Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thirteenth Republican Primary Debate (IA)

The thirteenth debate was held December 16th in Sioux City, Iowa, but with Christmas I haven't been able to wrap up the summaries until now. This was the last debate of 2011 and the last debate before the Iowa caucuses. The full video is on YouTube here, and an unofficial transcript is here.

To get any potential biases out of the way, I don't really like any of the candidates at this debate. Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum all have tendencies to support truly dangerous ideas, the only difference is which policy areas they're most dangerous on. For that matter, Mitt Romney does too, although he's more likely to weaken his position or switch sides to get support. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry both seem to me like big government, crony capitalism supporters who are just fine with the government running things as long as they're running the government. Jon Huntsman is probably the best of the remaining candidates in my eyes. As always, I've summarized the candidates answers below, and scored and responded to them along the way.

Rick Santorum
  • He says he's been to every county in Iowa and held more than 350 town hall meetings. He's counting on Iowa to propel him to national victory, despite currently holding sixth place out of seven in that state [since the debate, and since this was written, his fortunes in Iowa have greatly improved], barely above Huntsman. He says in the 90s, there was a "conservative revolution" against Gingrich, and that conservatives would come to him (Santorum) to help them get their ideas through.
  • How would he get Congress to cooperate? He'd go out and build a "narrative." He says Obama convinced Americans they needed someone to believe in, but he wants to convince Americans that he believes in them.
  • He wants to lower taxes on repatriated money to 5.5% in general and 0% for money spent on "plant and equipment." He says even excluding labor costs, there's a 20% cost differential for manufacturing between America and "our nine top trading partners." Economists would say we need to take advantage of comparative advantage and let our trading partners make stuff so we can buy it cheaper. Santorum says we need to give manufacturing special tax breaks to even out the comparative advantage so that we can all pay more for less. (-2)
  • He says he's the only one on the stage who helped campaign in Iowa to remove the judges who had brought gay marriage to the state. He also says when the partial birth abortion ban was overturned, he worked with Bush to pass a clarifying law that was then upheld.
  • Iran "has been at war with us since 1979." He says we need to be working with Israel, planning strikes against their nuclear facilities. If Iran does "not close them down, we will close them down for you."
  • Like Perry, Santorum is also not happy about Iran-Venezuela connections, complaining that there are planes flying straight from Tehran to Caracas. He thinks we need to pay more attention to South America and do more to "promote our values in the region." Paying more attention to South America is good, but I'm not sure I trust Santorum to promote our values in the right way.
  • He says that Romney ordered officials in Massachusetts to issue gay marriage licenses. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled in favor of gay marriage and given the legislature 180 days to change the law. When they didn't, Romney simply ordered the officials to issue gay marriage licenses anyway. Romney, for his part, calls this a "very novel understanding" of Massachusetts constitutional law. I've seen different legal analyses that support both positions, usually favoring the analyst's prior position on gay marriage. Not being a constitutional expert or a Massachusite, I don't know who's right here.
  • What about Reagan's 11th Commandment? "We have a responsibility to vet the candidates." He says if they don't attack each other, we won't know which candidate could survive the attacks from Obama. (+1)

Rick Perry
  • He's starting to like these debates, he says, and he's willing to debate Obama. He supports a balanced budget amendment and a part-time Congress. Then to trump Bachmann's "real person" answer, he says, "I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses."
  • How would he get Congress to cooperate? He'd use his executive experience as governor of Texas, where he says he learned to "work with both sides of the aisle." I've noted this before, but for most of Perry's term as governor, both houses of the Texas state legislature have been held by Republicans, and he has never faced a united Democrat legislature. (-1)
  • The moderator says that as Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Perry oversaw a loan guarantee program that failed and had to be bailed out. Perry denies this and says, "those programs worked as they were supposed to work." According to Politifact, the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority was supposed to make loans to agricultural entrepreneurs "who could not get commercial loans." Surprise, surprise, a lot of them couldn't get commercial loans for very good reasons. Although the program was supposed to fund itself without any appropriations from the general fund, it was unable to do so because of an 18% default rate. It was ultimately bailed out in 2009. (-1)
  • He again calls for a part-time Congress, saying we should cut their pay and cut their time in half. The moderator points out that they were only in session 151 days last year, less than three days a week on average. Perry says to cut it to 140 days every other year like in Texas.
  • He wants to get rid of lifetime terms for federal judges. His favorite current Supreme Court justices are Alito, Roberts and Thomas.
  • He wants to intervene in Syria by establishing a no-fly zone, but doesn't get into any more specific details. He sees this as part of our strategic position against Iran, and takes some time to criticize Obama's handling of Iran. (+1)
  • The moderator says Perry has criticized Obama for favoring green industries, while Perry himself has favored the oil industry. Perry's answer is the Tenth Amendment. He says "government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers from Washington, D.C.," but apparently government picking winners and losers from Austin or any other state capital is just fine. Replacing big federal government with big state government isn't exactly an improvement. (-2)
  • Asked about Fast and Furious and his statements that Holder should resign despite not knowing about it, he says he'd fire his own Attorney General for not knowing about a program like that. He then links border security to Iran's influence, and says we need to have "a Monroe Doctrine again like we did against the Cubans in the 60s," particularly against what he perceives as Iran's influence over Venezuela.
  • He quotes... well, someone, but he's not sure who, to say, "if you don’t get your tail kicked every now and then, you’re not playing at a high enough level," then thanks the other candidates for "letting me play at a high enough level." Besides not knowing who he's quoting, it's a nice, light-hearted response to the 11th Commandment question. (+1)

