Thursday, February 9, 2012

Eighteenth Republican Primary Debate (FL)

The eighteenth debate was held in Florida on Monday, January 23rd, in anticipation of that state's primary on the 31st. This was the second debate with only four candidates-- Rick Santorum, who had won Iowa; Mitt Romney, who had won New Hampshire; Newt Gingrich, who had won South Carolina; and Ron Paul, who is yet to win any state. The full video is here, and a transcript is here.

To get any potential biases out of the way, I've lately been leaning towards Newt Gingrich as the best of a bad field. I don't like his support for government-sponsored enterprise, and he favors more government involvement in the economy than I do, but he would at least be better than the status quo, and in most areas, I believe he would move us in the right direction.

While I like Ron Paul's support for liberty, I don't like his support for conspiracy theories, his wholesale adoption of Austrian economics, or his opposition to the Fed, all of which could easily make things worse in this country, and do lasting damage to the libertarian cause. Considering his reputation as a principled anti-politician, it's been very interesting as a libertarian to see how the areas where he supports more government power so neatly line up with his own interests.

Speaking of positions lining up with one's own interests, Mitt Romney really is the consummate politician. He's never afraid to contradict himself within a debate or even within a single answer, and if he sees the inherent contradictions in his beliefs, he gives no indication of it. I generally don't like criticizing people for changing their views, since that's something we should encourage when it's genuine, but sometimes it really seems like even Romney doesn't know which side of the issue he's supposed to be on now.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, clearly believes in his positions. I just think they're the wrong positions. Like Obama, Santorum believes that the economy is something to be controlled, to be directed. He wants more manufacturing, whether or not that's what the economy really needs, and he wants the general election to be about social issues and family values, whether or not voters will actually care. I respect him as a man, but not as a candidate.

As always, I've summarized the candidates' answers below, and scored and responded to them along the way.

Rick Santorum
  • Eleven-and-a-half minutes into the 86-minute debate, Santorum gets his first question, about his own electability. He says the idea that it's a two-person race has been fashionable and been proven wrong again and again. He says he won Pennsylvania twice, and can win it as President.
  • When it's pointed out that he also lost Pennsylvania, very badly, he says that year, 2006, was a bad year for Republicans all around, and the Republican gubernatorial candidate lost by more than he did. But he says rather than hunkering down and trying to slide by, he stood up for what he believed and lost.
  • He says he doesn't criticize Romney for his success in the private sector, but rather for supporting the bank bailouts. He says if Romney and Gingrich really believe in capitalism, they should also support "destructive capitalism," referring to Schumpeterian creative destruction, although he doesn't call it by name. He says we should have allowed those companies to go through the bankruptcy process. He's absolutely right, and it's nice to hear a reference to creative destruction even if not by name. (+1)
  • He says the government, through Fannie and Freddie, did make it easier than it should have been to get a mortgage. He says now we should "let capitalism work," by creating a special tax deduction for homeowners' whose homes have lost value so that they "get some relief from the federal government." I don't think he understands what that word "capitalism" means. (-1)
  • The sanctions against Cuba are "an important doctrine" that we've had for fifty years and we should keep. Because they've worked so well for the last fifty years! (-1)
  • He says Obama's Iran policy has been "a colossal failure," and says they've committed acts of war against us already by holding hostages, by sending IEDs to Iraq and Afghanistan, training people to fight us there, attacking ships and embassies and plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador. He says, "It would be reckless not to do something to stop them from getting this nuclear weapon."
  • He says that the economy is bad because of the 2008 oil price spike, which has for some time been one of my favored explanations for the whole recession, albeit one that doesn't get much coverage in the press. It's nice to hear someone mention it directly. He says the best way to help Florida's tourism economy is to keep gas prices low through developing domestic oil resources, including expanded pipelines in the Gulf and the Keystone pipeline. (+1) 
  • On immigration, he says that illegal immigrants don't just break the law once when they cross the border illegally; rather, they continue to break the law by working as illegal immigrants, which is itself illegal. For me, this highlights the sheer idiocy of our current immigration law. When something as basic and fundamental to human life as working at any job is illegal, the problem is not with those who break the law. The problem is with the law itself. (-2)
  • Terri Schiavo's parents were his constituents when the whole controversy erupted, and at the time he advocated that an impartial federal judge take a look at the issue, but he had not advocated for Congressional action. He says in the same situation, he would do the same thing again. Asked specifically about DNR orders, he says he does not believe they are immoral, but doesn't address the broader right to die issue. (+1)
  • He says the "biggest issue" in the election will be Obamacare, and he criticizes Romney for Romneycare, and Gingrich for supporting the individual mandate for so long. He also criticizes both of them for supporting Cap and Trade and the bailouts, saying they're no different from Obama on the issues that got the Tea Party started. (+1)

