistake overwhelms the plausible moral value of ending a life that is considered irredeemable.  Defending death sentences against appeals often makes the death penalty more expensive than life incarceration; some studies have found that the death penalty is much more-likely to be sought in cases involving the killing of white than black Americans.  Even where due process has been followed and confirmed hardened killers are executed, the death penalty remains an ironic monument to barbarism, frontier justice in a civilized land.

But many of the Republicans assembled for this debate clapped at mere mention of executions with an eagerness not matched by other red-meat lines by the candidates.  The aspect of the provocateur hangs around many Conservative Republicans.

Governor Perry hit a pothole with this debate and may need to pull into a rest stop and check his tire pressure.  But some of Perry’s critics or skeptics were predicting a blowout on the highway when he reached full national exposure with this debate; this didn’t happen and probably won’t happen.  Perry was polling in the lead among Republicans before this debate; his race with Governor Romney may tighten given that experienced presidential candidate’s strong debate performance.  But if Perry can continue to refine his base appeal, linking his narrative about Texas to his attack on President Obama and refining his Federalist message without sounding as reactionary as Ron Paul, he will play to precisely those strengths that the party base are looking for.

The fact remains that Perry’s learning curve was visible in this debate.  Actually, many pundits made this observation almost immediately after the debate.  Over the next 6 months he is going to have to find something to talk about during these debates and on the stump with questioners besides how important it is to create jobs.  Both President Obama and all the Republican presidential hopefuls want to create jobs; everyone is for this idea.  Perry has his “4 essentials” about the way things are done in Texas, but the United States just isn’t Texas.  If by that time he cannot give an account of how he appreciates the difference between his current job and the job he wants, then he doesn’t appreciate the difference.

Considering how horribly his predecessor as Governor of Texas mangled US foreign policy over 2 terms, that is something to consider.  (And with that, the Liberal Ironist sincerely hopes to avoid making mutually-unfair comparisons of Rick Perry with George W. Bush in the future.)

Governor Romney talking about what his 160-page economic plan could mean for YOU. (Yes, he has a 160-page economic plan...He really, really wants to be President.)

Mitt Romney: It’s become increasingly-interesting to watch Governor Romney participate in these debates.  He has been in a lot of them, and he still feels like the most-studied candidates (which he is).  He wants to be President so much it’s also palpable–which probably explains a slight exasperation in his voice now that he has relinquished his lead in support among Republicans to “late-comer” Perry.

When asked, Romney stood up for his Massachusetts health care reform, which included a mandate for individuals to buy health insurance to improve the solvency of risk pools.  He also insisted that his 1st act as President would be to issue an executive order granting States waivers from President Obama’s Health Care Reform.  It’s interesting that he has promised to issue an executive order allowing States waivers from the President’s new health care mandates and entitlements; this suggests to me–though it is hardly proof of such–that Governor Romney stands by the reform he instituted in Massachusetts, and that as President he agrees with his attackers that many parts of President Obama’s Health Care Reform are essentially the Massachusetts plan Federalized, and that as such it could be used to develop States’ health care markets in the right direction.  This is a conjecture, but if I’m right about it, this suggests both more consistency and more nuance on Romney’s part than he is often given credit for.

Kudos to Governor Romney for not following Bachmann’s silly pie-in-the-sky promise to get gas prices down to $2 a gallon.  (I’ll buy that promise for a dollar!)  This campaign pledge of Bachmann’s reminds me of Tim Pawlenty’s assumption that his economic plan would achieve 5% annual US GDP growth–in retrospect probably a promise made in desperation.  The Liberal Ironist shouldn’t have to applaud a presidential hopeful for declining to promise the impossible, but in the interest of fairness a few…cranks, for lack of a better word, have been given a hearing in this debate, and so the kind of resignation and honesty we should be able to expect from a leader when facing what he knows he couldn’t deliver deserves special accolades.

