Since the field of Republican candidates seemingly spent the entire month of September participating in high-profile debates, one would think these exercises would eventually become monotonous and lose their luster. Proving how high the stakes are, and how intense the opposition to our current president is, the exact opposite has been the case.
Instead what has transpired is that Republican excitement has counter-acted the law of diminishing returns. This has been proven by both the dramatic surges and plunges of the candidates following the debates and in the number of people watching them (over 12 million watched the last Fox debate).
That being said, in terms of structure and presentation this debate was a shell of all those held prior. The format of the candidates all sitting around a table and speaking almost exclusively about the economy had promise, in theory, but proved not to be executed well.
The two hours were mostly filled by switching quickly from candidate to candidate and topic to topic so fast that little depth was achieved and distinctions between the field on specifics were never fully fleshed out. By and large it created a scattershot feel and no real memorable moments. One thing however that I will always remember after this is that it is clearly time for the debate moderator, and PBS mainstay, Charlie Rose to be put out to pasture.
Here is how we assess each candidates performance and how they helped or hurt thier cause on this night.
Mitt Romney (John)
Mitt Romney continued his string of strong debate performances. He was clearly comfortable and confident. He looked and sounded presidential. The focus of the debate was on the economy, which is his strength. He will most likely improve his standing in the poll. Tactically, he did an excellent job of focusing his negative comments on President Obamaâ€™s weaknesses, which is the right tactic for a front runner. He responded to the questions, although sometimes reframing the question to his liking. On substance, he stayed at a pretty general level: leadership, experience, standing on principle. He generally demonstrated a strong grasp of the subjects discussed.
Best moment: â€œI wonâ€™t have to ask Timothy Geithner how the economy worksâ€.
Herman Cain (John)
Herman Cain had a strong evening. He has a calm, wise, reassuring demeanor. His deep experience as a corporate leader provides a solid substitute for his lack of political leadership. He is strong on economic issues. His 9-9-9 plan has captured more attention than any other proposal by any candidate. Tactically, he focused his challenges to Mr. Romney, which is exactly the right thing to do. He responded to the questions effectively. On substance, he remained very focused on his tax proposal, which was in part driven by the lower tier candidates attacks on it.
Best moment: In response about the Bloomberg analysts claim that 9-9-9 would not raise as much revenue as he says and that poor people would pay more for food and medicine; â€œThe problem with that analysis is that it is wrong!â€. Then he backed up his rebuttal concisely and effectively.
Newt Gingrich (Justin)
Though he fared well this performance was a tale of two halves for Newt.
He started out red-hot forcefully answering questions, demanding that Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner be fired, and often interjecting himself into the conversation. Whether this was done intentionally to counter-act the unfair stereotype of him being apathetic I do not know, what I do know was that it was working.
He called for the release of all decision documents of the Federal Reserve between the years 2008-2010, and rightly pointed out that all the spending cuts written into the debt ceiling compromise could all be undone by votes in Congress. In addition he was strong on Medicare and fearlessly reaffirmed his position, backing the â€œcontroversialâ€ claim from Sarah Palin, that Obamacare would in essence create â€œdeath panelsâ€.
As strong and assertive as he was in the initial segments, the second half saw him tone it down a few notches and blend back in with the rest of the field. He no doubt had a good showing but considering how well he started off, and how well the format suited his strengths, one couldnâ€™t help but feel he returned to the locker room having left some points on the field of play.
One observation that I found to be stunning was that Newt went the entire two hours without once mentioning his newly unveiled â€œ21st Century Contract with Americaâ€. Having just rolled out the document that will serve as the blueprint for his candidacy one would think he would have pointed to it or mentioned it in at least half the answers. I felt this was a huge tactical error and a missed opportunity to at least direct some people to his website to take a closer look at his platform.
As I have made known before I think that Newt is in this for the long haul, he will get stronger support as the months pass, and is easily one of the top three candidates Republicans have in this race.
His status as winner on this night is based on his aggressive and energetic first half as well as the fact that few others stood out. In short, my view is that this was a good performance â€¦but one that could have been great.
Rick Santorum (John)
Rick Santorum did not have many opportunities. As in earlier debates, he took full advantage of his limited time to demonstrate his knowledge of the issues and relevance to mainstream America. Tactically, he targeted Herman Cain with challenges, which seems exactly right given his appeal to voters who are more conservative. He did not get many questions, but he did respond competently and occasionally used the opportunity to expand on his other priorities. On substance, his focus on restoring blue collar jobs by eliminating corporate taxes on manufacturers has broad-based appeal.
Best moment: In response to the moderatorâ€™s observation that the U.S. has a higher % of families living in poverty than at any prior time while the top 1% have seen their incomes grow by 300%, he said â€œThe breakdown of the American Family is the reason for the disparity in income. 5% of 2 parent families in poverty, 30% of 1 parent families.â€ He was exactly right. The crowd acknowledged this powerful comment.
Michelle Bachmann (John)
Michele Bachman came across as competent, passionate and graceful. As her poll numbers have dropped over the past 6 weeks, her debate opportunities have diminished. She did not take full advantage of her limited opportunities. She has a habit of skirting the questions and substituting lines from her stump speech. Tactically, she attacked Perry, which might have been wise a month ago, but not any longer. On substance, she continues to beat the repeal drum (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, etc.) but has not offered much insight to her ideas on healthcare and financial reform.
