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October, 22nd 2007

Debate round-up

– Liz Mair

I was unable to live-blog last night's Republican debate on FOX due to a migraine, but I did tune in-- and am offering my thoughts, belatedly.

First off, I'm declaring joint winners: McCain and Giuliani.

McCain had a number of great lines last night (my favorite being about Woodstock being a cultural and pharmaceutical event), and won me over by hitting the nail on the head in relation to Russia. What really did it for me, however, was his willingness to charge Romney with flip-flopping in front of the audience, and hit out at him about efforts to deceive voters vis a vis McCain's own record (which, I hasten to point out his team were actively doing quite a bit earlier this year, and no doubt have continued to do, perhaps just more subtly, since). The only place where McCain lost me was on his reference to "Czechoslovakia." Since my brother lives in the Czech Republic, I'm a little attuned to that kind of screw-up. However, as my husband pointed out, it's not nearly as bad as Fred Thompson's bizarre reference to "the Soviet Union" a few weeks back.

Frank Luntz's focus group clearly didn't agree with me that McCain was a winner last night. But they clearly felt that Giuliani did a great job-- something that I wouldn't have concurred with halfway through the debate, but something I felt was clearly the case by the end.

Personally, I didn't think Giuliani diverting from Thompson's "guns, abortion, sanctuary cities, Cuomo" attack by shifting to talking about crime was the way to go (at some point, he's going to have to address the guns point, specifically, in detail). But looking around the blogosphere and talking to others who watched the debate, evidently, my sentiment there is not shared. Most people seem to feel that Rudy's move to redirect was smart, and worked out well.

Another bone of contention with a few friends: I was pleasantly surprised by the way that Rudy handled the gay marriage question. This is obviously not an issue he likes talking about (with good reason-- debates attract the Republican base, which by and large is more opposed to gay unions of any type than I am, or, I suspect, he is for that matter). However, he did well to get across the point that there simply isn't much rationale for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage right now. Points to work on, vis a vis that subject: 1) federalism (Fred's right on this) 2) judicial activism as opposed to legislative action and 3) being specific (I fear Rudy boxing himself into a corner just a tad by virtue of conversations like the one he's recently had with Tony Perkins).

Gay marriage obviously wasn't where Rudy won last night, just where he treaded water and (likely) didn't actually annoy anyone. Where he actually distinguished himself, very positively, from the other guys was on health care and education, and to a lesser extent, Iran. Rudy gave a pretty solid and succinct explanation of what the health care problem is in this country (people who aren't actually dirt poor who don't have insurance, in many cases because it's too expensive) and began the hard work of tying better levels of coverage to health care costs. He did an exceptional job where the subject of education was concerned, talking about caring about kids more than teachers. His school choice rhetoric, I suspect, is one thing that is going to help him with religious voters, despite his stances on abortion and civil unions, because a) no other top tier candidate has anything like the demonstrated dedication to the subject b) no one else will talk about this and c) ultimately, while all social conservatives I know care deeply about saving babies, those with kids are generally even more immediately concerned with making sure their kids are being given the kind of education they want, not the kind of education that Ted Kennedy wants.

Giuliani also did well on the subject of Iran. Pointing to the matter of state self-interest is always a good move, in my book, because it gives recognition to a key principle underpinning realist thought, which I feel is too lacking on the foreign policy scene these days (both in terms of the neocon "let's let everyone vote, and then the world will be like Candy Land!" thinking and in terms of the John Kerry, liberal "of course France will want to get involved in Iraq now if we ask them nicely because everyone being cuddly and nice to each other is more important to them than their soldiers not getting their heads blown off" type theory).

I also think it's important, very important, in fact, to underline that no one wants to go to war with Iran, or take military action against them, but that if it's a stark choice between that or them getting the bomb, it's that. I am certainly not someone who is gunning for another war (I'm getting pretty sick of the one we've got, quite frankly) and am definitely not of the neocon mindset. However, the risks presented by Iran getting nuclear weapons are very serious indeed-- so I appreciate a guy who can paint an accurate picture and, also, do it without sounding like an inflammatory war monger (which I don't think Giuliani is).

The one beef I had with Giuliani last night: this talk of expanding NATO to bring in Japan, Australia, etc. You'd think a guy with his level of smarts would have recognized that NATO stands for "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"-- and that the name gives a hint as to why Australia and Japan are not members, and probably ought not be, unless we're going to nix NATO, and create a new NATO-like organization in its place, just using a different name and having a different (or no) geographical remit. Readers will know that I'm not overly enthusiastic about the idea of having a new, "democracies of the world unite" type organization, either (certainly not as a supplement to NATO, and possibly also not as a replacement to it) since I'm wary of this notion that democracies always think the same, and want the same ends (not true). But, this was the only area where I found real fault with Giuliani last night, so I'll let him off.

