Two Hours of Humiliation
When the CNN-You Tube debate among Republican presidential candidates began with a guy named Chris Nandor playing a guitar and singing, my wife Barbara exclaimed, "This is humiliating. This is really bad." Of course she was right. And then things got worse. This debate not only was mortifying to the candidates. It also should have been embarrassing to the viewers, especially Republican voters who might have been watching.
I don't know if the folks who put the debate together were purposely trying to make the Republican candidates look bad, but they certainly succeeded. True, the candidates occasionally contributed. For the first few minutes, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney continued their debate over their records on immigration and did so with the kind of intensity that this trivial matter didn't warrant. These are two fine candidates who have only themselves to blame for looking petty.
But it was chiefly the questions and who asked them that made the debate so appalling. By my recollection, there were no questions on health care, the economy, trade, the S-chip children's health care issue, the "surge" in Iraq, the spending showdown between President Bush and Congress, terrorist surveillance, or the performance of the Democratic Congress.
Instead there were questions--ones moderator Anderson Cooper kept insisting had required a lot of time and effort by the questioners--on the Confederate flag, Mars, Giuliani's rooting for the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, whether Ron Paul might run as an independent for president, and the Bible. The best response to these questions was Romney's refusal to discuss what the Confederate flag represents. Fred Thompson discussed it.
The most excruciating episode occurred when Cooper allowed a retired general in the audience to drone on with special pleading in favor of allowing gays in the military. This was a setup. The general had asked a question by video, then suddenly appeared in the crowd and got the mike. The aim here could only have been to make the Republican candidates, all of whom oppose gays in the military, squirm. As it turned out, they didn't appear to. The general turns out to be a Clinton supporter, by the way.
By my count, of the 30-plus questions, there were 6 on immigration, 3 on guns, 2 on abortion, 2 on gays, and one on whether the candidates believe every word in the Bible. These are exactly the issues, in the view of liberals and many in the media, on which Republicans look particularly unattractive. And there were two questions by African Americans premised loosely on the notion that blacks get nothing from Republicans and have no reason to vote for them.
These questions would better be asked of Democrats at one of their presidential debates. After all, the biggest news so far at a Democratic debate was when Hillary Clinton muffed a question about illegal immigrants and drivers' licenses.
My impression was that Ron Paul, the libertarian, got considerably more attention than he usually does in debates and far more than he deserves as a marginal candidate. At least Paul's harping on the need to keep American troops at home prompted one good exchange. John McCain's response to Paul was that he'd been with the troops on Thanksgiving and their message was, "Let us win. Let us win. Let us win."
Nonetheless, it was a good night for Paul if only because he was treated as a major political figure rather than as the Republican version of Dennis Kucinich. The other candidates, with the exception of Mike Huckabee, were losers. They came off as a bunch of squabbling cousins.
Huckabee, though, knows how to conduct himself in TV debates. He's genial, funny, extremely likable, and not very substantive. He seems to understand that a CNN-You Tube debate is not a serious forum at which serious people discuss serious issues. So he doesn't get worked up, and this posture works.
At the end of the debate, I was left with one question. Why would Republican candidates with a chance of actually winning the presidential nomination subject themselves to two hours of humiliation? I wish the candidates had been asked that. It would have the highlight of the evening.
A Depressing Debate
What a depressing debate. CNN's long slide into mediocrity accelerates. Is this what running for president of the greatest democracy in the world has become? Standing in front of CNN's corporate logo in a hall full of yowling Ron Paul loons and enduring clumsy webcam questions from Unabomber look-a-likes in murky basements?
I feel lucky to be from an earlier century where your own founding fathers knew that the secret to government is to protect it from the daily mob. Clearly the boundless paranoia of middle-aged media executives about the kids and their mysterious "Internet" has led them to stoop to this kind of pandering foolishness. They should feel shame tonight.