Governor Romney took the opportunity to demonstrate his superior polish as a presidential candidate when asked about immigration.  That Governor Perry had stumbled significantly on this question was clear only when Romney spoke about it, as Romney focused on a conversation with a Border Patrol agent in San Diego.  This man reportedly told him that “We’ve left the magnet on,” meaning “When employers are willing to employ people who are here illegally…sanctuary cities, giving tuition breaks to the kids of illegal aliens…Those things also have to be stopped.”  He closed with the applause line: “We’ve got to stop talking about amnesty,” by which Romney means that he opposes President George W. Bush’s unaccomplished 2nd term proposal to allow illegal immigrants who can demonstrate employment to apply for citizenship here and “get in line” behind current legal immigrants.  (This has so far struck the Liberal Ironist as the most-practical and humane way of addressing the illegal immigrant population in the United States that isn’t amnesty; while much more-complicated, in contrast to simple amnesty George W. Bush’s path-to-citizenship proposal would ensure substantive naturalization of our new citizens, which simple amnesty would not.)  As an issue that probably isn’t close to Romney’s heart or his governing record, this sounds like 1 on which Romney is willing to play politics and play for applause, talking about as harshly about it as any current Republican hopeful, almost objectifying millions of illegal immigrants in his comments on the matter, and in general repudiating President W. Bush’s embrace of immigrants and clemency towards illegal immigrants.

Still, the point is that where Perry simply attacked the President, Romney stuck his neck out and gave us some idea what (harsh) policy changes or stands we should expect from him towards illegal immigration.  As the Governor of a fast-growing State that is essentially a mini-nation, Rick Perry should have had something interesting (even if disappointing or unpleasant) to say about immigration; yet while coming off as a hard-nosed Conservative the former Governor of Massachusetts just sounded like he’d given the issue more thought.

When Brian Williams asked Romney if he was a member of the Tea Party, his response was “Uh, I don’t think you carry cards in the Tea Party.  Uh, I believe in a lot of what the Tea Party believes in.”  He pointed out that he agreed with Tea Partiers that taxes and spending are too high and that we need to do something to spur job growth.  I see that as Romney’s polite way of saying “Uh, no.”

Romney’s polished campaign theme really came out when he was asked if he would retain Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman: “Uh, no, I’d be looking for somebody new…”  His tone elicited laughs.  He spoke critically of Bernanke after Gingrich did, but avoided the latter’s conspiratorial tone and referred to policy failure rather than alleged deficiencies in the man.  He noted that the Fed’s 2nd round of “quantitative easing”–the creation of more dollars to put money into the economy and slightly inflate the currency to ease the trade imbalance and soften the real value of existing debt–had failed to stimulate consumption or job-creation.  He referred again to his highly-detailed, 160-page economic plan, which he validated by reference to his long experience in business.

Dr. Paul expresses indignation at the insinuation that he is lacking in compassion merely because he gets excited by a 224-year-old government document but is equivocal when asked about programs that feed starving children. Perhaps we don't understand the meaning of the word "compassion"...

Ron Paul: I’m down to the 3rd Republican candidate in primary polling and instantly I’m in crank territory.  (I can but parrot the conventional wisdom: There are 2 Republican candidates in this race with a shot.)  Brian Williams opened with Dr. Paul asking about his Strict Constructionist Constitutional philosophy.  Could Paul really oppose Federal car safety regulations? the Food and Drug Administration? the Federal Aviation Administration?  Paul’s answer was “Why, I think in theory, if you understood the free market and a free society, you don’t need government to do that!”  “In theory…”  Paul resorted to this phrase again when Williams again asked him if pharmaceutical manufacturers could effectively police their own drugs for defects or commercial pilots should direct their own traffic in the sky “in an organic way.”  (Williams had trouble hiding his snarky side with Dr. Paul; somehow the ideologically-consistent Libertarian easily evoked amusement from him.)  Paul insisted that he doesn’t disbelieve in regulation entirely, and invoked “regulation by the market.”  (This is an oxymoron, of course, one that would make our very concept of what a regulation is redundant if it had any practical meaning.)  Neither the passion of Dr. Paul’s followers nor their consistently small numbers in the scheme of things really surprises me.  That a few people have faith in the viability of any ideological Shangri-La is inevitable given our variety; that they would hang their hopes on a loud but consistent advocate of these dogmas in government is only logical.  Paul gains attention for the same reason he is a political non-presence in Congress: Because he never takes the actual process of governing seriously, he is able to maintain his ideological rectitude.  Since 1997, Dr. Paul has sponsored 1 bill that has passed the House of Representatives–just 1.  The rest of the time he has carried on about how the Federal Government doesn’t look the way he thinks it should look.  He is the proverbial drunken uncle, carrying on at a family gathering: “Now, if I were President…”