Mitt Romney
  • He says the election is "about leadership," because we're "looking for a person who can lead this country in a very critical time." I know this is a popular turn of phrase, especially among conservatives who criticize Obama for not leading. But I don't want a leader. I don't want to elect someone to tell me what to do. I want someone who, once elected, will get the government out of the way and let us all lead our own lives. (-1)
  • He says while Gingrich was in government, Romney himself was running his own business, and when Gingrich "had to resign in disgrace" and became an "influence peddler," Romney was turning around the Olympics and the state of Massachusetts. He also brings up Newt's couch moment with Nancy Pelosi, and his "right-wing social engineering" quote. It's a pretty effective line of attack. (+1)
  • He trumpets his own Reagan connections, saying the conservatives in New Hampshire supported him even more than they had Reagan. He also criticizes Newt for being the first Speaker to leave the House completely, and also for his lobbying connection to Freddie Mac.
  • The moderator points out that in the previous debate, Romney had said he wanted to focus on Obama instead of the other candidates, yet he's dramatically upped his negativity towards Gingrich. He says, "I'll tell you why, which is I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina," where he lost horribly to Gingrich. He goes on to talk about the attacks coming at him, and says if he's being attacked, he's going to go on the attack too, but it's still an unfortunate soundbite.
  • Asked about his own tax records, he deflects to talk about his tax plan. Normally, I find not answering the question annoying, but in this case, he's actually talking about a relevant issue instead of the inane question. He says he wants to eliminate savings taxes for those making under $200,000, lower the corporate tax rate to 25%, and do something "akin to" the Bowles-Simpson plan. That would be a good start, at least. (+1)
  • He's "proud of the fact that I pay a lot of taxes," but also says he doesn't pay a dollar more than legally required. He also says he disagrees with his father's precedent of releasing twelve years of tax returns, and says instead he'll release two. He says he expected attacks from the left on his success in private business, but he didn't expect such attacks to come from other Republicans.
  • He says he would have paid zero taxes over the last two years under Gingrich's plan, which brings the capital gains tax to zero.
  • He attacks Gingrich for being hired by a lobbyist at Freddie Mac, implying Gingrich was himself a lobbyist, and for his public support for GSEs. In the ensuing back-and-forth, they often talk over each other, touching on unimportant issues like Bain's gross revenue, but on the whole, Mitt shows he has a lot thicker skin than he used to when Perry was still in the race. He stays cool, he keeps pressing the attack, and even if the whole topic is generally unimportant, he still comes out ahead. (+1)
  • He agrees with Ron Paul on getting the government out of housing, but he also wants to "help people see if they can't get more flexibility from their banks." I'm not sure how he wants to use government to do that.
  • "Markets have to have regulation to work-- you can't have everybody open up a bank in their garage." ...I'm not sure what to say. You know, either you believe in the free market or you don't, and if you do, you don't say things like that. (-2)
  • What would he do if Fidel Castro died and "half a million Cubans" took that as an opportunity to escape and come to Florida? He ignores what he'd do about the half a million Cubans, and says he would "work very aggressively with the new leadership" to move them towards openness, but he would oppose allowing travel and trade to Cuba. His answer suggests he may not know that Raul Castro, not Fidel, has actually been in power since 2008... (-1)
  • He says Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz is "of course" an act of war, and then makes a surprising claim-- "Our Navy is now smaller than any time since 1917." Could that be true? In a word, no. It's not true as measured by the number of active-duty ships-- there were fewer under Dubya. It's certainly not true that the modern Navy is less capable than 1917, when, for example, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines simply didn't exist. (Indeed, the above link notes that the Pentagon's official policy is that "at any given time, Iran faces more U.S. sea power than most of the world’s navies — especially its own — can offer.") Even Fox News says our Navy is "larger than the navies of the next several nations combined," and that under Obama there are already plans to increase the number of ships by nearly 10% over the next few years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2009, when the number of ships was 285, the same as it is now, that the Navy's "battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined — and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners." Romney is pretty decisively wrong here. (-2)
  • Asked how we end the war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban, he says "by beating them." I think that's a fairly simplistic way to look at it... (-1)
  • He wants to "encourag[e] people through every means possible" to learn English, because they need to learn English "to be successful." If that's true, and if you believe in the free market, you should expect people to learn English on their own, without government "encouraging" them to do so. That said, most of his answer focuses on teaching children in English in school, and that I think is a good thing, because they are children. At the same time, I don't think adults who don't speak English need to be treated like children too. (-1)
  • He speaks up to say he agrees with Gingrich on the DREAM Act-- that he supports allowing illegal immigrant children to gain citizenship through military service, but not through attending college. (-1)
  • He advocates "self-deportation," rather than rounding up illegal immigrants, saying that if we make it impossible for them to get jobs in the US, they'll deport themselves. He again mentions his plan to require a national ID card for immigrants, and again makes no mention of the requirements that would place on non-immigrants. (-1)
  • Asked about sugar subsidies and donations to his campaign from the sugar industry, he very quickly says he doesn't like subsidies, and then switches to criticizing Obama on just about everything, from unemployment to housing to oil to NASA. It sounds partly like a closing statement and partly like he really didn't want to talk about sugar subsidies and had to quickly find something else to talk about.
  • Space exploration "should certainly be a priority." He criticizes Obama's handling of NASA for hurting Florida and people on the space coast. Now I support space exploration, but the purpose of funding NASA is not to provide jobs to Floridians. It says something about Romney's economic beliefs that this is the first benefit of space exploration he mentions, even before science or commercial or military benefits.
  • His number one success in "further[ing] the cause of conservatism" is... raising a family. Wow. Not that raising a family isn't important, but it's not something I'd list first, especially not when the other three people on stage also have raised families. At least his answer gets better, citing his private sector experience, and his work as governor of Massachusetts, particularly cutting taxes, putting money in the rainy day fund and requiring English immersion in schools. No mention of health care reform, though.
  • Asked specifically about health care, he does defend Romneycare, saying it's "working for our state," and that Massachusetts has the constitutional authority to do it. He then says the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to do it, and he would repeal Obamacare. By emphasizing the federalism argument, he accepts that government forcing you to buy a private company's product is acceptable and even good under certain circumstances. I just don't accept that. (-1)
  • "We're still a great nation, but a great nation doesn't have so many people suffering." So, which is it? (-1)

