Republicans Clash At The (Thankfully) Final Debate Of 2011
The final candidate clash of 2011 didn't lead to the sparring that some expected.
The best thing about last night’s Republican debate in Sioux City, Iowa is that we won’t see the likes of it for the rest of the year. In fact, the next debate won’t be held until Saturday, January 7th when ABC News co-hosts a debate with New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV (the bad news is that here will be another debate less than 12 hours later broadcast on Meet The Press). We’ve had 19 of this encounters like this since May, beginning with a Fox News debate that I referred to as the Clash Of The Pygmies because it only included the candidates best described at the time, and even now, as the also-rans. There have been plenty of memorable moments over the past seven months, from Tim Pawlenty shrinking away from taking on Mitt Romney over health care, to Rick Perry’s meltdowns in September and November, to Herman Cain apparently deciding 9-9-9 was the answer to every question asked of him. Some of these debates have been more interesting and informative than others, a few of them brought to the fore significant differences between the candidates, and a couple of them just haven’t really stood out at all.
Last night’s debate didn’t have any gotcha moments, none of the candidates made any major mistakes, and the two frontrunners mostly played it safe and didn’t say or do anything likely to trip up their campaign over the next two and half weeks. Had it been held in the middle of September, it likely would have been considered unremarkable. However, since this is the last time we, or the voters in Iowa, will see these candidates together before January 3rd, it’s likely to have more importance than it probably should. If the debate is remembered for anything, though, it will be remembered for the fact that Newt Gingrich an Mitt Romney managed to take hold their own fire while taking it from pretty much everyone else on the stage:
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney found themselves on the defensive in the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses, with Gingrich challenged on whether he can defeat President Obama and Romney questioned about his consistency on social issues.
The questions highlighted the choice GOP voters will face as they start the process of selecting a presidential nominee in January: whether Romney can be trusted to lead a party that has become more conservative in recent years versus whether Gingrich has the discipline and consistency to carry the Republican banner.
Addressing doubts about his electability, Gingrich said that if the same question had been asked about Ronald Reagan in 1980, he never would have won the nomination. He cited his record in helping to enact welfare reform and balanced budgets as speaker.
“I think it’s fair to say that my commitment to disciplined, systematic work is fairly obvious,” he said. “You know, people just have to decide. . . . I strive for very large changes, and I’m prepared to really try to lead the American people to get this country back on the right track.”
Romney tried to fight back against questions about changes in position that dogged him in his 2008 campaign and remain an issue in the minds of many Republican voters. He acknowledged changing positions on abortion but said that on gay rights he has remained consistent in supporting tolerance but opposing same-sex marriage.
“I’ve learned over time, like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and others, my experience in life over 17, 18, 19 years has told me that sometimes I was wrong,” he said. “Where I was wrong, I tried to correct myself.”
Gingrich came under repeated attack, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who needs a strong showing in Iowa, taking a very aggressive stance against him. She challenged the former House speaker over the $1.6 million he received as a consultant to Freddie Mac and on supporting Republican candidates who favored late-term abortions.
Twice he accused her of getting her facts wrong. “Sometimes Congresswoman doesn’t get her facts very accurate,” he said the second time. Bachmann, her voice dripping with indignation, shot back: “I think it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debates that I don’t have my facts right when, as a matter of fact, I do. I am a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate.”
Thursday’s debate came in a week in which the tone of the campaign has turned more negative, with most of the attacks aimed at Gingrich and at a point when personal campaigning and television commercials in Iowa are beginning to play a larger role. The caucuses are less than three weeks away, with New Hampshire’s primary coming a week after Iowa.
There was no clear winner Thursday night and no obvious loser. No one committed a major mistake, and some of the strongest performances were turned in by candidates in the lower tier of the competition, demonstrating both the urgency of attracting more support and the improvement of virtually everyone in the field over the course of so many debates.
The debate lacked the fireworks between Romney and Gingrich that marked last Saturday’s forum in Des Moines. Romney spent the week attacking Gingrich in media interviews but did not use the debate to follow up. He generally held back from direct encounters, preferring instead to emphasize his business background and to concentrate his criticism on the president.
Gingrich made an offhand reference to a comment by Romney, who on Wednesday called the former speaker “zany,” but generally tried to keep a positive tone.
But on the issue of electability, Romney tried to draw a contrast with his rival by highlighting his background, rather than attacking Gingrich’s. He said his private-sector experience made him a better candidate given the state of the economy and the contrast between his experience and the president’s.
“I can debate President Obama based upon that understanding. And I’ll have credibility on the economy when he doesn’t. . . . This president doesn’t know how the economy works. I believe to create jobs, it helps to have created jobs.”
But if Romney held his fire, the others did not.
Right off the bat, the attention was on the man at the center of the stage:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) electability against President Obama and authenticity as a conservative were in focus at the top of Thursday’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the last such skirmish before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses.
Debate moderators informed Gingrich that he had been placed at the center of the stage for the Fox News debate because he was now the accepted front-runner, but that there were major concerns about whether he would be viable against Obama.
Gingrich, who frequently touts his experience as a historian, recalled the 1980 presidential contest and said that had the GOP prioritized electability above all else, they wouldn’t have nominated Ronald Reagan to run against President Jimmy Carter.
