Republican Debate: Final Analysis

Yesterday afternoon, the GOP field of candidates squared off to debate primarily economic issues in Michigan in what would largely be a considerably drab event that saw few fireworks, plenty of Clinton bashing (both Hillary and her husband), and in the case of one rising superstar, a kind of sleep medecine that can be administered through your television set.

But before we get into the final analysis of yesterday’s debate, I hope you’ll check out the liveblog records from yesterday afternoon.

As I’m admittedly not an economy wonk, I would have expected last night’s affair to have reached over my head, but luckily for me, the repitition and simplicity of the general Republican message was such that even I could make sense out of it.  A complete and total layperson who had never been exposed to politics before last night would have learned pretty much what most of us have known all along.  Republicans repeat the phrases, “lower taxes”, “free trade”, and “cut spending”, an awful lot.

It was for perhaps this reason that there was not much in the way of confrontation last night as most of the “battles” were really little more than one candidate expounding on the rest of the field’s ideas.  The most heated exchange came between Governor Mitt Romney and Mayor Rudy Giuliani over, of all things, the line item veto.

Which is too bad for both candidates who managed to score points on the argument; the line item veto is not one of those singularly emotional issues that really rally the troops, thusly dooming that particular exchange to be forgotten within days.

Meanwhile, two stories that had buzzed about the debate going in were playing out… or not really playing out at all.  The first was the controversy surrounding Chris Matthews.  Days before, Chris sent the rightwing media ablaze when he referred to the now revealed criminality of the Bush Administration.  How, the right contended, could Republicans expect to get a fair shake if someone as biased as Matthews was moderating?

The answer to that, as the debate would prove, relatively simple.  Let Maria Bartiromo do most of the work.  While Chris did have a barely notable exchange with Fred Thompson about the Prime Minister of Canada which was awkward all around, it was Maria who seemed to lead the moderation, and did a particularly apt job, prodding the candidates to answer the question when they attempted to dodge, and keeping the audience in check when they got too rowdy.

The other big news was of course Fred Thompson.  Among the punditry, Fred had won the game of low expectations going in with his nearly narcoleptic stump performances, leading to somewhat of a mixed bag of opinion.  “Captain” Ed gushed, while Kathryn Jean Lopez gave him the win for not dying on stage.  Likewise, Susan Davis thought he looked comfortable on stage while the Politico’s Roger Simon saw the opposite.

What each analysis seems to have done, however, was fall into the game of low expectations without taking an important point into account.  While for those of us who are watching the campaigns this early very closely, for many people watching this nationally televised debate, this would be their first glimpse of Thompson as a candidate amongst his peers. For these potential primary voters, they have not been exposed to Fred’s comatose stump speeches, and haven’t had the need for mainlining caffeine following a campaign stop.

For these folks, Fred Thompson the candidate had to compete with Fred Thompson the Law & Order personality.  To this degree, Fred failed, and horribly.  As I repeated a couple of times during my real time analysis, Fred gave the impression that he entered the debates with a handful of talking points and a couple of jokes, and tried to make the best of it he could.  Beyond that his answered typically meandered off the map, and while the rest of the candidates showed fire and passion, Fred Thompson seemed to struggle just to stay awake.

One could make the mistake that he’s just old, but by contrast, the also rather old John McCain was full of vim and vigor.  In fact, it is worth noting that John McCain turned in a rather decent performance, and you would not know that his campaign is struggling from his showing last night.  He seemed particularly comfortable on stage and delivered some spot on answers.

Of the lesser candidates, they all turned in surprisingly decent performances.  Sam Brownback who has thus far failed to make an impression at any of the debates seemed to tone the anger down a notch and came out looking the better for it.  Most of the stuff that he says may be completely nutso, but it plays wellwith the base, and the more reserved, more tempered persona suits him better.

Duncan Hunter, who has enjoyed the spot of being the most obscure candidate since Governor Gilmore quietly left the race, also looked half way decent and slung around statistics left and right.  It won’t do him any favors and he is still doomed to abandon his presidential aspirations, but he did look good last night.

Turning in perhaps the worst performance, nudging Fred out of the worst spot, was Tom Tancredo.  Not only did he actually try to bust a mom joke in the middle of a presidential debate, he STILL managed to inject illegal immigration into virtually every single question, even those that had no logical ties to illegal immigration.  I have little patience with single issue voters, but single issue candidates are a complete waste of time.  Tom Tancredo offers nothing to this field but comedic relief, and given the fact that after a slew of debates he still stumbles over himself to get an answer out, he’s not even that funny.