At 1 point sensing an interjection from Brian Williams about the importance of financial regulation, Paul shrugged slightly and said such concerns could be handled at the State level, because the Federal Government isn’t authorized to address this problem.  Somehow this argument would seem more-reassuring (less simultaneously doctrinaire and a hedge) coming from an actual Governor, say, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or Jon Huntsman.  Texas under Perry instituted strict regulations on who qualifies for a mortgage.  Admittedly, this was not some ideologically-correct but non-existent “market regulation” but old-fashioned actual regulation, and by acknowledging limits on our society’s capacity for homeownership and restricting the demand side of insecure debt, Governor Perry’s Texas was in fact able to evade the worst of the 2008 Financial Crash.

Asked if he believed the minimum wage should be abolished, he insisted it should–because it is a mandate, and mandates are bad.  Considering his rather long but unproductive Congressional tenure, Dr. Paul takes a rather dim view of government in general, saying it consists of little beyond instituting mandates.  He then called Medicare a mandate, with emphasis as if he were being clever.  It seems that in affirming that he wanted to eliminate the minimum wage, Dr. Paul was eager to assure us he would abolish Medicare as well.  The Liberal Ironist considers mistaking one’s own club for a microcosm of the way the World really works and thinks is the very definition of arrogance; based on their own preferences, most of those who heard Dr. Paul speak would have to find his philosophy of government abhorrent if they understood it.

Dr.  Paul called for abolition of the Department of Homeland Security, asserting that private airlines acting on their own could better provide for our security while flying than the TSA does now.  In spite of horror stories about incompetence, misallocation of resources and close calls with some terrorist plots, the only way Dr. Paul could argue that private airlines on their own provide(d) better security than all the security changes mandated and funded through the Department of Homeland Security; this is an untenable position.

Brian Williams’ last question for Ron Paul confronts us with a very basic fact about his Libertarian ideology:

“A long time ago a fellow Texan of yours, a young student teacher in Catoula, Texas, was horrified to see young kids coming into the classroom hungry, some of them with distended bellies because of hunger, and made a vow that if he ever had anything to do about it, the government would provide meals–hot meals at best–in schools.  The young student teacher of course, uh, later went on to be President Lyndon Johnson.  Do you think that is any more–uh, providing nutrition for schoolchildren–a role of the Federal Government?”

Ron Paul said simply that it wasn’t in the Constitution and that “it doesn’t work.”  A good Texan, he gave Perry-style assurances that State and local governments have the authority under the Constitution to provide such programs as they see fit–but having come through with a reasonable-enough hedge there, he then angrily denounced “lavishing out…free stuff from the Federal Government” and insisted that only markets can free people.  The Liberal Ironist agrees that only markets can produce food, but governments certainly can feed people–and through unemployment insurance, Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families it provides for many of the poor and the unemployed.  These welfare state programs keep millions of people afloat; the indignation Dr. Paul expressed at the suggestion–one I still find plausible–that those who oppose the programs are not compassionate would perhaps be more-justified were he to express some intellectual curiosity as to how State and local government and private charities could actually assume the mandatory responsibilities these programs assume on behalf of those who can’t provide for themselves.  Until Dr. Paul produces such a plan, the Liberal Ironist won’t express surprise that such an intellectually-rigid mind can find a following, but that it can find its way into a mainstream debate among presidential hopefuls.  But then, the drastic recent decline in Paul’s always-uncompetitive poll numbers leave him free to speak his mind from condemning the Reagan legacy to expressing boredom with the question of how to take care of the hungry.

