Iowa ABC GOP Nomination Debate Analysis
Dec 11, 2011

Iowa ABC GOP Nomination Debate Analysis

The following is an assortment of unordered commentary on the people, politics and policies from the Iowa ABC/Yahoo GOP nomination debate.

Gingrich vs Romney et al:
This was the first debate where Gingrich was now a clear front runner and it showed by many people going after him much as they did against Herman Cain the first debate after Cain rose to the front. Romney's main attack on Gingrich largely backfired. He was caught off guard a bit by the moderator's prompting about key differences between them and paused but then listed off: space exploration, getting kids to work in schools, capital gains cuts (Romney wants to cut sub $200k, Gingrich wants all), and career differences. I won't go into the details, but Gingrich was probably four for four at being able to knock these out of the park and leading off with the space exploration bit is incredibly weak for Romney.

The other major attack was Romney attacking Gingrich for his use of calling Palestinians "invented" people. Regardless of the accuracy which few will know, Gingrich again came off well as the intellectual historian who is on the right side in defending Israel while Romney came off as being to PC in worrying about this. At the end of the day, Gingrich showed he was capable of dealing with an assault from the other front runner.

Bachmann and Paul had much better criticisms. Paul must have been very damaging talking about Gingrich's consulting ties with Freddie Mac (an important contributor to the financial crisis in 2008). Bachmann likewise identified Gingrich as the "consummate establishment insider" and the "King of K street" (a street in Washington that hosts many lobbying firms). Gingrich didn't really have effective responses to these queries.

Newt Romney vs Nobody:
Bachmann, always one for clever wording and rhetorical tricks, repeated the expression "Newt Romney" many times while identifying their many similarities (some of her examples: an individual mandate in Health Care, support for Cap and Trade, payroll extension).  She makes a very good point. For whatever reason this race has now turned into a race between two establishment candidates who are both closest politically to each other than to the other candidates. The schism in the Republican party between the establishment and the Tea Party is all but gone from this race and given the massive extent of the Gingrich surge seems likely to remain this way. Whether this is an indictment against the Tea Party for failing to push one of their own candidates to the forefront, or whether it is just the peculiarities of this ridiculously unpredictable nomination is up to the reader to decide.

Health care:
As in several previous debates, there was a big discussion of health care. The issue is that while both Romney and Gingrich have pledged to end Obamacare - and it would be very hard at this point for them not to if they got into office - they also both have supported some level of an individual mandate for health care, despite them both making overtures about the differences. What is relevant here is that Romneycare is very baked into Romney's numbers, everyone knows this about him, but not so for Gingrich. A Yahoo live poll during the debate mentioned by the moderators indicated that 72% of people wanted to know more about Gingrich's views on the mandate after some time was spent on it in the debate. Gingrich's support is still in flux on this issue; that said, because both Gingrich and Romney share this weakness, it becomes less of a distinguishing factor.

Rick Perry adopts anti-corporatism mantra:
Rick Perry has been grasping at straws for some time, in a hope to find an angle on which he could rebuild his once high flying but currently decimated campaign. In the earlier days the key distinguishing feature was energy and his 20% flat tax, brought into just about any question. In this debate he mentioned both only once and in passing. Especially with Cain and 9 9 9 out, it would have made some sense to emphasize the flat tax more. With this laughable ad, he tried to shore up the religious right. In this debate, however, he took an angle I hadn't expected: the anti-corporatism angle.

Right out of the gate in his opening remarks, Perry claimed the biggest problem was the "direct line between Washington and Wall Street", lambasted TARP and the $7.7 trillion Fed injections, and claimed that only a Washington outsider could fix the problem. The goal, surely, was to appeal to the Tea Party - and not just the new Tea Party as it has become, but the original Tea Party as prompted by the bailouts against the mix of government and corporations. I actually think he could potentially have made this work; however, despite it clearly being planned since it was his opening remark, this angle was largely dropped for the rest of the debate, almost as if it was being hesitantly tested. If he wanted to make it work, he would have to go there wholeheartedly and this was the debate to do it in.

Bachmann and Santorum fail Politics 101: 
The first lesson of Politics 101 is the need to say things that appeal broadly to your potential constituency. As soon as one gets the impression that a candidate is going to directly harm them, or disproportionately help people who are not them, it alienates the candidate from the constituents. This is why so many appeals are made to help the "middle class" because so many people - even among the poor and the rich - consider themselves members of this class and want to be helped.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum seem to have missed this lesson. Bachmann is the more egregious of the two, pledging to raise taxes on every single one of the 47% of Americans who don't pay income tax so that "everyone pays something". Granted, poorer people are disproportionately those that don't vote (particularly in nomination caucuses or primaries) or are Democrats. But this is half the country she is pledging a tax hike on - as the low tax Tea Party candidate no less - in order to make her blame the poor point stick. Surely there is a nontrivial portion of Republican voters who realize that she is pledging a tax hike on them.

