11 December 2011

Deciphering the Des Moines GOP Presidential Debate

L. Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), C. Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), R. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA)

It was Saturday night, hence another debate for Republican Presidential hopefuls. This time it was held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.  While ABC did not cut away from their debate coverage unlike CBS to broadcast NCIS, the Mickey Mouse network was hardly more commendable.

Firstly, the ABC debate was moderated by Diane Sawyer and World News substitute anchor George Stephanopolis.  The choice of Stephanopolis was egregious as he was a political advisor to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and the Clinton Administration’s first Director of Communications.  Talk about non-partisan.  Maybe the next Lamestream Media debate can be moderated by the Obama Administration’s current Press Secretary Jay Carney.

The many of the moderators’ questions sounded as if they were lifted directly from the DNC’s talking points for ad hominem attacks on Republican candidates.  Surveying the GOP field about the importance of fidelity seemed targeted at former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th), who was the only candidate married more than once and a personal past which he fully admits is messy.  Although Governor  Mitt Romney’s (R-MA) paid media has alluded to his family, it makes a subtle contrast not a key cudgel. The camera cutaways to the candidate’s spouses and spotlighting other’s answers with Gingrich was cheap politics.

The other objectionable invective inquiry was the softly phrased: “Cite a time in your life when you personally struggled.”  Hmm, might this Lamestream Media question both furthered the Obama campaign’s class warfare meme as well as singling out the well-to-do Mr. Romney?

ABC was obviously trying to stir up a hornets nest for better television and using personal political shortcomings of specific frontrunners to make the case against them.  Was infidelity or richy rich ever asked to former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) about fidelity, who was in flagrento delecto with a campaign videographer when his wife was dying of cancer.  Or how about hounding former Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) about her cheating spouse?  The Lamestream Media never lingered about the fortunes that Senator John Kerry (D-MA) twice married into, nor did it highlight that Edwards house had acreage in both Americas based on winning a class action lawsuit, or the fortune that the Clintons amassed after President Clinton exited the White House.

Ironically, ABC did not need to be so obvious in stirring up class warfare sentiments, as it unintentionally came out during the free wheeling exchanges between candidates.  Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) and Gov. Romney were engaged in a tête-à-tête dispute over individual  health mandates.  To prove his point that he never supported a nationwide individual mandate, Romney proposed a $10,000 bet that such language was never in his book.

Of course, this exchange was going to be one of those debate memorable moments.  ABC trumpeted it as showing that a wealthy guy like Romney is out of touch with the rest of us as he can casually make a $10K bet.  This was not the message that Romney wanted viewers to take away, the problem may have been that his testy rhetorical flourish was not big enough.  Had Romney blurted out “I’ll bet you a billion dollars”, it might have been taken as a figure of speech. Or it could be mistaken as a Porkulous line item.

Much of the attention of the debate was focused on front runner Newt Gingrich.  Much of the Gingrich candidacy has been based on the Speaker’s prowess during debates and focusing fire at the media and President Obama Although Gingrich mostly acquitted himself well, especially with his well rehearsed answer about infidelity, the Speaker changed up his debate formula .  Instead of railing against the media and the Administration, Gingrich made more cutting contrasts with his primary opponents.  Newt tried zinging Romney on not being a career politician since he lost his Senate race against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in 1994. Gingrich’s quip did not go unanswered as Romney countered that his 1994 defeat was the best thing that happened to him as it gave him more of a career in the private sector.  It figuratively mussed up Romney’s coif and showed that Newt would not just play beanbags with his GOP competition for the nomination.

A weakness of Gingrich’s portfolio that was exploited was the perception that Newt lobbied for Freddie Mac just before the government incorporated enterprise had its spectacular crisis. Claiming that he was not a Freddie Mac spokesman or doing (direct) lobbying may not be a satisfactory answer for Tea Party types. And the transcript of the debate indicates that Gingrich was audibly flustered by answering Bachmann’s litany of charges that he was not a proven conservatives, so then Gingrich bragged about writing 24 books and 13 New York Times bestsellers.

While it is likely that much hay will be made over Romney’s $10K bet flub, there was a more revealing moment in the exchange between Gingrich and Romney about voicing support for Israel.  Gingrich was defending his earlier statements about Palestinians being an “invented people” a made up nation. Romney inferred that Gingrich was a rhetorical bomb thrower while Romney was a sober statesman. But Gingrich defended himself by identifying himself as a “historian who has looked upon the world stage for a long time.”

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That’s the quandry.  By bolding speaking what the Speaker believes is the truth, it has real  effects internationally if you are in line to be leader of the Free World. Then again, earlier this week Gingrich proposed having former UN Ambassador John Bolton as his Secretary of State, who can never be mistaken as a shrinking violet at either Turtle Bay or Foggy Bottom.

Initially, Rep. Michele Bachmann promised to have a strong debate performance.  Her portmanteau of Newt/Romney could have been a jibe against the perceived front runners or it may have just been a malapropism. But her pandering to Herman Cain supporters, along with her automatic invocation of her Iowa roots were transparent.  Moreover, Bachmann’s pitch is that she fights against Obama policies.  Alas, that’s tauting a losing record.

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) had a couple of nice moments in the debate where he could naturally pitch his Family Values approach. Santorum’s claim to being a consistent conservative may not have brought down the house, but it is a memorable contrast which could resonate amongst Hawkeye Caucus goes in just over three weeks. Gingrich is leading in the polls but is thought by experienced political observers to be light on Iowa organization.  On the other hand, Santorum is a blip in the polls, but he practically has moved to midwest until the close of the Caucuses and has been adept at organizing.  If some caucus goers get skiddish about Gingrich and reject Romney, Santorum could place high enough to continue his quest.

Gov. Perry had a good debate performance where he did not run out of steam like before.  His attacks on Romneycare opened up the door to Tenth Amendment challenges as well as hypocrisy over Perry’s Executive Order mandating that 12 year old girls in Texas get HPV vaccinations. Hammering at Gingrich about infidelity belying lack of trust in public matters wooed evangelicals. But Perry also made a play for Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX14th) libertarians regarding skepticism of the Federal Reserve.  It was somewhat worrisome when Perry has three things he wants to mention, but there were no oops moments.  Perry did not hurt himself during the debate but whether he can move up in actual caucus standings by spending much most of his $17 million identifying with evangelical voters remains to be seen.

Former Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) had his best debate performance yet. There were no quirky jokes, flamboyant ties or whining to get more time or better stage placement because he was not there.  Perhaps Huntsman can improve his standing with a one on one Lincoln Douglas debate with Gingrich on Tuesday.

The free wheeling exchanges among candidates and pointed questions contrasting their records did make it entertaining, even for non political viewers.  I believe that the Des Moines debate will inform but not solidify perceptions amongst primary participants.  The Fox News debate on Thursday might be the last chance for the public to decode their favored candidate’s message before Hawkeye Republicans go to their caucuses on January 3rd, 2012.

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