Michele Bachmann expresses her approval of immigration policies that had been instituted by President Coolidge--which the latter had justified in explicitly-racist terms.

Michele Bachmann: Something has struck me about Congresswoman Bachmann all along: She really has no grasp of policy.  I can’t think of another candidate on the stage last night who seemed less-interested in discussing policy.  She couldn’t point to her record; since becoming a Congresswoman she has never sponsored a bill that has passed the House of Representatives, let-alone become a law.  (One could be forgiven for taking Bachmann for, say, a headline-grabbing backbencher who is of no real consequence.)

Of course, this didn’t stop Bachmann from insisting on her “strong leadership” during the debate.  I wouldn’t necessarily draw such a harsh line between talking about doing something and doing something if one weren’t running for President of the United States.  Many Liberals prefer to call Bachmann crazy; I prefer to call her irrelevant.  Conservative-populist Perry’s entry into the race didn’t just soak up a lot of her pre-primary support, it also trivialized her as Vice Presidential material.  Perry and Romney, if each would be willing to assume that role for the other, are far-stronger contenders in ideological, geographical and policy-formation terms to balance each other’s tickets right now, while Bachmann has nothing to contribute to the ticket.  (Given their seeming affinity at the debate last night, Jon Huntsman might do much to ground a Perry candidacy as its Vice Presidential nominee, without threatening its Conservative bona fides.)

Bachmann didn’t sound too different from the 4 hopefuls who spoke before her on the subject of immigration, in large part because her answer to the question of what to do with over 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States (many of whom have already put down roots here) was indirect and muddled.  What she did contribute to the discussion of immigration brought a terrible period in our immigration policy to mind:

“…Our immigration law worked beautifully back in the 1950s until the early 1960s, when people had to demonstrate that they had money in their pockets, they had no contagious diseases, they weren’t a felon, they’d agreed to learn to speak the English language, they had to learn American history and the Constitution, and the 1 thing they had to promise was that they wouldn’t become a burden on the American taxpayer.  That’s what we have to enforce.”

Whoa, where to begin?  From the 1920s through the early 1960s was the bad old days of  highly-restricted immigration.  The Congresswoman didn’t mention that this policy also greatly restricted immigration by non-Northern Europeans.  Expecting immigrants to demonstrate that they had money in their pockets can be unreasonable, as they sometimes come to our country at considerable expense precisely to rectify their lack of it.  Immigrants, legal or otherwise, whom are here to work are often profoundly-eager to learn English; legal immigrants still have to learn US history and the Constitution for naturalization.  These are typical problems with any talk of the “good ole days.”

Bachmann strangely chose to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as part of her club even though he piled up massive Federal budget deficits.  (Her reasoning wasn’t strained, though; she didn’t employ any.)  Again, on this question of balancing the budget, Bachmann said she has been “leading on this issue for the last 5 years.”  I find it interesting that she thinks of herself as “leading” on an issue merely because she has released a lot of predictably-Conservative statements about it.  Can’t we expect more from her than that–say, implementation of an actual policy? anything?

In all fairness, Speaker Gingrich only says indefensible things when his mouth is open.

Newt Gingrich: The 1st Republican Speaker of the House since 1954, the Conservative pole through the at-times bitter but far-reaching policy debates of 1995-1998, got off to an unsettling start: “I served back during the Reagan campaign with people like Jack Kemp and Art Laffer…”  Oh, boy.  Yes, true, this establishes his bona fides as a Conservative, but in the same way that knowing Fyodor Dostoevsky personally might give you insight into the historical emergence of Existentialism in literature and philosophy; people may be quiet when you speak, but the fact remains that you are a part of the 19th century.

