Last Night’s Debate: A Post-Mortem

I wasn’t able to watch the Republican debate last night, so I viewed it this morning here. I haven’t read any newspaper coverage of the debate yet, but have briefly scanned 30 or 40 emails from the campaigns, from which it appears that, as usual, all of the candidates are claiming victory.
Actually, I found the debate very interesting, especially compared to some of the early debates. Nothing new emerged from a policy standpoint, and none of the candidates made any major errors. But the debate reflected the current dynamics of the campaign, both political and personal. In general, all of the candidates–with the exception of Ron Paul, whose presence on the stage was a mystery except when he provided a foil for the others, much as a Democrat would have done–performed well. Unlike some Republicans, who look at our candidates and see mostly their shortcomings, I think we have a strong group from which to choose. That was reflected last night.
I’ll comment on some issues first, then on the individual candidates.
National security: The debate led off with a question about the “Bush doctrine.” This gave the mainstream candidates–McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Thompson–an opportunity to expound on the importance of the war against global jihadism, and to refute Ron Paul’s view–essentially, the position of many Democrats–that the jihadists hate us because of our misguided foreign policies. It was hard to pick a winner here, but McCain and Giuliani have the most credibility on the issue.
Immigration: This discussion was disappointing. The illegal immigration issue should be a huge winner for the Republicans, but this part of the debate illustrates how the issue can be fumbled away. A person who didn’t already know a lot about the candidates’ histories on illegal immigration would have had a hard time distinguishing among McCain, Romney and the others. The same thing, I’m afraid, will happen in November, even if the Republicans nominate a candidate with a relatively “pure” record on the issue, assuming there is one.
Health care: Generally, I thought the discussion here was positive. Again, we are seeing a preview of the general election, and I think the Republican candidate can fare well on the issue if he keeps pounding away at the disaster of socialized medicine and emphasizing positive, market-based solutions. Romney was the clear winner here, not only because of his command of the issue, but because he was willing to articulate one of the basic problems of our current system: that millions of Americans prefer to be free riders, obtaining free (to them) medical care at hospitals rather than paying for insurance. Now, as to the candidates:
Rudy Giuliani: It was good to see Rudy in action again. Because he opted to pretty much punt on both Iowa and New Hampshire, he has been nearly invisible in recent weeks. He gave a very strong performance last night, reminding us why he might still be the front-runner for the nomination. His weaknesses–the social issues and personal baggage–didn’t come up. So it was a very good night for Giuliani.
McCain: McCain did all right, but I don’t think he helped himself with his jabs at Romney. At one point he delivered a planned one-liner, agreeing that Romney is the “candidate of change.” I thought it was extremely lame; at first, no one but McCain laughed. Romney came off looking, I thought, like the grown-up, something that shouldn’t happen to McCain. While McCain was strong on national security issues, as always, I thought he was generally less prominent in the debate than he should have been
Thompson: Fred did fine; I liked, for example, his refusal to demonize the oil companies. But I doubt that his low-key style and relatively brief contributions did anything to change his status as a second-tier candidate.
Huckabee: Huckabee tried to position himself more in the party’s mainstream, but in doing so, I thought he lost some of his uniqueness as a candidate. Also, whereas in some appearances Huckabee has seemed quite a bit more articulate and likable than most of his rivals, last night the others were up to his standard. The debate got off to a poor start for Huckabee with the question about the Bush doctrine. This quickly moved into Huckabee’s criticism of the Bush administration’s “arrogant bunker mentality.” Huckabee tried to soften his criticism but was beaten up on by the other candidates nevertheless. His backpedaling seemed disingenuous; on the whole, it was not a good moment for Huck. I don’t think he gained any ground last night.
Romney: I thought Romney was the clear winner, most of all in demeanor and general impact. I’ve been critical of Mitt’s television communication skills in the past, but last night he was Presidential and effective. A viewer who knew nothing about the status of the race would have assumed, I think, that Romney was the front-runner and perhaps the candidate with the most stature. Headlines suggest that the other candidates were ganging up on Romney. I think that is overblown; it happened on only a couple of occasions. On those occasions, I thought Romney came across as the candidate who is trying to rise above pettiness and focus on policy. McCain’s anger toward Romney backfired, I thought. On a number of issues–health care and energy, and even national defense–Romney showed impressive command.
On balance, I came away impressed, once again, by the strength of the Republican field. If anyone gained measurably from the event, I think it was Romney.
PAUL adds: I took a “time out” from the debates, but my younger daughter saw this one. She’ll be voting in the New Hampshire primary, and was hoping to reach a final decision.
Like John, she thought Romney won the debate. In fact, she was so impressed that, despite having never warmed up to him before, she’s now considering voting for Mitt. However, she thought Giuliani did pretty well too, and seems still to be leaning towards him.
By the way, both John McCain and Bill Clinton will be appearing tomorrow at one of Dartmouth’s student centers — McCain in the afternoon and Clinton at night. What an opportunity for the students.
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