So, you're asking, who did I think lost last night? First of all, Romney did. I don't know what was going on with him in the first part of the debate, but he made my migraine much, much worse. Here's what really did it for me:

All of us on the stage are Republican. But the question is, who will be able to build the house that Ronald Reagan built who will be able to strengthen that house, because that's the house that's going to build the house that Clinton, Hillary, wants to build

(note to readers: if anyone has any idea whatsoever what Romney was on about with that comment, please email me, because as far as I'm concerned, he could have been reading out the lyrics to a Spice Girls song and it would have made as much sense to me).

Houses building houses? My Lord.

Romney also, of course, lost me with his comment about gay marriage:

the consequences of gay marriage fall far beyond just the relationship between a man and a woman. They also relate to our kids and the right of religion to be practiced freely in a society.

Hmmm. I know he followed this up with the "kids have the right to a Mom and a Dad" shtick, but I'm still not buying it. Sure, everyone wants kids to have a Mom and a Dad, but should we pass a constitutional amendment about single women having babies then? What should we do about kids in orphanages, many of whom will get raised without any parents at all? Actually, if we want to prevent kids growing up without both parents, and use the power of the state to that end, I might propose to Romney (with zero snark, of course) that we do pass that amendment banning single women from having kids, that we nix divorce laws, and mandate that for ever and ever, once parents have kids, they must live in the same house together. I'll probably get beaten up for saying all this, but I'm sorry, I just don't buy the argument that preventing two guys from exchanging rings somehow ensures that all kids grow up with two parents, of different genders.

I have more sympathy with the point about allowing gay marriage, and rights to freedom of religion being undermined, but as I've stated before, my view is that if we're worried that by Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage, churches and individual people won't be able to practice their own faith/freely express their own beliefs, perhaps the appropriate response is to get a law passed that says that no church can be sanctioned for refusing to marry any couple, for any reason that relates in any way to that church's interpretation of its religious faith, and that no person can be guilty of discrimination (or whatever) where they express disagreement with the concept of gay marriage as the result of their own religious views. As I've stated before, my husband and I, in practice, could not be married in a Catholic church because he's not Catholic and wasn't willing to make certain concessions to allow us to proceed. There's no reason why the Catholic church should have been forced to marry us, in the circumstances, and I think the same clearly applies where John and Fred are asking to get married at their local Catholic church, as well. But, the basic point is, I don't get how a big, broad marriage amendment is the right tool for ensuring that this is the case. It feels, to me, a bit like saying we're concerned that by allowing people to use the internet, some of them might look at child porn-- so rather than dealing, legislatively, with the child porn concern specifically, we should amend the constitution to ban the internet (OK, totally out there example, I know-- but seriously, consider the point).

Romney also got hit hard on health care, and I'm increasingly interested to see what he'll do on this point. On the one hand, he showed eagerness last night to take ownership of RomneyCare. On the other, he sure doesn't want to take ownership of what the scheme entailed, because it looks very similar to what Hillary is proposing, and a lot of people are figuring that out, fast. It may just be that that fact won't hurt him (after all, more and more polls are showing that many Republicans aren't averse to government intervention in health care). But, I think it's going to damage him where economic conservatives are concerned, and that helps knock one leg off his three-legged stool.

One point to note on this subject: Duncan Hunter's line about fertility treatment and 90 year-olds was great, but the one thing Romney did do, with his scheme, which I'll give him credit for, is having nixed the mandate that all health insurance policies in Massachusetts cover IVF. So, I'm not sure Hunter had it in any way right-- though his line was very, very good, and it did put Romney on the defensive about mandates.

Other losers? Thompson. Not hugely, but I think the more debates we have, the more obvious it's going to be that this guy just doesn't have quite the fire in the belly that's required. Maybe it's just me saying this (the Southern drawl thing just doesn't work for me at all), but I suspect others are going to get to the same place where Fred is concerned. I like many of the guy's ideas (and full credit, he does take on the tough issues). I even like him personally. But I just don't think people are going to hear his message given the slowhand approach he seems to take. His lines about laziness were funny, however.

Huckabee also lost a little last night, I think, insofar as he got less face time than he probably wanted, and wasn't able to trot out the nice lines he usually does. Still, his objective is to tread water-- and I think his victory in the real straw poll at the FRC shindig in DC this weekend is what's going to enable him to do that, not his performance in debates, per se.

And, so far as I am concerned, it is about time now to get everyone else off the stage. I have a soft spot for Ron Paul, sure, but he didn't do much focusing on slashing the size of government last night, and if he's not going to step up to the plate on that one, he serves little purpose on the stage. Tancredo and Hunter clearly bring nothing to the party at this stage, apart from (respectively) clammy foreheads and rants about Mexicans, and rehashed speeches about China. The debate was better for Brownback being gone; now it's time to lose the other riff-raff. Let's get to it.

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