Sunday, February 5, 2012

Seventeenth Republican Primary Debate (SC)

The seventeenth debate was held in South Carolina on Thursday January 19th, in anticipation of that state's primary on Saturday. Rick Perry dropped out before the debate, making this the first debate with only four candidates-- Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. 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 Gingrich. Ron Paul is too involved in conspiracy theories, and despite my libertarian leanings, I think having Paul as the national spokesman for libertarianism hurts the cause far more than it helps. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich all have their own special big government preferences, but if I have to put up with one of them, I'd rather it be Gingrich. Romney seems like he's not even sure himself what he believes, contradicting himself debate to debate, and sometimes even within a debate or within a single answer. Gingrich and Santorum know what they believe, but for the most part, I think Santorum believes in the wrong things. Santorum would try to make the general election about social issues and family values, when I think all the voters care about right now is the economy. Gingrich, for all his faults, understands that.

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

Rick Santorum
  • In his introduction, he thanks the people of Iowa for his just-announced victory there.
  • Asked if Gingrich's past is an issue, he says, "I thank God for forgiveness," and that although voters will look at all of the candidate's personal lives and personal failures, he thinks America is "a very forgiving country." It's a very personal answer to a question that didn't demand it, and it shows real thought and real conviction in what he believes. (+1)
  • He says, "I believe in capitalism for everybody," and criticizes the focus on "high finance" and the lack of support for manufacturing. He makes it clear that when he says "capitalism for everybody," he means more for manufacturing than for the service industries, and that this is the tack he plans to use to get votes from "conservative Democrats." (-1)
  • Veterans "should have preferences" when they return to work in the private sector. Because that's exactly what the millions of non-veterans looking for work need right now, is to be told categorically that they are literally second-class citizens who must be turned down for a job if there's a veteran looking for the same job. What are non-veterans supposed to do, just all join the military? It's one thing to offer benefits directly to veterans, since that amounts to the same as a severance package in the private sector, but it's quite another thing to impose hiring preferences for veterans onto private companies, whether through the tax code or any other method. (-2)
  • He criticizes Romney for not just putting Romneycare into place, but standing by it. He cites increased costs in Massachusetts, increased wait times, and the fact that many doctors aren't even taking new patients anymore. Once again, he's obviously done his homework. He then criticizes Gingrich for supporting the individual mandate as recently as 2008. It's a very hard-hitting attack on both of them, and he pulls it off well. He then pivots and brings up his support for health care savings accounts, saying he's supported a bottom-up solution for twenty years while Romney and Gingrich "were playing footsies with the left." (+1)
  • He says over half of the 8% of Massachusites who were forced to buy insurance under Romneycare are "fully subsidized," and criticizes Romney's characterization of their insurance as private. He says Romneycare is a top-down, government-run program, and Romney won't be able to make an effective case against Obamacare because of it. (+1)
  • In response to Gingrich's suggestion that he and Perry should drop out of the race (which Perry did), Santorum says he did better than Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it's not "cogent" to suggest that he should be the one to drop out. He accuses Newt of "grandiosity" and says we shouldn't have to worry what our candidate is going to say next. He says Gingrich has plans, but lacks the discipline to carry them out.
  • His response to releasing tax returns is that he does his own returns, they're on his computer at home, and he's not at home to access them, so he'll release them when he gets a chance to get back home. I don't doubt it's honesty, but it's also a nice, subtle attack on the others, and a way to paint himself as the everyman in this campaign.
  • What would he do about companies like Apple, which employs ten times more people in China than in America, despite being an American company? "I'm the only person on this stage that will do something about it." And that is exactly the problem I have with Santorum. In a globalized market economy, I don't want US politicians criticizing American companies for hiring people overseas. I want the government to get out of the way and let globalization and the market economy work. Santorum is no different than Obama when it comes to the economy-- he wants to manage it, to control it, to pull the levers until he gets the outcome he wants. Now he wants a different outcome from Obama, but his method is the same, and it's the method that's killing us. (-1)
  • When Paul raises his right-to-work history, he repeats that as a Senator from a state without right-to-work laws, he didn't want to overturn that state law at the federal level, but as President, he would. (-1)
  • He says that, like the others, he opposes SOPA because it goes too far, but that unlike the others, he agrees with SOPA's basic premise, that something more needs to be done to prosecute copyright infringers. He ignores the point Gingrich and Romney made that existing law can be used, and equates their position with saying that the internet should be a "free-for-all," which neither of them actually said. (-2)
  • If there was one thing about his campaign he could do differently, he says, he wouldn't change a thing, and he's happy to be in the "final four."
  • He says the first act an illegal immigrant takes in the country is to break the law, and they should be punished, no matter what. He wants immigrants to respect our laws, even when those laws are arbitrary and capricious or specifically designed to make things more difficult for the people who are supposed to respect them. I think that's a very curious concept of respect. (-2)
  • When Romney says the Massachusetts Supreme Court expanded Romneycare to cover abortions, Santorum says that "every governor" and "every state legislator" knows that when you mention "medical care" in a bill you have to specifically exclude abortion or the courts will interpret it to include abortion. He says he won't whisper that he's pro-life like Romney, or avoid social issues in private like Gingrich, he'll stand up for the pro-life position publicly. (+1)
  • He criticizes Paul for having a National Right to Life voting record of 50%, and says protecting life is a federal issue, not a state issue. (+1)
  • Unlike the others, in his closing statement, Santorum doesn't focus on Obama. He says he agrees that we have to beat Obama, but the best way to do that is to provide a clear contrast with a "conviction conservative." He says he can provide the needed contrast on the bailouts, on health care, and on global warming that Mitt and Newt cannot. (+1)