Without really having a point, Speaker Gingrich attacked his questioners after each of his 2 initial questions.  When Brian Williams asked if his forward for Governor Perry’s book Fed-Up! in which he called Perry uniquely-qualified to speak about the economy meant that Perry should be the nominee, Gingrich said that to draw any conclusions from a book that was more-philosophical than programmatic was “silly.”  When asked to judge between Massachusetts’ individual mandate for health insurance (wherein almost no one in Massachusetts in uninsured) and the Texas approach to health insurance (about 1 in 4 Texans are uninsured) Gingrich petulantly responded, “Well, I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”

That line led to applause, but it’s hard to see why.  Gingrich wasn’t being asked to hurl epithets, and he wasn’t being asked to judge the Romney and Perry records of governance overall.  (Given the very-different nature of their States, their offices, and the circumstances of their tenures, that indeed may have been a crude question.)  Gingrich was asked to judge how to handle health care at the State level, and he dodged–very rudely.  He brought the conversation back to President Obama’s Health Care Reform, which he said was a “disaster” that “must be repealed.”  He didn’t say why, though his dodge of the question was so emphatic as to suggest that he was unconcerned with individual mandates to buy health insurance where implemented by the States.  (I’m not sure that is a philosophical position of his, but he seemed genuinely not to care what the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elects to do.)  In any case, in this debate a man who has a reputation for being a very Conservative policy wonk with a chip on his shoulder came off as simply having a chip on his shoulder.  He really seems to have nothing to this race, which is unfortunate in a way: His legendary meanspiritedness aside, Gingrich is a very-intelligent former House Speaker who marshaled a movement in Congress and has always had a passion for policy, not merely the ideologically-Conservative bent but of a technologically-savvy and technocratic nature as well.  Here he gives the impression of wanting to relive the historic experiences he had in 1994, 1995 and 1996.  If so, he is doing it in entirely the wrong forum.  It is unbecoming for relics to draw blood with words.

When asked about immigration Gingrich surprisingly was the 1st of the Republican presidential hopefuls to say that deporting all 11 million or so of our illegal immigrants was impractical and inhumane.  Other than that he expressed support for all the substance of W. Bush’s old guest worker proposal–though with a page from his 1990s cultural battles, he insisted that the children of both immigrants and native-born Americans should be required to learn more about American history.  On general principle, the Liberal Ironist agrees.

When asked what he thought about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s administration, he flatly responded that he would fire Bernanke “tomorrow.”  His string of demonstrably-false accusations against the hard-working but often-maligned Federal Reserve Chairman went as follows:

“I think he’s been the most inflationary, dangerous, and power-centered Chairman of the Fed in the history of the Fed, I think the Fed should be audited, I think the amount of money that he has shifted around–in secret, with no responsibility, no accountability, no transparency–is absolutely antithetical to a free society, and I think his policies have deepened the depression, lengthened the problems, increased the cost of gasoline, and been a disaster.”

It’s noteworthy that Speaker Gingrich, in an attack that makes Governor Perry’s incivility look restrained, would offer such pointed criticisms of the Federal Reserve Chairman and quickly move on without offering any indication of what policies the Federal Reserve should have adopted.  (While the Federal Reserve’s various levers on the economy are indeed powerful, its range of policy options are nonetheless limited and so if Gingrich had such strong opinions about Chairman Bernanke’s performance, he should have had some alternative Fed policies to suggest.)  Robert Samuelson had a fine op-ed in the Washington Post simply demolishing every criticism Gingrich made of Bernanke.  It’s worth reading, because it offers some perspective on the lack of evidence behind much of the accusatory mentality to many of the Republican presidential hopefuls.  In particular, Samuelson notes, inflation has been at its lowest annual rate under Bernanke of any Federal Reserve Chairman of the past 40 years, and he has regularly disclosed the minutes of all the Federal Reserve’s meetings and regularly appeared for press conferences.

You could take everything Newt Gingrich says with a grain of salt, but somehow it still tastes foul.