So, a good night for for the lowest denominator, a bad night for the GOP. America got to see a vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet causes. My cheers went to a listless Fred Thompson who easily qualified himself to be president in my book by looking all night like he would cheerfully trade his left arm for an early exit off the stage to a waiting Scotch and good Cuban cigar. The media will probably award a win to Mike Huckabee, the easy listening music candidate at home in any crowd, fluent in simpleton speak and the one man on the stage tonight who led the audience to roaring cheers by boasting that he had a special qualification to be president that none of the second-raters on the stage could match: A degree in Bible Studies from Ouachita Baptist University of Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
A Five-Way Race--Now More Than Ever
Richelieu, being an aristocrat, indeed a French aristocrat, may scorn the "vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet causes" that we saw asking questions tonight, courtesy of CNN and YouTube. We Americans don't dare scorn our fellow citizens (at least not publicly). We recognize that parade as...the electorate.
In any case, what did we learn from how the five major Republican candidates dealt with the electorate tonight?
That there are five major candidates. Based on what we saw tonight, I don't expect the two front-runners, Romney and Giuliani, to pull away from the field. Either could of course win. But what was on display in this debate were Romney's and Giuliani's weaknesses more than their strengths. It's a fact that Giuliani is the most liberal of the major Republican candidates. One saw tonight how easy it's going to be to remind people of un-conservative aspects of Giuliani's record, in issues such as guns and immigration, over the coming weeks. It's a fact that Romney has the thinnest record of the major candidates, and a somewhat inconsistent record at that. One saw tonight how his rivals will be able to highlight this.
Both men are in many ways impressive--but tonight the other three performed better than the top two. McCain seemed by far the most plausible commander-in-chief. Thompson reminded people that he is a steady, consistent, and thoughtful conservative. Huckabee showed off his considerable candidate skills, including his sense of humor and his ability to seem sincere. Each has a decent chance to gain ground in the next few weeks (Thompson and Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire), at the expense of Romney and Giuliani, while those two engage in some heavy-duty mutual assured destruction. McCain, Thompson and Huckabee each has a chance--in my view, not that much less of a chance than Romney or Giuliani--to be the Republican nominee.
Rudy Giuliani is probably the strongest debater of the group, but he botched the question on gun control that was directed to him. The question asked why someone who supports the 2nd Amendment would say what Giuliani said in 2000: "Anyone wanting to own a gun should have to pass a written exam."
Giuliani gave a halting response, saying that gun laws must be enforced "aggressively," rattling off statistics about crime in New York City, and claiming to be a supporter of the 2nd Amendment. Huh? Stumbling over his words, he then cited "the Parker decision" without really explaining what the Parker decision was. It was a bad answer, chiefly because it came across as insincere. Giuliani is strongest when he simply speaks his mind. When he waffles, he often gets specific. He did this in one of the early debates when asked about abortion. He dove into the weeds by talking about the "Hyde Amendment," something known only to strong pro-life voters who were never going to support Giuliani anyway. This seems to be an emerging pattern. When Giuliani equivocates, he falls back on specifics he probably heard in debate prep. But he comes across as something of a poser, like the high school kid who tries to fit in by talking about baseball and complains about the ref. It's an old political cliche, but Rudy should just be Rudy.
Fred Thompson clearly sees Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee as his main competition. He chose to use his 30-second YouTube spot to show old footage of Romney supporting abortion rights and Huckabee backing tax hikes. It was incredibly effective, mostly because of the way Thompson handled himself afterwards. When the video was finished, Anderson Cooper asked: "What's up with that?" Thompson laughed heartily and said: "Just wanted to give my buddies a little extra airtime." Then everyone else laughed.
Romney--who was shown saying "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country"--responded with a cringe-inducing attempt at a joke. "I'm not sure who that young guy was in the beginning of that film," he said with a chuckle. Silence.