Mitt Romney
  • He says in the general election, he will run on his private sector experience. He cites companies he's helped succeed like Staples, and also mentions a company he passed on, JetBlue.
  • How would he get Congress to cooperate? His state legislature in Massachusetts was 85% Democrat, which he calls "a blessing in disguise." He found a way to cooperate with them, and would be able to do so on a national level as well.
  • When Chris Wallace asks him about criticisms related to his time at Bain Capital and the "creative destruction of capitalism," Romney ignores Newt's role in the criticism and instead lays out how he would respond to Obama laying those criticisms. That itself is a good strategy, but his response is to compare his work at Bain with the Obama team's management of GM. If he does that too much, he won't be able to effectively criticize Obama on the auto bailout issue.
  • He spends quite awhile praising the Wyden-Ryan plan, not so much for it's actual features, but for it's bipartisan nature.
  • Asked what industries are going to be creating the most jobs in the next few years, Mitt says, "the free market will decide that; government won’t," then segues into criticizing Obama for Solyndra and other "green jobs" programs. (+1)
  • The moderator asks why only one-fourth of the judges he nominated in Massachusetts were Republican, and he says that every judge he nominated had to be approved by a seven-person council that was all-Democrat.
  • He doesn't want Congress to oversee judges directly, but he says Congress does have the ability to "rein in excessive judges" through impeachment, clarifying statutes or Constitutional amendment. (+1)
  • His favorite current Supreme Court justices are Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Scalia.
  • He criticizes Obama for "a foreign policy based on pretty please" in reference to asking Iran for our drone back. "A strong America is the best ally peace has ever known," and by strength he means military strength. He wants to expand our military spending, increase the number of new Navy ships built per year by two-thirds and recruit an extra 100,000 troops, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end. (-1)
  • He wants legal immigrants to be given a card with "bio-information" on it, and require that employers only hire people who can show their legal-status card. He doesn't mention it, but that means every American citizen who wants to work would also have to get this national identification card. (-2)
  • Asked about changing his positions on gay marriage, abortion and guns, he says he never changed his position on gay marriage; he opposes gay marriage, but also opposes sexual orientation discrimination. He also says he was only ever pro-choice to the extent that he wanted to keep the laws in Massachusetts the same as they were, and he became pro-life while governor of Massachusetts, implying that it was not for political purposes. He wants to "protect the sanctity of marriage, protect the sanctity of life." 
  • Romney calls Santorum's description of what happened with gay marriage in Massachusetts a "very novel understanding," and says the Supreme Court had the final say on the matter, not him, and in issuing gay marriage licenses, he was only doing what the court told him to do. I've seen different legal analyses that support both positions, usually favoring the analyst's prior position on gay marriage. Not being a constitutional expert or a Massachusite, I don't know who's right here.
  • Obama's going to have a billion dollars to go after the eventual nominee, so it's fine to go after each other before then. "We can handle it," he says. (+1)