Newt Gingrich
  • Criticized between debates by Romney, who had said Gingrich would provide an "October surprise a day," Gingrich likens himself to Reagan who started off 1980 behind and had been criticized for his "voodoo economics," yet went on to win. Newt says he wants to change Washington and challenge the Washington establishment and that requires someone who isn't afraid to be controversial when necessary. I think it's one of the great ironies of this race that "the establishment" has become synonymous with someone who spent most of his life in the private sector, and the challenger to the establishment is someone who has spent decades in Washington and was once third in line to the Presidency. (-1)
  • When the moderator asks Gingrich about "your problems" and leaving the speakership in the 90s, Newt points instead to his accomplishments before leaving, including welfare reform, balancing the budget and low unemployment.
  • Responding to Romney's attack, he says Romney said "at least four things that were false," but "I don't want to waste the time on them." Instead, he plugs his website. Really? What happened to Newt being a good debater? (-1)
  • He criticizes Romney's grasp of history, saying he was reprimanded on the ethics charges after asking Republicans to vote yes to get it behind him, and that this was done in January 1997, nearly two years before the election of 1998 that led to Gingrich stepping down. He says even in 1998, they still won a majority, even if the margin was lower than he wanted, making him the first Speaker since the 20s who had overseen three consecutive Republican victories. He then criticizes Romney for overseeing a loss of governorships while he chaired the Governors Association, and a loss of Republican seats in the Massachusetts legislature while he was governor.
  • He talks about his idea for a "gold commission," examining switching back to the gold standard, which he's bantered about in his campaign but which hasn't before this gotten any attention in the debates. He says there are issues where he disagrees "very deeply" with Ron Paul, but that they agree on more between each other than either does with Obama. (-1 for the gold standard stuff)
  • Talking about Mitt's tax rate, he says he wants to bring everyone down to Mitt's 15% rate, not make him pay more. (+1)
  • In response to Mitt paying zero tax if the capital gains rate goes to zero, he says his "number-one goal is to create a maximum number of jobs," and zero capital gains tax is the way to do that. (+1)
  • He says he's "never, ever" been a lobbyist. He says there are people on the relevant housing and oversight committees willing to testify that he never lobbied them, and they even brought an expert in to speak to their four small businesses about "the bright line" between what they can and cannot do before being a lobbyist, and they've stayed away from that line. I know I'm not exactly in the mainstream here, but I don't see anything explicitly wrong with actually being a lobbyist, so I'm spending of this part of the debate watching the clock and marvelling at how little discussion of the actual issues there has been with the debate nearly one-third over.
  • He points to telephone and electric utilities and federal credit unions as good examples of GSEs, and defends the GSE model in general. He seems to support GSEs as a matter of principle. I think GSEs are an improvement over complete government control of an industry, but they're a step back from a true free market. I don't get the impression that Newt sees the importance of opportunity cost here. (-1)
  • He says his company was paid $300,000 a year by Freddie Mac, but his individual portion was closer to $35,000 a year. In a back-and-forth where he and Romney often talk over each other, he asks what Bain's gross revenue was to make the point that what Freddie Mac paid his company was not what he was paid. He ultimately says he supported Medicare Part D as a private citizen speaking openly in public, not as a lobbyist speaking in private. Although he makes some good points, he comes across as very flustered in this exchange, and even if the content is mostly irrelevant, it still makes Newt look pretty bad. (-1)
  • He says "of course" the financial system is overregulated, and if we repealed Dodd-Frank today, we'd see an improvement in the housing market tomorrow. (+1)
  • He wants "to do everything we can to support those Cubans who want freedom," and advocates "aggressively" encouraging a Cuban Spring. The moderator asks if he means covertly or overtly, and although Newt says we need to "every asset available," he stresses covert operations. It'd be nice if there was less talk of actual aggression and overt action, but I really like that he's not afraid to stand up for the freedom of Cubans. (+1)
  • He says Americans like peace, and we didn't want to go to war in Afghanistan, or in Japan in WWII, but we did because we were defending ourselves. He criticizes Obama for appearing weak before Iran, and says that weakness just encourages them to think they could actually succeed in closing the Strait of Hormuz.
  • The moderator says that despite Gingrich wanting English to be the official language, he's been sending out press releases in Spanish. Gingrich says it's okay for a campaign "to go to people on their terms in their culture," but not for government services like printing election ballots to do the same. He argues from an historian's perspective that we need "a central language" that gives us "a common bond." I know a bit too much about my Scottish heritage to accept government intervention pushing the English language. (-1)
  • He supports the part of the DREAM Act that would allow people brought to the country illegally as children who then join the military to "earn" their citizenship, but does not support extending the same privilege to those who go to college. (-1)
  • On sugar subsidies, he says "an ideal world" would have "an open market," but that he spent so much time and effort trying to reform agriculture as Speaker--and failing--that he thinks the agriculture lobby is probably too strong to see any real change. It's an odd and refreshingly honest way to answer the question. (+1)
  • He compares the Terri Schiavo case to people on death row, saying that they automatically get an appeal to a federal court, but that Schiavo didn't. He supports the "right to have your own end-of-life prescription," but that it's also appropriate to have "a bias in favor of life," and have judicial review over cases like Schiavo's. (+1)
  • He wants to see "vastly more" of NASA's funding go towards encouraging private sector innovation through prizes like the old aviation prizes and the current X prizes. He sees some of those prizes being for establishing a permanent presence on the moon, for getting to Mars, and for building a series of space stations. This is possibly Gingrich's strongest area, and if he doesn't win the Presidency, I hope he at least gets put in charge of NASA. (+2)
  • He says the Bush tax cuts likely prevented the 2001 recession from getting worse, but he also points to the regulatory burden holding back jobs. He mentions the North Dakota oil boom, and says it's possible because that oil was found on private land. He says if it had been found on public land, North Dakota would have 8+% unemployment like the rest of the country, instead of 3.2% like they have now. (+1)
  • On what he's done to advance conservatism, he has a very long list, from working with Goldwater and Reagan to helping elect the first Republican House majority since 1954 and the first re-elected majority since 1928. (+1)
  • He says he agrees with Santorum that the issues facing the next President will be very difficult to solve, especially in the face of "entrenched bureaucracy," which is why he asks people to be "with" him instead of "for" him. It's a nice pat stump speech kind of answer to a pretty pointless question.

