08 September 2011

Palmetto Freedom Forum and MSNBC/Politico Debate

There have been two different events recently in the 2012 GOP race.  The first was the Palmetto Freedom Forum down in South Carolina, and the second was the big debate sponsored by MSNBC and Politico.

Palmetto Freedom Forum
This has been called "kissing the ring" of DeMint, and it very much was that.  Jim DeMint (R-SC) - one of the biggest avatars of the Tea Party - and his cronies worked up a very intelligent list of questions designed to force the candidates into making direct pledges in response, getting them on the record on those things.  The candidates were sequestered and presented individually, so that each one made their responses to the questions without hearing their opponents.  This was actually a very good way to do things, and revealed far more about the candidates than a traditional debate.

DeMint and the other host got the candidates on the record about the Constitution, tried to push them into the position that the 14th Amendment prohibits abortion, and tried to nail them down on conservative economic orthodoxy.  All of the candidates who attended (Bachmann, Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Cain) performed strongly, but particularly Gingrich and Romney.  The former displayed his incredible ease and familiarity with this sort of thing, and his breadth of knowledge allowed him to toss around enough ideas so that he could out-flank the outright demands of the hosts for agreement.  Ask Gingrich about why taxes are bad and you get a lecture on the principles of Lean Six Sigma as revealed in the Federalist.  Romney, on the other hand, succeeded once again by just not screwing up.  He was intelligent, articulate, and aggressively reasonable.

MSNBC/Politico Debate
This was the first event with Rick Perry in it, and so the focus was all there.  Most specifically, the focus is on his doubling-down on the "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" declaration first revealed in his book earlier this year.

Anyway, with Perry in the race, there's someone unafraid to take a swing at Romney.  They both knew this was coming, and they brought some zingers with them.  I won't go into the numbers, because they mostly just reveal the difficulty of attributing job growth to any executive.  The more important element was that as the actual races draw closer and with the injection of a strong new front-runner, the near-anointed Romney was able to demonstrate that he is serious and even-tempered.  He was able to display his moderation, which is important: his strategy has long been (and now has to be) that he is the electable Republican.

The debate was not run very well.  There were stuttering questions, technical problems, and a serious lack of transitions from one topic to another.  It wasn't helped by Gingrich's old trick of accusing the hosts of bias, as though he wasn't perfectly aware that the point of a debate is to highlight differences and not similarities.  Voters already know that all the GOP candidates oppose the Affordable Care Act - they want new information about why they oppose it and how their opposition variously squares with things like the existence of Romneycare or the like.

The big news will be Perry's attack on Social Security, as I said.  His book Fed Up! introduced that criticism, saying it was unsustainable (not even close to true, by the way).  He had the option to back off of that criticism when he first entered the race, and even here in the debate he had that opportunity to soften his rhetoric (Gingrich obviously and kindly set him up for a potential repudiation).  But Perry chose not to, instead going at it with both barrels.  This radicalizes him and makes Romney seem more moderate.

It's hard to declare a winner.  In some sense Perry won, just by performing sufficiently well.  If he had flubbed this in a major way, his chances would crash just as hard as they rose.  By doing okay, he's cemented this race into a two-man sprint.  But by revealing himself to be seriously radical in comparison to Romney, he's also made Romney seem far more electable.  This perception was increased by his attacks on climate science and biology - positions also held by Romney (this week, anyway) but which look particularly bad with Perry's chicken-fried contempt.  So this debate was probably a win for both of them in different ways, and it relegated the rest of the candidates "to the bleachers," as Rachel Maddow put it.

No comments:

Post a Comment