Oh, right--Herman Cain is also running for President...

Herman Cain: Cain has modeled himself as a “tough-talking” candidate; he has some charisma and has definitely read-up and polished his pitch relative to where he started; the fact remains, however, that Cain is a crank.  The founder of Godfather’s Pizza was initially unable to transcend the same basic response that Representatives Paul and Bachmann have to a question–namely, the drunken uncle’s “Now, if I were President…”  A Conservative businessman wants to run for President on the Republican ticket; he will be haunted by the simple fact that he has no experience in government.  This is not a cosmetic issue; ideology aside, the Federal Government isn’t a business, as he doesn’t own it.  His bold pronouncements of fiats mean nothing.

That said, Cain has developed an enthusiasm for talking policy changes.  In stark contrast to Gingrich, he has real ideas.  Many of them probably aren’t practical, and he definitely comes off as idealistic about the capacity of businesses to set up programs to address their own problems, but he has real ideas and can be mapped on the ideological firmament relative to the other Republican presidential hopefuls on a number of issues.  Some of his proposals–which unsurprisingly are extremely business-centric–might find their way into the Republican policy arsenal.

Cain proposes replacing the Federal Government’s current graduated income tax, 15% capital gains tax 35% top corporate tax rate, and the 6.4% Social Security and 1.75% Medicare payroll taxes with a 9% income tax rate, a 9% corporate tax rate and a 9% sales tax rate.  Like many Republican policy proposals sold on the basis of their simplicity, this is a dreadful idea.  The considerable uncertainty about how economic growth would be impeded (and revenues thus reduced) by institution of a big sales tax aside, sales taxes are regressive: Because the working class and the poor by definition have to spend more of their income buying goods than the rich (who can travel or buy goods abroad as well as invest their greater income), Cain proposes a government that is essentially supported by a considerable imposition on the working class and the poor.  Of course, in eliminating capital gains taxes entirely, Cain proposes eliminating most of the tax burden among wealthy executives or investors whom are compensated primarily through corporate shares.  His naivete shines through.

Cain did have 1 proposal that I found interesting, in his 1st question response: While discussing his very simple (too simple, I imagine) reform of the tax code, he proposed designating badly-depressed cities (think Detroit, Cleveland, Newark) as “empowerment zones” and setting Federal tax rates even lower within those jurisdictions.  State governments already offer tax abatements to encourage development in chronically-depressed regions; these can be pretty effective.  This is a measure with a progressive purpose.

Cain attacked “Romneycare” after Gingrich refused to–a predictably-Conservative gesture–but he tellingly managed to do so with more grace than Gingrich’s pardon of Romney.  He pushed association health plans, one of the more market-oriented health care reforms George W. Bush promoted.  I have a feeling that the Republican candidate for President will make this a campaign centerpiece: modify regulations to encourage businesses within a given industry to set up insurance collectives to try to cover more of their employees.  That might work alright for most of the employees of certain industries, the way public employees tend to have relatively-extensive and inexpensive health insurance coverage; but such associations won’t address the notorious unreliability of private health insurance coverage, the catastrophic inflation caused by the large gaps in our country’s insurance coverage, or the basic immorality of our country’s current failure to insure 45 million Americans.

Interestingly, Cain criticized both Perry and Romney for waxing rhetorical in their respective discussions of Social Security rather than advancing their own plans to make it solvent.  What Cain proposed is the “Chilean model,” which is what President Bush proposed to do in spring 2005.  (That was the old bait-and-switch of talking up homeland security and a gay marriage ban during the 2004 election, followed by flattening the income tax and private accounts in Social Security.)  There are several versions of this plan around, that propose converting varying proportions of one’s Social Security check into money that is invested in the stock market.  This has the added curiosity of making it possible for Social Security to function as an actual ponzi scheme.  What would we have done if many senior citizens’ Social Security payroll taxes had been invested in Enron?  What would our political discourse look like right now if between 2005 and 2008 future Social Security recipients had been allowed to invest in the stock market?  The Republican critique of Social Security’s solvency issues (which is only projected to produce a shortfall in payments around 2037) are insignificant compared to what they almost did to the program by accident during the debate over creation of personal investment accounts in 2005.  We should hear-out candidates such as Governor Romney who sound serious about protecting the solvency of the program, but we should not forget that in 2005 Republicans proposed program changes that would have blown our Social Security funds in the 2008 Financial Crash, while only this year Congressional Republicans proposed replacing Medicare with Federal payments to our famously-unaccountable private health insurers.  One is hard-pressed to think of another set of issues where Republican policies seem primed to do so much harm to so many, or where Republicans can less-afford to lose credibility.