Ron Paul
  • Paul doesn't get his first question until about fourteen-and-a-half minutes into the 86-minute debate. He downplays the idea that the election can be decided by three states, and says he's doing as well or better than the others in polls against Obama. He also says the House was "chaotic" and "a mess" under Gingrich, and continued to be a mess once Gingrich left. He says Gingrich didn't step down as Speaker voluntarily, but rather would not have been able to win because he didn't have the votes within the House.
  • Asked if he would "go your own way," he says, "Well, I have done a lot of that in my lifetime." The moderator clarifies, and asks about a third-party candidacy, and says he doesn't have any plans to do it. Asked if he would support a Gingrich candidacy, he says he likes Newt's attack on the Fed and his talk about gold, and just wants him to change his foreign policy.
  • In a wide-ranging answer to a question on housing, he criticizes the Fed's lending during the financial crisis, TARP, federal control of interest rates and government involvement in housing. He says government created the housing problem, so the best thing to do now is "get out of the way."
  • He would do "pretty much the opposite" of Newt when it comes to Cuba, although he says he doesn't like "the isolationism of not talking to people." Then he goes on to criticize the sanctions, comparing them to "the Dark Ages," although that wasn't at all the impression I got from Newt's answer.
  • In regards to Iran, "the act of war has already been committed," and we're the ones who did it, by blockading Iran. (-1)
  • He says "obviously" we need one language at the national level "for legal reasons," but that he's fine with states or local governments providing services like ballots in multiple languages. I don't quite follow what "legal reasons" would necessitate a single language at the national level but not at subnational levels, and he doesn't get the time to elaborate.
  • Asked about a joint federal-state program to restore the Everglades, it's clear he doesn't know anything about the program. Which is fine, because neither do I.
  • On Terri Schiavo's case, he prefers if such cases are kept at the state level, and takes the opportunity to remind everyone to get a living will.
  • He says he defines conservatism as "small government and more liberty." He says most conservatives don't want to cut overseas spending, but we can't afford it anymore. (+1)

