In all The Conservative Readerâ€™s previous debate reviews we have extended the courtesy of including an analysis and grade for all the candidates on stage. With now a mere 42 days until the Iowa Caucuses, the time for such courtesy has passed and the day has come to separate the candidates from the contenders.
The following is a recap of the performances of the candidates that are realistically contending to win Iowa. We made this distinction by including only those polling over 10% in the Hawkeye stateâ€”in other words Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain. They are listed below in order of how well each did from best to worst.
1st)â€”Newt Gingrich (Art)
Newt again demonstrated his ability to speak with eloquence, intelligence and candor. He has improved dramatically in the past few months in his presentation so that the professorial tone and vocabulary have largely given way to policy explanations that can be understood by us mere mortals. Moreso, Newt demonstrated that he gets where the majority of conservatives are heading, with one glaring exception…
Gingrich managed to surprise us last night with by saying that Americans are not not going to want to break up families and deport their neighbors and friends of 25 years or more becuase they are not here legally. He proposes that, without a path to citizenship, these folks should be provided a legal way of remaining residents here in the US. Naturally, his opponents on the dias were quick to call him on the carpet for promoting “amnesty”, a dirty word in conservative circles.
We can save my complete thoughts on this for another day, but bluntly I think Newt is right. It was definitely not the best time for him to say this from a political standpoint (we just got done dragging Perry through the mud on a related topic a month ago), but it certainly is a mark of Newt’s leadership and integrity that he would promote what he almost certainly knew would be a controversial position. I do think that Kathy Obradovich at the Des Moines Register put it well last night when she said “…itâ€™s not only the most humane but the most realistic.” 
On other topics related to national security, Newt held the hard line against terrorists and nations who support terrorists. He went toe-to-toe with Ron Paul at the very start  over the question of extending the investigative authority granted by the Patriot Act. Newt was very clear that civil rights in criminal matters were critical, but that the Patriot Act is focused on plans and acts of war being conducted by terrorists. When Paul referenced Timothy McVeigh as an example (in his mind) of where the system worked as designed, Gingrich established the key point by saying “Timothy McVeigh succeeded!” and then, “I don’t want a law that says, after we lose a major American city, we’re sure gonna come and find you. I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we’re going to stop you!”.
His comments on Pakistan after taking out bin Laden were also spot on. He said that our relationship with Pakistan should (as described by others) have sunk to a new low, because Americans should be furious that Pakistan was essentially protecting bin Laden. He said Pakistan needs to just get out of the way if they aren’t going to stop and kill terrorists. Similarly, the question was asked (a while after it was discussed with some other candidates) of Newt if he would attack Iran. He said he would only do it as a last resort and only if the goal was to completely take out the current regime.
Since the federal budget itself was laid out as a national security issue (I don’t embrace that, but there’s no question they impact each other), a question about entitlement reform was raised. Gingrich discussed his proposal to reform Social Security  to work like the Chilean model. This idea does not have broad support at this point, but at least demonstrates that the Speaker is looking for ideas that would help reduce the deficit.
2nd)â€”Mitt Romney (Justin)
Mittâ€™s performance in this debate was, in three specific areas, almost a carbon-copy of how he has run his campaign since the beginning. First, he was soft on the subjects he really didnâ€™t want to talk about and very firm on the ones he did. Second, he focused nearly all his criticisms toward President Obama and not on the rest of his fellow candidates. And third, he displayed he is and likely always will be a conventional and strictly in-the-box thinker.
He came out of the gate soft by implying, and not firmly answering, that he would fully extend the Patriot Act and that the roughly $112 billion we spend a year in Afghanistan is worth it . As the debate unfolded and spread to areas that he wanted to comment on his tone and answers gained strength. These areas included heavily criticizing the large impending cuts to the defense budget and remaining a staunch ally of Israelâ€”in which he and Michelle Bachmann were the most forceful.
On pulling our troops out of Afghanistan, he argued with Jon Huntsman that doing so before the date that the generals had set would be foolish, also saying that what victory looks like in the country was â€œclearâ€â€”leaving a situation behind in which the Taliban could not re-claim power.
One of the few eyebrow raising exchanges of the night came between him and Newt Gingrich on the subject of illegal immigration and the best way to deal with the millions already here. The two had a back-and-forth in which Romney maintained that any hint of amnesty was an undesirable magnet leading only to more border crossings while Newt took the position that, beyond being unrealistic, it was â€œinhumaneâ€ to tear longtime illegal residence from their communities and families. While this will no doubt generate headlines the issue was not discussed at a level deep enough to truly understand either ones position.
In what should not be a surprise considering we learned this week that only once, â€œas a wayward teenagerâ€, has he tasted a beer and tried a cigarette, Mittâ€™s strategy in dealing with Iran and Syria would be governed by caution and conventional wisdom. In the case of both countries he favors using sanctions and covert means to overthrow the regimesâ€”even though both methods have been failing for decades now.
On this night he showed precisely what he has been showing voters throughout the campaign. Namely that he would be a very capable, cautious, and probably successful presidentâ€¦while being relatively uninspiring in the process.