Newt Gingrich
  • Asked about his own electability, he compares himself to Reagan in 1979, and implicitly compares Obama to Carter. He repeats his call for a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates with Obama. On his record as a conservative, he cites welfare reform, tax cuts and the balanced budget of the 90s.
  • How would he get Congress to cooperate? "Leadership is the key." He calls Obama "a Saul Alinsky radical" and "campaigner-in-chief," which is exactly the kind of language that will excite the base, but isn't going to help in swaying independents.
  • He says when he took money from Freddie Mac, he was just a private citizen, while Barney Frank and Chris Dodd abused the power of their offices to make money. He believes in goverment-sponsored enterprises, GSEs. He also says it's "a good conservative principle" to use government to encourage more people to learn how to buy a house. Is that really what he thinks Freddie Mac primarily does? (-1)
  • "There are a lot of good institutions that are government-sponsored." If Ron Paul wants to criticize GSEs for being involved with government, he should also criticize doctors who accept Medicare or Medicaid. (-1)
  • "I never lobbied under any circumstance." He also says he encouraged housing reform with Rick Lazio while he was speaker, apparently referencing this effort to "encourage more working families" to move to "public-housing neighborhoods." Hmm.
  • His policy as President will be to break up both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite his earlier stalwart defense of GSEs in general. He also reiterates his support for using government to make it easier for people to buy houses. Breaking up Fannie and Freddie into lots of smaller GSEs that do the same thing isn't exactly an improvement... (-1)
  • Romney "deserves some of the credit" for the Wyden-Ryan compromise, which Gingrich also supports. He says his initial criticism of the Ryan plan as "right-wing social engineering" wasn't a criticism of the plan itself, but rather how the plan was communicated to Americans... somehow. (-1)
  • His plans to subpoena judges to Congress and shut down courts that make rulings he disagrees with does alter the balance of power in Washington because "the courts have become grotesquely dictatorial." He says, "just like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR, I would be prepared to take on the judiciary." I'm no historian like Newt, but Jackson and FDR aren't exactly the best Presidents to be aspiring towards, especially for a Republican. I happen to agree with him that courts (and the rest of government) generally concentrate too much power in the hands of too few, but I don't see how concentrating that power in even fewer hands solves the problem. (-1)
  • He agrees with Romney on the Supreme Court justices, noting that Scalia is "probably the most intellectual," but that Alito, Roberts and Thomas are also good.
  • He would not leave the UN, but he would "dramatically reduce our reliance on it." He doesn't like how the UN treats Israel, and criticizes the idea of a "peace process" between Israel and Palestine when Palestinians have fired over 200 missiles at Israel this year.
  • He bashes Obama over the Keystone XL pipeline, saying the Canadians would be happy to send their oil to China instead. He says Congressional Republicans should attach support to the pipeline to the payroll tax cut and force Obama to veto it, then keep sending it back to him until he passes it. While I agree with his support for the pipeline, his plan seems to require the support of Senate Democrats to work...
  • He wants to remove all tax deductions for illegal immigrants. He apparently doesn't realize that most illegals don't even file tax returns (doing so would be telling the government where they were, after all). He would also drop immigration-based lawsuits against the states, and drop all "federal aid" to sanctuary cities.
  • He says he believes that life begins at conception, he's against embryonic stem cell research, and he says he has a 98.5% positive rating from Right to Life. He says he didn't necessarily support Republicans who supported partial birth abortion, but that he wasn't going to lead a "purge" of the Republican party either.
  • He says he's "tried very hard" to run a positive, ideas-based campaign, and that ultimately, "these are all friends of mine. Any of these folks would be better than Barack Obama in the White House." (+1)