Mr. Cain again talked tough on immigration, essentially preferring a souped-up status quo to immigration reform.  There was a welcome nuance in his call for cleaning up the INS bureaucracy so that legal immigrants could become naturalized much more-quickly.  (The last time I recall a Presidential hopeful making that specific promise was Democratic Vermont Governor, then Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean in 2003.)  But insisting against any path-to-citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country, Cain instead chose to play to the Republican base on this issue.  Insisting that “the people closest to the problem are the best ones to be able to solve that problem,” Cain called for granting more power to the States to enforce Federal immigration policy.  Like I said, that amounts to a call for a souped-up status quo–more burdensome law enforcement changes in States like Arizona, more sanctuary cities in States that don’t impose harsh enforcement measures.

Senator Santorum speaks up for Liberal interventionism, arguing that we didn't move to aid Libya's anti-Gaddafi rebels fast-enough.

Rick Santorum: When asked how he squares his Catholicism, with its central emphasis on care for the poor, with his market-oriented Republican ideology, Santorum offered a passionate defense of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which he as the junior Senator from Pennsylvania passed along with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  He made his case with emotional intensity, but more-importantly it made sense.  He did an admirable job of squaring the circle, making a plausible argument that the Republican philosophy at its best is not about eliminating government programs providing targeted assistance for the poor, but about radically restructuring those programs so they can help the disadvantaged find a place in the market economy, “not to save money, but to save people’s lives.”  This is a little more practically-plausible with the conversion of Welfare into Welfare-to-work than it is with housing assistance and food stamps; it isn’t at all clear to me how Senator Santorum thinks the latter 2 could be used to induce people to work, aside from extortion.

In any case, with his triangulating talk of utilizing entitlements for the poor as a vehicle for preparing them for the working class, Santorum demonstrated that he isn’t a Tea Partier, a proponent of destroying Federal programs he doesn’t understand simply because he can’t find specific authorization for them in the Constitution.  He also demonstrated, in contrast to Newt Gingrich, that it is possible for a Republican presidential hopeful now to express himself as a child of 1990s politics without simply coming off as a reanimated corpse.

Senator Santorum attacked Perry’s executive order mandating vaccination for HPV after getting a separate question.  He said that rather than an opt-out, the vaccination program should have been opt-in.  The Liberal Ironist has long been fascinated by the observation that Senator Santorum is an instinctual Foucaultian: Everywhere he looks, he sees experts on the march, invoking their specialized scientific expertise as grounds for making value-judgments on policy.  This suspicion he has of field experts when they are allowed to recommend regulations is anti-authoritarian bordering on anarchic.  His social Conservatism thus has this weird asocial side that demands autonomy from the State, even if it is a very-Christian autonomy.  This forms an intriguing contrast to the fact that he isn’t a Tea Party small-government Conservative.

Santorum’s position on immigration in effect was the same as Gingrich’s.  (It’s interesting to see some of the weaker-polling hopefuls taking more-moderate and humane stands on illegal immigration than the Party frontrunners!)

Towards the end of the debate, Senator Santorum stood up for Liberal interventionism, invoking Ronald Reagan and decrying what he sees as tendencies towards isolationism in the new Republican Party.  This was touching and a little surprising, and Santorum really seems to embrace his Church’s call to good works on Earth when it comes to the use of force against evil.