Mitt Romney
  • In his introduction, he tells us about his family. He has five sons and 16 grandkids.
  • Asked if Gingrich's past is an issue, his answer, in its entirety, is, "John, let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say."
  • On jobs, he mentions taxes, regulation, energy security and cracking down on China, but says the biggest thing we need to do is get rid of Obama, saying he's "practicing crony capitalism" in the GM bankruptcy, with Solyndra, at the NLRB and in rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • He says he expects to be attacked by Obama for his time at Bain, and he says it's "kind of strange" to be attacked for capitalism by Republicans. He says, "My view is, capitalism works. Free enterprise works." I think on this issue, he's right, and it worries me that the others, Newt in particular, are attacking him on it. (+1)
  • He complains that veterans affairs should be handled at the state level, and doesn't want the federal government to "extend its tentacles" any further. I'm usually sympathetic to federalism arguments, but how is veterans affairs not a federal issue in the first place? (-1)
  • He says he would repeal Obamacare; even if Republicans don't gain the Senate, he would work to convince enough Democrats to repeal it. If he hadn't spent so much time so eloquently defending the individual mandate in Romneycare in previous debates, I'd be more inclined to believe him.
  • He says Massachusetts had the highest health insurance costs before Romneycare and still does, but the growth rate is below the national average. He says the 8% of people who were uninsured weren't put on government insurance, but rather that they now have private insurance. I don't think it's such a good idea to trumpet the private nature of the insurance when it was only purchased because of government force. He says he has "compassion for people that don't have insurance," and that's why he felt it necessary to force them to buy insurance. Real compassionate, that. (-1)
  • He says he wants to get the federal government out of health care, including block granting Medicaid to the states, so the states can do whatever they want with it. He says this in the context of defending Romneycare, showing that he's no different Perry on this issue. He has no problem with big government, as long as it's big state government. I think somehow if you're forced to buy a private company's product, it probably doesn't matter to you whether it's the federal government or the state government forcing you to do it. (-1)
  • In response to Gingrich listing his own accomplishments in the House, Romney says we shouldn't elect a Washington insider for President, but rather someone from outside Washington who had a career in the private sector like himself or Ron Paul. He also says Newt shouldn't take credit for successes that happened under Reagan because Newt is mentioned once in Reagan's diary, and that was about an idea of Newt's that Reagan rejected. (+1 for the comments about being outside Washington and recognizing Paul's private sector experience, -1 for thinking Reagan's diary is a legitimate debate topic)
  • He says in the private sector, he never said, ""Oh, thank Heavens, Washington is there for me," but rather wanted them to get out of the way. He misses Newt's point that getting out of the way is exactly what Newt is advocating.
  • He'll release his tax returns when his taxes are done for the year, probably in April. The moderator asks why shouldn't voters in South Carolina get to see them before they vote, and he says, "Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama." He clarifies that releasing previous tax returns now and then 2011's in April creates more opportunity for Obama to attack him, but that's a pretty bad soundbite. (-1)
  • Asked if he would follow his father's example in releasing twelve years of tax returns, he very nervously says, "Maybe." Then he clarifies that he'll have a look at the documents before he decides. That's not exactly reassuring, and it earns him some boos from the audience. (-1)
  • He says he agrees with Gingrich on SOPA in "standing for freedom" by opposing it. He emphasizes that we can enforce copyright through existing law, and that SOPA would have "a potentially depressing impact on one of the fastest-growing industries in America." (+1)
  • If there was one thing about his campaign he could do differently, he says, "Well, I'd have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that's for sure." He then says in his "serious" answer, that he'd talk less about his Republican competitors and more about Obama. He hasn't exactly followed through with that after this debate... 
  • He says we need a border fence and "enough Border Patrol agents to secure the fence." The problem, of course, is that there will never be enough. There will always be some illegals who make it across the border, and positions like Romney's just invite endless spending increases. He also repeats his call for an immigrant ID card, which I've argued before would amount to a national ID card. If immigrants are required to show a card to get a job, Americans are going to have to show something proving they're not an immigrant to get a job too. (-1)
  • When Santorum says he's flip-flopped on immigration, Mitt says he wrote a book and in it, "I actually agreed, I think, with what you just said." It was probably a meaningless verbal tic, but that was a really bad moment to say, "I think."
  • On the issue of abortion, he says Romneycare did not fund abortion, but that the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided if it funded other health care, it had to also fund abortion, which sounds reasonable. He dismisses Romneycare's mention of Planned Parenthood in the bill, and says he didn't have a "litmus test" for the judges he appointed.
  • He says he vetoed a state bill defining life starting at implantation rather than conception, and also vetoed human cloning and providing the morning-after pill to teens. He also says he pushed for abstinence education. (+1)
  • Like Gingrich, in his closing statement, Romney talks almost entirely about Obama. He says we have "the most powerful economic engine in the world," and "our military is the strongest in the world," and Obama wants to change both of those.