(3) Ron Paul (Art)
I have to say, I have always liked a lot of the ideas that Ron Paul has promoted. And I’ve also been frustrated with his isolationist approach to foreign policy and deadly embrace with his idea of “liberty”. Last night was no different, and frankly the Congressman almost certainly galvanized his base (solid libertarians) while alienating 80% or more of the party. What is unfortunate, is that while I personally advocate a number of policies that Paul also proposes (including the medicinal availability of Marijuana), his blind assertions about foreign policy and national security make him appear to be completely out of touch with reality. Those looking for fireworks in this debate found them all within the exhortations of Congressman Paul.
There’s no question that there have been mistakes made in every administration, and that understanding those who hate America is critical to both improving relationships across all cultures and protecting the interests of the United States. Paul seems to believe that he understands the Taliban… he says that they don’t want to kill us here on our own soil, they only want to kill us when we are invading their land. Now, that is a very respectable manner to put one’s self in another’s shoes. I think that is a valuable skill, especially when negotiating with others. But to gamble the safety of the people of our country by believing we have our enemy figured out and can let down our guard is not just naive, it is downright irresponsible.
But clearly Ron Paul is just frustrated (he looked visibly angry at times) because these things that should be so obvious to us, that we should “mind our own business” and “[Israel] can take care of themselves”. He comes across as almost condescending at times. He said: “I think we’re using too much carelessness in the use of words that we’re at war. I don’t remember voting on — on a declared — declaration of war.” The implication is that the only way to define war is when Congress declares it. Among many problems with that idea, is that you can only declare war on an existing nation… how do you do that with terrorists?
Dr. Paul’s comments eventually seemed to advocate that the United States should not ever see itself as more important, more powerful, more anything than any other country, and should let all of the other countries just do their own thing and “suffer the consequences”. Interestingly enough, Romney last night stated that President Obama believed that the US was “just another nation with a flag”, which actually sounded a lot like Paul’s perspective. This is not the perspective of most Americans.
Ron also tends to use poor logic. For example, when asked about whether he would aid Israel in an attack on Iran, his response was that he would not because it would never happen. Sure, okay, but that’s a bad answer to a hypothetical question. The purpose of the question is to see whether you support Israel, but the answer was pure political deflection. As was the continued rambling answer that finally got to Ron’s core foreign policy message of “let everyone else take care of themselves”. As a result, we have no idea of whether a Ron Paul administration would support Israel or not.
But he’s right when he says that the War on Drugs has failed. When asked if he thought drugs should be legalized, he only went as far as medicinal use being legal (I’ve promoted that here as well ), but then also said we should treat illegal drugs like alcohol, and then went on to vilify (rightfully) the evils of alcohol. For Ron, it’s unfortunate that the debate was focused on national security. It’s just not his strong suit when it comes to connecting with Americans… most of us just don’t want to consider any idea aside from killing the enemy and making sure we build strong relationships with our friends around the world.
Regardless of what I think about Ron’s opinions, he holds his own in a debate, he espouses a model for change that is consistent with his view of the world, is rabid in his reliance on the Constitution and has thought these things through. He has a committed following who are equally rabid in their defense of everything he says. In a world and government where excesses and the potential for lost liberty are becoming the norm, Ron Paul would be a strict guardian. Perhaps something can be said for pushing the opposite extreme far enough to get the middle ground to a better place than it is right now. But it’s unlikely that Paul will convince enough Republicans to support his view of the world.
(4 ) Herman Cain (Justin)
Since this debate dealt almost exclusively with foreign policy, and he recently said he was a â€œleaderâ€ and not a â€œreaderâ€, it should shock few that Mr. Cain did not flourish in this setting. Following a very rough start he was able to eventually steady himself and ease into a performance that could be best described as slightly below average.
The rough start referred to above was created by him being pushed on and attempting to answer the question of whether he supported profiling Muslims in airport security lines or not. He officially answered â€œnoâ€, but unofficially answered â€œyesâ€ by choosing to call the profiling â€œtargeted identificationsâ€. What unfolded during his attempted answer sounded like someone thrashing about in a pool of the English language and culminated with him twice calling Wolf Blitzer â€œBlitzâ€. This did not sound like an honest mistake or a nickname amongst friends, but instead sounded more like he truly did not know the moderators name.
As has become customary for Mr. Cain, on issues not related to 9-9-9 his answers were mostly insufficiently vague. A perfect example of this was his response to the question of whether he would support, and perhaps even assist, Israel should they decide to bomb Iranâ€™s nuclear plants. His first answer was, â€œIf Israel had a credible plan that appeared it would be successful then yes, if the plan was very strong than I would commit Americaâ€™s military to help.â€ When asked to clarify a minute later he added, however, that it was doubtful that Israelâ€™s plan would in fact be good enough to support due to the mountainous nature of Iranâ€™s topography. Besides being a strange doctrine, to my knowledge this claim that the mission would somehow be logistically too difficult is not supported by military experts.
While in its entirety his performance was not as bad as his first few answers suggested it could have become, what transpired for Mr. Cain likely will be far from helpful. My sense is that this showing will only further solidify the growing sentiment amongst Republicans that his days as a front runner will not be returned to, and that he simply is not presidential enough, nor prepared enough, to be our next Commander-in-Chief.