Best moment: In comments about Obamacare, I am paraphrasing â€œHe (President Obama) plans in 10 years for Mediare to collapse and everyone will fall into Obamacare, where 15 political appointees will make life and death health decisions for all Americansâ€. She is right
Rick Perry (Justin)
So I feel free to speak bluntly afterword, let me just get this out of the way right from the top. Like millions of other red-blooded Conservatives, when Rick Perry entered this race I was ready to instantly embrace and fully support him. Unfortunately, and again like millions of Conservatives, I am unable to do either.
Simply put this performance will likely prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Mr. Perry. What he needed to do and what he did do were not even in the same hemi-sphere. Perhaps he suffered from getting too much hype preceding his entrance, but the fact remains that he is a poor candidate by any measure. Itâ€™s hard to imagine an honest analysis concluding anything other than that he is a vastly inferior candidate to a Rick Santorum or a Tim Pawlenty, let alone Mitt Romney.
Relative to his poll numbers he did not get a lot of air time, which considering his performance was probably a good thing. He started the night off by talking about domestic energy production and pretty much continued talking about it, regardless of the subject at hand, for the eveningâ€™s duration. The most awkward example of this was when he interjected himself into a discussion on China manipulating their currency to say that this topic wouldnâ€™t matter so much if we started drilling for oil and gas…strange.
Perhaps the most inexplicable thing of all was him announcing that over the next three days he will be rolling out his economic plan, though he had nothing of significance to say about it when repeatedly askedâ€¦ not even a few bullet points. So, in summary, he was desperate for a good showing, was in a debate specifically about the economy on the National stage, has an economic planâ€” and chose not to talk about it. Unbelievable.
At this point it appears his confidence in these settings is so damaged that he is unable to even tread water let alone diminish Mitt Romney. He was given chance after chance, including being able to ask Romney a direct question, but to no avail.
The reason there is not really any substantive analysis on his performance is that he really didnâ€™t say anything of substance the entire night. Even when responding to typical campaign questions his answers are vague, standard-fare, and far from memorable.
I have heard many confounded Texas politicos say that the Rick Perry they know is not the man that keeps appearing on these debate stages. I donâ€™t know about that one way or the other but what I do know is that this guy will not sniff the nomination.
Jon Huntsman (Justin)
In most other years Jon Huntsman strikes me as a man who would easily be in the upper tierâ€”this is not one of those years. His showing was similar to most of his other ones, that is to say solid and steady but far short of impactful.
The problem he seems to have is an inability to aggressively attack and call out President Obama the way some of the more fire-brandish candidates on stage are able to do. Whether this is due to him previously working for the president I am unsure, but in this cycle coming off as less aggressive than Bachmann, Santorum, Newt, and even Romney is not a good place to be.
While he was mostly solid I found his response on China manipulating their currency, an area where he has expertise, to be strangely inadequate. His apparent belief is that we should be able to get a large group of elected officials together (on the Chinese side I use the word â€œelectedâ€ loosely) and essentially â€œtalk it outâ€. This issue cropping up right now should be the perfect opportunity for him to communicate a solution and a path forward on an issue he is intensely familiar with. Instead he sounded more like Obama from 2008, who tried to replace true foreign policy positions with statements like â€˜I will sit down without pre-conditions and talk things out with Iranâ€™.
I think Huntsman was counting on getting more traction out of his record as governor of Utah but apparently people are not buying it. You could put me in this group as I am basically unresponsive to the suggestion that someone should be president because Utah had a 2.4% unemployment rate or that Texas has added a million jobs in the last 10 years.
It strikes me, and apparently others, that making these parallels would be akin to me running for police commissioner of New York City by saying ‘you should just look at my long record of controlling crime in Beverly Hills’.
He is classified as a loser on this list primarily because he is running out of time to make an impactâ€”and he certainly did not make one on this night.
Ron Paul (Justin)
A few months back it appeared that Ron Paul may have been able to turn this presidential bid into something more significant than his 2008 fringe run. As the campaign has worn on, however, that promise seems to be all but gone.
While a broader portion of the Republican electorate may indeed be in the mood for a candidate that is unpolished and nontraditional, they are going to need more than this. The only thing that Mr. Paul was able to communicate was something that all Republicans know by nowâ€”he hates the Federal Reserve and he wants them to be audited and then promptly abolished. Ok we get it, but this race is way too competitive to waste a two hour debate essentially saying little besides this.
He took consistent aim at former Fed board member Herman Cain, at one point calling him a â€œtrue insiderâ€, and had a few quasi-kind words to say about Paul Volcker. The limited time he did receive was spent talking about the recklessness of creating economic bubbles through government intervention in the private sector.
The frustrating thing about this, and his campaign in general, is that there are many more benefits to Libertarianism than he is able to effectively communicate to the American people. Having heard him speak numerous times and explain his positions quite well, I think it is as simple as the short 30 second format of debate responses not suiting his style. His positions are ones that need to be explained in a fundamental and succinct way and he often fails to make the best case possible in the short time required.
The conclusion that I have come to is that the Libertarian ideology needs a more dynamic personality and a more nimble-footed torch bearer (for example I contend that his son would be polling at double the number Ron is). The day this occurs I believe that this strain of Conservatism will have an even bigger impact on the National dialogueâ€”until that day its effect will be much smaller than it has the potential to be.
His failure to develop a complete platform and convincingly communicate his unique message at this late stage in the race finally causes me to drop him from a maintainer and place him for the first time in losing categoryâ€¦I can already hear the brutal e-mail response coming in.