Of all the debates, I think this one felt the most pointless. It was almost entirely a Gingrich-Romney debate, with Santorum and Paul not even getting questions until more than 11 and more than 14 minutes into the debate, respectively. The only substantive issue covered in the first half hour was tax policy, and that was only covered by Romney in an attempt to dodge the actual question about his own tax records. And while it's nice to see local issues brought up in some debates, apparently NBC thinks Terri Schiavo is still a pressing issue for Floridians.

Summing up the points, this debate makes very clear that I support Not-Romney. The three Not-Romney candidates were pretty close; Gingrich got +3 while Paul and Santorum both got 0. Romney blew them all away with a -9.

Contrary to my expectations, Rick Santorum got the most points on economics, with his references to Schumpeterian creative destruction and the oil price spike explanation for the Great Recession. He lost the most points on immigration and foreign policy, specifically his opposition to illegal immigrants having jobs and his support for continued sanctions against Cuba.

Mitt Romney had a decent debate until they started talking about actual issues. Once they got away from the opening spat between him and Gingrich, Romney fell off a cliff. He once again defended Romneycare, made a ridiculous claim about the Navy, and repeated his national ID card plan. More significantly though, after spending a good portion of the first half hour defending capitalism and his own experience and understanding of the free market, he completely forgot about the it in the rest of the debate. He thinks we need regulation to prevent everybody opening their own banks in their garages; he wants to use "every means possible" to push the English language on people; he sees NASA's purpose as creating jobs for Floridians. Plus, he defends Romneycare again. If he supports capitalism and the free market, he certainly has different definitions for those terms than I do.

Newt Gingrich took most of the debate to find his footing, making a few unforced errors early on and letting Romney get under his skin. He also repeats his support for GSEs (note that my opening comments were written before watching the debate), and for making English the official language, two things I do not support. On the other hand, he said almost exactly what I wanted to hear on Cuba, and once again got to talk about his plan for NASA, which is probably his strongest point on any issue.

Ron Paul didn't get a question until more than one-sixth of the way through the debate, and even then his question was about Gingrich. He didn't get much of a chance to make a very big impression in this debate either way. I really don't like his tactic on Iran, saying that we have actually already committed an act of war, since that implies Iran would be perfectly justified in attacking us at this point. But even that was something he said in passing almost, and he balanced it out with his discussion of liberty and the role of government at the end.

Overall, this debate makes me feel a bit better about Santorum and a bit worse about Gingrich, and a lot worse about NBC's ability to conduct a relevant debate.

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