Newt Gingrich
  • In his introduction, he says as a Georgian it feels good to be back in the south.
  • Asked if he wants to take time to respond to the "open marriage" accusation from his second ex-wife, he says, "No, but I will." He has some very strong words both for ABC for airing the story in the first place and for CNN for starting the debate with that question. He says is he "appalled" and "astounded" that this would be the first question, which earns him--in the very first answer of the night--not one but two standing ovations from the South Carolina crowd. On the topic itself, he says the story is false, and that he provided several personal friends from the time to ABC who could testify that it was false, but ABC wasn't interested. The crowd just laps it up, but I can't help but worry how that antagonistic attitude toward the press will play out in a Gingrich administration. Eight years of the media's relationship with Bush was bad enough. (-1)
  • He lists three things we could do to get jobs back. One is repeal Dodd-Frank, which he says would "help overnight." Second, he mentions natural gas offshore-- he wants part of the revenue from offshore natural gas to go towards modernizing the ports of Charleston and Georgetown. Does that mean he wants to raise taxes on offshore natural gas? Or is it not being drilled and he wants to open up drilling? He's not clear, and he doesn't do any favors to people who don't already know what he's talking about. Third, he wants to "radically overhaul" the Corps of Engineers, because now they take too long to study projects.
  • He says the "underlying model" at Bain Capital was not one of venture capital investment, but rather one of overleveraging that left the companies more likely to fail, and he wants Romney to explain it. I don't like this line of attack, and I wish Newt would give it up. (-1)
  • He corrects Ron Paul about veterans after WWII, mentioning the GI bill that helped them get college educations. He says along with cutting taxes to stimulate the overall economy, we should have a kind of transition for veterans like the GI bill. (+1)
  • He says we can repeal Obamacare if it's a central part of the fall campaign, which he would make sure, and if Republicans win the Senate and House along with the Presidency.
  • He doesn't directly address Santorum's criticism of his support for the individual mandate, but rather talks about his time as GOP Whip fighting Hillarycare, a book he wrote in 2002 and founding the Center for Health Transformation. He says he'd do just fine debating Obama in a Lincoln-Douglas debate on health care, even if he let Obama use a teleprompter. Pressed by Santorum, he says he supported the individual mandate but figured out that it was wrong, while Obama supported it and hasn't figured out that it was wrong.
  • He embraces Santorum's criticism of "grandiosity," saying, "I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects." He talks about the Reagan tax cuts, the fall of the Soviet Union, restoring a Republican House majority and the fact that under his Speakership, a Republican majority in the House was reelected for the first time since 1928. (+1)
  • He says he understands that the private sector creates jobs, but that government can kill jobs. Government can also create a positive environment for entrepreneurs. He says Mitt would have had less private sector success under Carter than under Reagan, and Newt follows what he calls "the Ronald Reagan playbook: lower taxes; less regulation; more American energy."
  • His campaign released his tax returns just prior to the debate, leading to a "breaking news" moment when the moderator announced that they were online. When a member of the audience asks when the candidates will release their returns, he says "an hour ago."
  • He pounces on Romney on releasing his tax returns, saying if there's anything in his returns that would hurt the campaign, we should know about it before he's the nominee. (+1)
  • He comes out strongly against SOPA, quipping that he doesn't want to support Hollywood's interests before saying the bill would lead to censorship, and he supports freedom. He says the Patent Office and existing copyright law is sufficient. (+1)
  • If there was one thing about his campaign he could do differently, he says he would have started with a "big ideas, big solutions, internet-based" campaign instead of floundering for the first few months like he did.
  • On immigration, he says first we have to secure the border, and he would move half of DHS to the southern border states to do so. Second, he would make English "the official language of government." Third, he would "modernize" the visa system to make it easier to come here legally. Fourth, he would make it easier to deport people. Fifth, he would set up a guest worker program and crack down on businesses who hire illegal immigrants. He also repeats his WWII draft board idea to have local communities decide who stays and who goes on a case by case basis. Oy, where to start... I like his third point. The first and second mostly seem like pandering. The fourth will probably run up against a little thing called due process. The fifth sounds good, but in reality will probably just create a huge new bureaucracy where we don't need one. Instead of a guest worker program, why not simply remove the restrictions currently in place? Why do we need a whole new program to do something that people would do on their own if government got out of the way? And his draft board idea... I like the pragmatism that realizes we're not going to deport everybody, but setting up local boards to make arbitrary case-by-case decisions is just inviting corruption into a process that's far too corrupt already. (-1, even though I like some things he said, it still leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth)
  • He would drop the immigration lawsuits against Arizona and other states, saying the federal government should enforce the law, not get in the way of states helping it enforce the law.
  • He says he believes Romney's pro-life conversion story, but questions whether he's "genuinely pro-life," based on Romneycare's funding of abortions and Planned Parenthood, and his appointment of pro-abortion judges. (+1)
  • He repeats that he has a 98.6% positive rating from National Right to Life, and says that twice they passed partial birth abortion bans under Clinton. He also says that in 2010, he helped elect the largest percentage of new pro-life members ever. (+1)
  • For his closing argument, he focuses entirely on Obama, and says the only way Obama's "billion-dollar campaign" can be defeated is by defeating him in a series of debates, and Newt says he's the best one to do that.