John McCain was strong on Iraq, as he always is, though he reached a bit by trying to engage Ron Paul on the issue. His answer on waterboarding will probably resonate with even those people who disagree with him.
--Stephen F. Hayes
The best performance wasn't turned in by one of the candidates. No, the Oscar goes to that Thompson ad. It doesn't introduce Thompson--he doesn't even speak. The ad features Mitt Romney when he was pro-abortion rights, and Mike Huckabee when (as governor of Arkansas) he was agreeable to increasing various taxes. The ad closes by pitching Thompson as the authentic conservative in the race. It's a well-done ad, and it indicates how Thompson believes he can pull off a top-three finish in Iowa: attack Romney and Huckabee (the two are atop the Iowa polls) where they have evident vulnerabilities; get them on the defensive; force them to explain themselves. Notably, the CNN moderator, Anderson Cooper, picked up at the end of the ad by going to Romney and Huckabee to get their responses.
Unfortunately for Thompson, Romney and Huckabee both turned in generally strong performances. Romney also went after Huckabee, observing during an exchange on immigration that talking with Huckabee was like talking to a liberal in Massachusetts (ouch!). Huckabee--engaging throughout--offered a thoughtful defense of the death penalty while fending off a silly question--what would Jesus do about the death penalty--with a touch of humor: "Jesus was too smart to run for public office."
The debate leaves some questions about the Republican race--whether Thompson is cranking it up too late to break through, whether Huckabee will ever be slowed by the suggestion that he is a liberal or that he is not a true conservative (it has not happened so far), and whether Romney, his bid for the nomination predicated on winning Iowa, will realize that goal--the efforts of Huckabee and now Thompson notwithstanding--on January 3.
Huckamania Still Running Wild
The hall hosting the first ever GOP YouTube debate was big and raucous. At the start of the broadcast, Anderson Cooper promptly informed the audience that "the questions all came from you." I can't remember ever having felt so empowered.
The prelude to the questions was a topical two minute folk song delivered via YouTube. And to think, I was worried the format would lack dignity. The best thing I can say about the format is that it allowed for a lot of close-ups of Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris could single-handedly solve the illegal immigration problem. We all know that.
The worst part of the format came when a retired brigadier general sporting an oddly flamboyant wristband asked the candidates about gays in the military. It turned out that said brigadier general with the oddly flamboyant wristband was not only in the crowd, but out of the closet. After the candidates answered the general's YouTube question, Cooper surprised everyone by turning the proceedings over to the gay general, who seized the moment and hectored the candidates for about two minutes.
For what it's worth, I still felt empowered. The candidates had to answer questions from people just like me! For once, the candidates had to deal with ordinary Americans--red blooded, Bible-touting, Confederate flag-waving, gun-firing, Mars exploring gay generals. Read the internets--the YouTube debate was a smashing success!
SO WAS THIS a seismic night? I'll give that one a big yes. Tonight heralded the arrival of Mike Huckabee as force in this race. Not a spoiler, not a wildcard, but a force. Huckamania is still running wild.
It was a very strong night for the campaign's "it" candidate. I thought the "What would Jesus do?" question about the death penalty might trip him up. Shows you what I know. By the time he was done, I was staring at the TV agape. Oh my, is he a smoothie and a charmer.
Then he did the almost unimaginable--he got even stronger when he got the chance to discuss the Bible. Yes, he had a home court advantage on the question, but he exploited it brilliantly. The line about finite man not being able to comprehend an infinite God touched even this non-Christian. If Huckabee should become president, that will be his "I paid for this microphone" moment. The man connects. I can imagine a lot of people, especially a lot of Iowan people, heard that skillful answer and their minds snapped shut. They found their candidate.
A personal note to all my sophisticated East Coast friends: Don't wait for the Christmas rush--stop underestimating Huckabee now. Unless the other guys can be a lot more effective at landing some leather on him than they were last night, he may win Iowa by 20 points.
PS: Did Fred Thompson attend last night's debate?