There is plenty of evil to go around.  One reason isolationism remains a foreign policy school of thought–though perhaps that term lends it too much credence–is because it and not an ideology favoring interventionism can be implemented consistently.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has made his campaign about expertise, principle, and a spirit of national reconciliation. The polling puts him in dead-last among those invited to the debates.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah Governor and 3-time (!) US Ambassador (most-recently to China) spent a lot of time establishing his record and credentials.  They are truly impressive, and his intellect has drawn a lot of sympathy for Huntsman among Democrats; the fact remains that they will never have a chance to vote for him.  Huntsman’s sorry state in the polls–carrying 1% support among Republican and Conservative respondents in the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll–reminds me of a trivial but still under-appreciated truth: It is very hard to become President.  If you are a viable candidate in the opposition party and you smell blood in the water around the incumbent, all the other viable candidates (or at least those with political acuity) probably smell blood, too.  Trapped between the pragmatic and technocratic Romney and the Federalist and populist Perry, Huntsman may never get the time and space he needs to distinguish himself.  Of what consequence are all the qualities you have to offer when you’re invisible?

Consider Huntsman’s response to the question of signing pledges not to raise taxes: “I’d like to get everybody to sign a pledge to take no pledges!  I’ve a pledge to my wife, I pledge allegiance to my country…Beyond that, no pledges!  I think it diminishes the political discussion, I think it jeopardizes your ability to lead once you get there.”  He pointed out that when he ran for Governor of Utah in 2004, he refused to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.  He didn’t raise taxes and Utah maintained a strong economy throughout the Aughts, but his point was that he wasn’t going to let unaccountable single-issue activists dictate what measures he could take to handle his State’s finances.  He said a presidential candidate’s record is more-important than the pledges he or she has signed.  Heavens, what a breath of fresh air.  Anyway, the Liberal Ironist is discussing Huntsman last because he’s dead-last in current polling.  I don’t think this is so much because he strays from Republican orthodoxy (as he has merely reserved the right to do so) but because he has simply been squeezed-out of this field by early coalescence around better-known candidates.

From the Parts, Seeing the Whole

The various Republican Presidential candidates have definitely moved away from the un-reflective Obama-bashing (well, aside from Governor Perry) and provocative slurs that characterized the 1st debate in mid-June.  The discussion among Republican presidential hopefuls is resolving into increasingly coherent and meaningful debates over both philosophy and policy.  Having rejected George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” the Republican Party has come to be dominated by its Conservative wing.  Others have said we can look forward to a clear debate on general principles of government in the 2012 Presidential Election; what has eluded some is the increasingly interesting and articulate debate emerging within the Republican Party through its presidential hopefuls.  The primary debates afford us surprising diversity–if not in ideology, then in ideological accents, political background, and temperament.  Each of these men and 1 woman really do have somewhat-different ideas about what the Republican Party should be–Perry focusing on a populist localism, Romney on a technocratic business conservatism, Paul on Libertarian ideology, Bachmann on suburban white Evangelicalism, Santorum on something closer to George W. Bush’s Christian-influenced “Compassionate Conservatism,” and Huntsman on some combination of expert administration and Ronald Reagan’s “big-tent” approach to Conservatism.  In the end, the Liberal Ironist expects (and looks forward to) a serious ideological confrontation between Perry’s States-as-nations approach centering on power devolution, and Romney’s strong emphasis on economic policy and national reconciliation.  I do think it comes down to these 2 men (a dynamic that is typical of Republican presidential primaries), but indications of Perry’s defeat of Romney are premature.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the 3rd Republican Presidential Debate

  1. Kukri

    The inability of Amb. Huntsman – the most reasonbable, pragmatic, experienced, educated, traveled and likable candidate, a man who can even work across the aisle to get things done – to gain traction is already the most aggravating aspect of the GOP primary. I’m not surprised, just angry at the GOP.

  2. Pingback: The Tea Party Debate: Wrinkles in the Picture | The Liberal Ironist

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