Ron Paul
  • In his introduction, he's the only one to talk about his record. He's been elected congressman 12 times, was an OB/GYN for 30 years and was in the military for five years, pointing out that he's the only veteran on stage.
  • Asked if Gingrich's past is an issue, he says there's a lot of unfair attacks against the candidates, then goes on to pointedly mention his wife of 54 years. He also says it reminds him of all the people who want to get corporations out of elections, "but what about the corporations that run the media?"
  • He wants the government to "get out of the way" to create more jobs, and that includes a "massive reduction of regulations," an income tax "as near to zero as possible" and "sound currency." Then he says something very telling. "The most important thing" to move the economy forward is "to allow the correction to occur." Of course, by "correction," he means a recession. He believes the most important thing to put people back to work is to have a double-dip recession, because he doesn't see recessions as bad things in themselves. They're "corrections," in his view, not something to be feared, but something to be encouraged. That's not a view I want a President to have. (-2)
  • Asked if the government should offer special incentives to hire veterans, the only veteran on stage thinks it's "probably necessary," although he clearly struggles with it since he says he wants the economy to be healthy "for everybody." Interesting how someone who rails against government interventions and against group rights is singing a different tune when it's a group he happens to be a member of and, as he notes, that he happens to get a large amount of his political donations from. I think a lot of Ron Paul's allure is that people think he's not a typical politician, but these debates are showing that isn't the case. (-1)
  • He says we're not likely to be able to fully repeal Obamacare, then criticizes the trend towards government-run health care. He says even with a Republican Congress under Bush, we didn't cut back Medicare and Medicaid, but actually expanded Medicare, and that Santorum voted for it.
  • He says he's not planning to release his tax returns, mostly because he'd be embarrassed his income was so low next to his competitors. (-1)
  • He has a great response to Santorum on Apple's overseas jobs. He starts sounding like Milton Friedman for a bit, saying that when American companies send dollars to China, the Chinese have to do something with those dollars. He says unfortunately they're using it to buy US government debt, but even so consumers get considerably cheaper products, so we're better off anyway. On the whole it's a very cogent defense of free trade from someone I've come to expect to be far more isolationist. (+2)
  • In response to Santorum's Senator-from-Pennsylvania defense on right-to-work, he says, "that's the way politics works," which was exactly my reaction. (+1)
  • He says he was the first Republican to join a bunch of Democrats in opposing SOPA, and that Republicans have unfortunately been supporting it, so he's happy to hear that Gingrich and Romney oppose it. (+1)
  • If there was one thing about his campaign he could do differently, it would be in his messaging. He says he's learned about delivering a message, and about speaking slower and with more conviction.
  • He's against illegal immigration, but says that laws targetting employers are "misdirected," because they turn average citizens into enforcers. He says we need "a more generous immigration policy," but then shifts, as ever, into foreign policy, saying we should put the resources that are now on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and put them on the US-Mexico border instead. He starts off sounding like he wants to take the true pro-liberty position here, but ultimately, he just wants to militarize the border like all the others. (-1)
  • The moderator tries to move on from the topic of abortion without giving Ron Paul an answer, and Paul says, "It's a medical issue, and I'm a doctor." He says as an OB/GYN, he believed that caring for a pregnant woman meant he had two patients. He then says that anti-abortion laws won't fix the problem, which is a lack of morality. He points out that subsidies are fungible, and if you give money to hospitals or organizations that perform abortions, even if you say that money can't be used on abortions, they'll still be able to increase their abortion spending.
  • Santorum responds to his previous point, and Paul says he wasn't talking about Santorum, and he's "overly sensitive." He says he views abortion as a violent act, and other violent acts like murder and burglary are handled at the state level. Except that isn't always the case. There are quite a few federal laws against violence, and prosecution of violent acts is done at the federal and state level. (-1)
  • For his closing argument, he says South Carolina is known for their respect for liberty, and although a lot of people ask the candidates what they'll do for South Carolina or for another particular state, liberty helps everybody. He also complains that they didn't get to talk about the debt in this debate. (+1)