Ron Paul
  • He says anybody on stage could beat Obama, which is a nice feel-good thing to say, but completely sidesteps the question of whether he would support the eventual Republican nominee. Instead he gives a broad overview of his policies, mentioning civil liberties, foreign policy, monetary policy and balancing the budget.
  • How would he get Congress to cooperate? There are two factions in Congress: "one wants welfare, the other wants warfare." The way to cut spending is to work with the welfare people to cut the warfare spending and work with the warfare people to cut welfare spending. That's not going to win him any diehard partisans, but it's an unusually cogent way to phrase the problem. (+1)
  • He attacks Newt's support for GSEs, criticizing "when big business and big government get together" as "very, very dangerous." It's hard to argue with that. (+1)
  • He thinks Congressional earmarks are no different than taking deductions on your tax return. He also says the entire federal budget should be earmarked by Congress so that the executive branch has zero authority in determining the specifics of how money is spent. "I think the congress has an obligation to earmark every penny, not to deliver that power to the executive branch." (-1)
  • He disagrees with Newt's proposal to subpoena judges and eliminate courts for political reasons because it "could open a can of worms." (+1)
  • He won't name any Supreme Court justices he favors, saying "all of them are good and all of them are bad." He says the court separates personal liberty and economic liberty, when he thinks you can't separate the two.
  • The moderator says he'd be running left of Obama on Iran, since Obama supports sanctions while Paul doesn't. Paul agrees with that assessment but says he thinks he'd be running with the American people. He says "the greatest danger" is over-reacting on Iran. He doesn't believe they have a nuke or will have a nuke anytime soon. Then he says that if he was Iran, he'd be trying to get a nuke too, and we shouldn't be worried if they do get a nuke. It's a very rambling, shifting answer that ends with Paul practically yelling, "We don't need another war!" (-1)
  • He thinks Iranian talk about closing the Strait of Hormuz is basically bluster. Then he goes on to say, "Sanctions are an act of war when you prevent goods and services from going into a country." Now I don't think sanctions actually work, but it's quite another thing to say they're an act of war. If he really believes that, he's saying that Iran would be perfectly justified in launching a war against us because we have levied sanctions against them. How is this man doing so well in the polls?! (-2)
  • "To declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and say all Muslims are the same, this is dangerous talk." Except that no one said that, or anything like it, at all. Indeed, if we're at war with all Muslims, and they are all the same, why do the other candidates talk about the current Iraqi government like it's a good thing? Why do they want stability in Muslim Afghanistan? Why are we working with Muslims in Pakistan? Never mind Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or any of the other Muslim countries we're not remotely at war with, or the Muslim Americans who aren't in concentration camps, or the Muslim citizens in Canada and Europe that we're not bombing. (-2)
  • Bachmann says that according to an IAEA report, Iran is "just months" from having a nuclear bomb. Paul immediately denies it, saying there's "no evidence" that they're building a bomb. According to, they're both partially right and partially wrong. The report itself said Iran had the capability to make a bomb, but did not put a time frame on it, and could not say one way or the other whether Iran was actually building the bomb. But unnamed officials connected to the report independently told the LA Times that if Iran chose to make a bomb, it would take about six months to do so.
  • The candidates have a responsibility to "expose" their opponents and "what they believe in." While the substance of his answer is basically the same as the others', that the purpose of the primary is to vet the candidates, Paul sounds a lot more vindictive in framing that answer than the others do, especially compared to Perry or Gingrich.

Michele Bachmann
  • She says she's 55 years old, and has spent 50 years "as a real person," then 5 years as a politician, taking on Obama, "and I will do that as President of the United States." She's obviously trying to challenge Perry for his position as worst debater. (-1)
  • How would she get Congress to cooperate? She cites three principles: no new taxes, a balanced budget and reforming entitlements now. Whatever you think of the policies themselves, she'll be lucky to get Congress to agree to just one of them. For a current member of Congress, she seems to have an exaggerated idea of the power of the President. (-1)
  • What is her evidence that Gingrich was a lobbyist for Freddie Mac? Well, we know they paid him for something, and... actually, that's it. Apparently being paid anything for any reason by a GSE is evidence that you were a lobbyist for them. (-1)
  • She later claims Politifact backed her up, a claim Politifact has since rated as "Pants on Fire." They had rated one statement "Mostly True," about Gingrich's support for the individual mandate, but apparently they never even rated the issue of whether Gingrich had lobbied for Freddie Mac or not. In the same answer, she also backpedals a bit, saying that even if Gingrich wasn't technically "lobbying," he was still "influence-peddling." (-1)
  • She agrees with Newt that the courts have too much authority, and Republicans should target and eliminate left-leaning courts. She ignores the question of whether Democrats should have the ability to target and eliminate right-leaning courts as well. (-1)
  • On Supreme Court justices, she likes Scalia the most, but also likes Thomas, Roberts and Alito.
  • She gets some of the longest-lasting applause of the night by saying, "I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul," regarding what he said about Iran. She says Iran wants to build a "worldwide caliphate." (+1)
  • Bachmann says that according to an IAEA report, Iran is "just months" from having a nuclear bomb. Paul immediately denies it, saying there's "no evidence" that they're building a bomb. According to, they're both partially right and partially wrong. The report itself said Iran had the capability to make a bomb, but did not put a time frame on it, and could not say one way or the other whether Iran was actually building the bomb. But unnamed officials connected to the report independently told the LA Times that if Iran chose to make a bomb, it would take about six months to do so.
  • She says that Obama's moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf after the BP oil spill "hurt the economy more than the original disaster." Considering the "original disaster" was an environmental, not economic, disaster, that's not exactly surprising. She also agrees with Newt that Obama should have approved the Keystone pipeline.
  • She promises to "be 100 percent pro- life from conception until natural death," and takes issue with Gingrich's pro-life credentials. She says he had a chance as Speaker to defund Planned Parenthood and didn't, and also promised to campaign for Republicans who supported partial birth abortion. (+1)
  • "I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States." I'm sorry, but if you have to say that in a debate, you're probably not. (-1)
  • She brings up Reagan's "are you better off now than you were four years ago" line. She notes that he used that line against Carter, and that Republicans in 2012 need to make the same point against Obama, but she completely ignores the 11th Commandment question. Or perhaps, she just sees it as an opportunity to talk about Reagan.