Similarly, Rick Santorum's distinguishing economic platform plank is his pledge for a zero percent tax rate on manufacturing. The problem is the numbers he quotes himself. Manufacturing is but 9% of America from a previous 22%. As in, the overwhelming majority of people are not in this business and probably don't have any skills or experience such that they think they could be in this business. To them, it must feel like this is the kind of thing that benefits some small group to the explosion of the majority. Sure, Santorum can make arguments that this will benefit everybody with the huge boost to the economy, but such arguments always ring hollow when compared to "he is giving help to the other guy, not me".

The Payroll Tax shenanigans:
The showdown going on in Congress over the payroll tax cuts is just amusing. How often does one find the Democrats begging for a tax cut (the GOP's bread and butter) while the GOP refuses to give it to them? The Democrats are actually very well positioned on this one politically because it makes the GOP look like they are refusing tax cuts to the middle class in order to refuse tax increases n the rich: the Democrats should push hard. I think the original motivation of the GOP is a combination of the frequent desire to not let the Democrats get a win at all no matter what, and the idea that the Democrats have been so willing to capitulate on issue after issue that they might actually get something good from this on the spending reduction side. But it has forced them into a corner.

Several people, most prominently Santorum, came close to a position long expressed by progressives. Namely, that cutting the payroll taxes puts pressure not on the budget but on the Social Security trust fund. The left worries that by worsening the position of the fund (which otherwise will draw down and last until sometime in the 2030's) it will increase pressure to massively reform or eliminate Social Security. It was refreshing - particularly in an age of candidates endorsing the Paul Ryan plan - to see some defenses of Social Security being put up.

Ron Paul Coverage:
As is typical of media coverage, in the 15 minute post debate coverage on ABC, Ron Paul was not mentioned a single time. The deliberate attempts to avoid covering Ron Paul at all go far beyond simply ignoring fringe candidates, as Bachmann and Santorum get coverage despite being significantly behind Paul in the Iowa polls.

Ron Paul fundamentally suffers from a concision problem. Namely, if somebody is not a Libertarian, explaining the Libertarian view on, say, why the recent recession occurred, takes some time and some convincing - almost impossible to do in the narrow confines of a 60 second debate response or the brief snippets of media coverage Paul gets. Ron Paul's great success as the de facto leader of the political side of Libertarianism is that he has - to whatever extent it is possible - managed to sound byte his views in ways that are digestible to the public. But it is still inherently difficult and I thought while some of his answers were easy to understand for someone unfamiliar with Libertarian ideas, other answers were less so and thus might be easily dismissed.

As for the media, they have almost no experience covering Libertarianism themselves. They have no framework for measuring whether Ron Paul did or did not have a good debate in terms of expressing his Libertarian ideas, the way it is reasonably easy to see who wins a more conventional policy disagreement over something like immigration that is in terms that people talk about all the time. With the other candidates, it is easy to discuss their personality, their gaffes, their tactics and whatnot. This is possible because they are not all that policy centric; Ron Paul, however, is running on a unique set of policies and values and so almost everything else about him is irrelevant in the face of discussing the efficacy of Libertarian views. As such, the media's love of non-policy discussion just can't be brought to bear on Ron Paul as easily. He is also fundamentally challenging their basic narratives and outlook on the world. For all these reasons and more he gets disproportionately dropped from the discussion.

Miscellaneous quick thoughts:
  • Romney offering a $10k bet to Perry over the accuracy of a statement just shows the plutocracy and separation in wealth between this quarter billionaire and the everyday person. Highlighting this difference can't be good
  • Bachmann loves her cute expressions such as "win, win, win" (to the timing of 9 9 9) or her "Newt Romney"; every debate she seems to have more of these aphorisms
  • Bachmann is certainly courting Cain support being the only one to mention (and praise) him several times
  • Santorum runs so hard on his record despite nobody knowing what that is
  • Moderator forgets about Paul when she says let us just grant that everyone on the stage supports securing the border with Mexico
  • Perry's attempted populous claim for a half time Congress that spends half its time working in the private sector is just hilariously bad and won't stick with GOP voters
  • Gingrich, sensing weakness, won't backtrack from the 25 year illegal immigrant example of previous debates to even entertaining the idea of a 15 year one and made sharp criticism of amnesty. 
  • The moderator question of whether infidelity should be a factor in choosing presidents is incredibly loaded and serves to exclusively hurt Gingrich for his past shenanigans in this regard. 

For more 2012 GOP nomination coverage, click here. 

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