“He’s the person I want to have debate Jimmy Carter,” Gingrich said. “I believe I can debate Barack Obama, and I think in seven 3-hour debates, Barack Obama will not have a leg to stand on.”
Gingrich was also asked about those who have publicly doubted he is really as conservative as he maintains. The former speaker cited his record during his reign over the House when, under President Bill Clinton, the budget was balanced and taxes were cut.
“Part of the difference is I do change things when conditions change. Part of the difference is I struggle for very large changes,” Gingrich said.
Of course, that part of Gingrich’s answer concentrates on what he did 20 years ago and ignores what he did after 1998. No worries, though, because there were plenty of other candidates on the stage to remind him of those years.
Perhaps the most aggressive in going after Gingrich was Michele Bachmann who repeatedly hit him on issues related to his post-Speakership career ranging from his role in “advising” Freddie Mac to his position on partial birth abortion. On more than one occasion, Gingrich was rather condescending and dismissive of Bachmann and asserted that she wasn’t telling the truth, but Bachmann managed to hold her own and hit back pretty effectively. Bachmann’s one major mistake came during one of her exchanges with Gingrich in which she claimed that Politifact had judged all the claims she had made about Gingrich in the previous debate as being true. Before the debate was even over, Politifact shot back with a post that gave her a “Pants On Fire” rating for that claim, and it’s pretty obvious that she was just making that one up. Bachmann is clearly a second-tier candidate at best, and likely to stay there, but she also has everything riding on the next two weeks and the outcome of the Iowa Caucuses, and she clearly knows it. I still don’t see her lasting very long past January 3rd simply because she doesn’t seem to have any support outside Iowa at this point, but she’s not going down without getting in a few punches at the frontrunner that may end up hurting him more than they help her.
Another candidate that came under fire last night was Ron Paul, who seems to have received more attention at this debate than he has at any of the previous ones. The most memorable exchange came when he was asked about this previous comments about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and his statements that he would not support military action to halt such a program:
Leaving aside the merits of Paul’s arguments, and I think he gets at least part of the Iran argument far more correct than any of the other candidates at this point, this exchange reveals one of the reasons why James Joyner was correct yesterday when he stated that Paul simply isn’t going to be the Republican nominee. To put it simply, there is very little support for Paul’s foreign policy views inside the GOP. While Paul’s economic and limited government messages resonate well with many Republicans and he has a solid and enthusiastic base of supporters, when it comes to foreign policy Ron Paul is completely out of sync with the Republican base. This is a especially true when it comes to an issue like Iran and nuclear weapons and, like it or not Paul supporters, a candidate who basically says we don’t really need to worry about Iran getting a nuclear weapon isn’t going to be received well, and probably isn’t looking at the issue with sufficient seriousness.
Of the three major candidates, the one that seemed to mostly dodge the fire this time around was Mitt Romney. He took a few hits on the old issues surrounding the Massachusetts health care law and his activities at Bain Capital, but none of the candidates went after him fairly aggressively, and not nearly as much as they went after Gingrich. This may end up benefiting Romney in the long run since it seemed, once again, like he was the cool, calm guy standing above the fray while all the other candidates fought amongst themselves. The Romney campaign, and its supporting SuperPAC, are buying a ton of air time in Iowa over the coming weeks apparently, so it will be interesting to see what impact all of this has on the race.
Rick Perry once again turned in a far better debate performance than we have seen from him in quite some time. He got off what was probably the line of the night with his assertion that he’s going to be the “Tim Tebow of Iowa,” the guy who puts in a great performance at the end of the game and pulls off a victory. While it does appear that some conservatives are giving Perry a second look, it seems unlikely at this point that he’s going to be able to do that good in Iowa. At this point, it appears that he and Michele Bachmann are battling for the last ticket out of Iowa (the other three will go to Gingrich, Paul, and Romney) and, while he seems better situated to move his campaign to other states, it just doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to see the kind of comeback from Rick Perry that he would need to become a contender again.
Rick Santorum was there too, but once again he just seemed to be the candidate that fades into the background. He repeated, for probably the 99th time, the fact that he’s the only candidate to have visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties at least once as if it’s something that actually matters. Perhaps it will, perhaps there’s a Santorum boomlet coming that every one is missing, but I don’t see it. Last night, the former Pennsylvania Senator was as bland and forgettable as he has been since this process started and, even if he somehow manages to do well enough in Iowa to be able to claim continued viability, I don’t see him being anything more than the bland candidate he’s been all year.
Jon Huntsman was there too, which is surprising only because he chose to skip last Saturday’s Iowa Debate and has not really concentrated any time, energy, or resources on the Hawkeye State. There wasn’t much of anything memorable about what he said last night, although he did get a couple good lines in about foreign policy. There are signs Huntsman may be rising a bit in New Hampshire, so I imagine he quickly got on a plane and flew back East, leaving Iowa and the caucuses behind him.
In the end, this debate was pretty drama free, which may just be how the candidates wanted it. When you’re going into the final debate of the year and looking to make your final impression on voters in a mass audience format, the first rule usually is to avoid making any mistakes. So, for the most part, these candidates played it safe, hit their messages, and took no risks. Whether it will have any impact on the race, where we started seeing Gingrich’s numbers falter as of yesterday, remains to be seen. However, we can at least be thankful that we’ve got a three week reprieve before we have to subject ourselves to one of these things again.