Jon Huntsman
  • "I am the consistent conservative in this race... and I'm not going to sign those silly pledges," including one promising no new taxes. Then he talks about the "trust deficit" for awhile. (-1)
  • "Leadership is action, not words." He cites his record in Utah, where he instituted a flat tax, reformed health care without a mandate, and says he got over 80% of the vote in his reelection. (+1)
  • How would he respond to new Chinese tariffs on American vehicles? He says that everything about our relationship with China is related, including trade, Korea, Pakistan, Iran, etc. "You move one end of the relationship, it impacts the other." Strategically, he would reach out to dissidents within China and work to encourage democratic values among the Chinese citizens, but he doesn't mention any specific short-term response to the tariffs.
  • Like most of his fellow candidates, he likes Roberts and Alito, although he pointedly fails to mention Scalia or Thomas.
  • He thinks the UN is "useful" in peacekeeping and humanitarian areas, but says, "I hate the anti-Americanism" and "the anti-Israel sentiment." Then he goes on to talk about "our core" for awhile, in the first answer that I remember from these debates to go so far over time that he gets two bells. He doesn't like that we fought in Afghanistan, only for the Chinese to get mining contracts. Apparently he thinks the war should have been for oil! (-1)
  • He says we have "a heroin-like addiction" on imported oil, and we need "an aggressive plan" to encourage Americans to switch to using natural gas instead of oil. (-1)
  • He says Republicans need to stand for our "limited government, pro-growth" values. Legal immigration is "an engine of growth," and he wants to encourage it by reforming our visa system. He doesn't say exactly how, but it's nice someone who at least supports immigration and frames it in terms of limited government. (+2)
  • A "respectful," "rigorous" debate will lead to a higher level of trust in the candidate, and trust is what the country needs. Thankfully he stops short of using his "trust deficit" line again.

Although crowds have boo'd questions before, this is the first time I remember crowds actually cheering to have a question asked, and that was at Megyn Kelly's mention of Fast and Furious. On the other hand, this debate returned to using the Gchat buzzer, which is especially annoying if you watch the debate online, as I do.

Summing the scores, none of the candidates scored positive. Romney and Huntsman both scored 0; Santorum got -1, Perry -2, Paul -3 and Gingrich and Bachmann came in last with -4 each.

Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are both in very similar places in this campaign. Santorum has put absolutely everything into Iowa, and Huntsman has put absolutely everything into New Hampshire. Both need to win their chosen state. Current polls show Santorum in a close race for 3rd or 4th with Gingrich in Iowa, with Paul and Romney in a similar fight for first. But he's in dead last in South Carolina, and only above Huntsman nationally. Likewise, Huntsman is holding on to a fairly solid 4th place in New Hampshire, but he's only above Santorum in Florida, and dead last nationally. I don't expect either to last until Super Tuesday. In this debate, both men said some things I liked and some I didn't, but neither is exactly inspiring. Santorum is good on the attack, but not so good policy-wise, and Huntsman depresses me when I listen to him too much.

Ron Paul started this debate with an amazing amount of clarity. If this had been a thirty- or sixty-minute debate, it would have been great for him. But about halfway through he fell off a cliff. He went on a long, rambling, wandering rant about Iran and he fit perfectly the ranting-old-man image that he desperately needs to get away from. And that was before saying Iran would be justified in going to war with us, and before saying we're at war with every Muslim on the planet. With Ron Paul on the campaign trail, it's no wonder so many Americans think libertarians are nuts.

Michele Bachmann wasn't as nuts as Ron Paul, but she was sure trying. She was "a real person" before she became a politician, she'd get Congress to cooperate by insisting on things they'd never agree to, and thinks it's just fine for a Republican Congress to subpoena left-leaning judges without any worry about whether a future Democrat Congress will do the same to right-leaning judges. She also thinks that accepting any payment from a GSE for anything is evidence of lobbying, and calls Gingrich "outrageous" for disagreeing with her. The highlight of her night was proclaiming, "I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States!" As I said above, if you have to say that in a debate, you're probably not.

Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all seemed to spend this debate vying for the votes of people who government to be bigger. From agricultural finance to GSEs to energy subsidies to national ID cards, all three wanted to solve our nation's problems with more government. The biggest difference is that Perry wants big state government instead of big federal government, and Romney's more willing to change his support for big government if he thinks it will help him politically. That these three currently seem to have the best chance of getting the nomination is, shall I say, not very encouraging.

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