Of course, I liked Ron Paul’s performance, but this because, to paraphrase my colleague Matt, he’s the sanest sounding one of the bunch, which is itself very scary.  The most notable moment from him was when the topic of conversation came to Iran.  While the rest of the field hemmed and hawed over whether the president had the right to conduct military action in Iran without congressional approval, most adopting the opinion that you seek congress’s approval if you have time, and even that can be waved if congress doesn’t agree with you, it was Ron Paul who stepped in to beat everyone about the head neck and shoulders with the constitution.

But of the lower tiered candidates, Mike Huckabee is the current candidate to watch, and he again turned in a solid performance that has become characteristic of his campaign.  Affable and charming, Huckabee knows how to play to the base and does it well, but there was one question in particular that I think will be chalked up to a flub on his part.  When asked if he would veto the SCHIP bill as did George Bush, Huckabee fumbled, delivering a bumbling answer on politics and how the entire issue shouldn’t have been allowed to get to that point.  Even when pressed, it was not clear exactly where he stood on SCHIP and given that this is likely to become a much more significant part of the American debate as we get ready for an override battle, that’s definitely one fight you want to make sure you’re on a side for.

Which leaves us with Rudy and Romney.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with Rudy, though I will admit I never am.  One thing that I think is funny in a pot calling the kettle black, however, was the amount of Hillary bashing coming from his part of the stage.  Rudy took the fight to Clinton early, and often, and without even realizing it, he was employing her own political tactics.

From the first Democratic debate on, Hillary Clinton has dodged most policy questions directed at her and acted as a representative of the field, and went on the attack against George Bush and the Republican Party, turning the debates into her own personal ad spots.  Such a tactic has been lauded by some as brilliant as it allows her to avoid scrutiny of her own platform, while at the same time reinforcing the idea that she is the front runner and she is the one who will end up representing her party in the general election.

Last night, Rudy did the exact same thing.  But though he was cribbing directly off of the Hillary Clinton campaign play book, it was Hillary Clinton who ended up being the target for his attacks.  That’s class.

But despite attempting to play Hillary Clinton’s inevitable style of politics, it was Mitt Romney who in my opinion came out looking like the clear winner.  Romney’s business street creds were in full display last night, and he was given plenty of opportunities to show that when it came to issues on the economy, he’s in his element.  I kept waiting for the man to pull out flow charts a la Ross Perot as he deftly fielded questions about the country’s financial status.

It was clear he was in the zone, and the confidence he had in addressing the economy definitely spilled over to those portions of the debate diverged from the theme of the day.  In the end, he came out looking strong, and presidential, reinforcing the opinion I’ve long held that in a General Election, perhaps it is Mitt Romney, and not Rudy Giuliani, who is the GOP candidate to be most feared.

All in all, it was a largely boring event, and I wouldn’t expect to see much movement in the polls.  If there is, the movement would most likely be for or against Fred now that the constituency has had a chance to see him in action, or, as it may be, in inaction.  If this was a general election debate, Iwould expect him to take a hit in the polls, but I have never pretended to understand the mind of a Republican voter, and after all, this is the party that nominated George W. Bush.  Still, I can’t imagine that many people being too terribly impressed with his performance last night. Definitely not enough to make Rudy sweat his frontrunner status begin passed off to the former Law & Order star.

3 Responses to “Republican Debate: Final Analysis”

  1. lester says:

    “Not only did he actually try to bust a mom joke ”

    I forgot about that. that WAS awkward.

    Brownback had another good moment. They asked if he would support the repubican nominee even if he was pro choice. Brownback insisted he WOULD be pro life and said he would be supporting him. that’s the good kind of stubborness

  2. Brownback also had a very bad moment: when he bragged that not only does the USA have 20% of the world’s wealth to go along with 5% of the world’s population, but that he was proud of the fact that we also have 1/3 of the world’s military spending.
    This is a good thing, how? If our military spending is that far in excess of both our population and our wealth, it implies one of three things:
    1. We need to spend that much, which means we’re not doing a particularly good job making the world safer for democracy; or
    2. We are spending WAY more than we need to make the world safer for democracy; or
    3. Both.
    Admittedly, this line probably played well with the base, but it pretty much proves the complete abandonment of actual economics by the Republican Party.

    BTW, I have two analyses of the debate up at PE that are pretty lighthearted (and brutal to all 9 of the candidates).

  3. lester says:

    That is one aspect of Ronald reagans presidency I have never understood, his massive military spending. I blame the neo cons at Scoop Jacksons office, who post 67 war made it a point to boost the US’s military spending and aid to israel. to disasterous effect. and what is essentially a very very liberal bearocratic statist approach to military spending.

    I called Dennis Pragers radio show yesterday and dressed him down on this very subject. Man do I hate that guy

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