Adding up the scores, Romney and Santorum both got -3, while Paul got -1. Gingrich came out ahead with +3.

In one of the earliest debates, CNN had an introductory scene that labelled Rick Santorum "The Fighter," and he certainly lived up to that tonight. He went on the offensive against all three of the remaining candidates, often calling them out by name and raising specific issues with their records on questions that didn't require it. He gives the impression that he knows some of their records better than they do, and he's not afraid to call them on it. At the same time, in this debate he showcased a number of his own positions that I really disagree with, from immigration to SOPA to government control of the economy. The longer the campaign goes on, the more I respect Santorum as a man, and the more I'm convinced he would make a very bad President.

Mitt Romney had a few unforced errors in this debate, whether insignificant verbal tics or not. He spent most of his time on the defensive. On Bain, he passionately argued for the freedom of capitalism, then on Romneycare, he passionately argued for state governments' right to force people to buy a private company's products. I'm not sure if he sees the inherent contradiction in his positions or not. He also spent time defending himself on his tax returns, on immigration and on abortion, and he didn't do himself any favors in any of those areas. The lack of internal consistency in his views, and his constant willingness to take the politically convenient position ("I'm running for office, for Pete's sake!") makes me worry that a Romney presidency could do even more harm to conservatism than Bush did.

Newt Gingrich was the clear winner of this debate for me, even though he didn't knock it out of the ballpark like he did in the sixteenth debate. I didn't like a few of his tactics, like attacking the media, or attacking Romney on Bain, but for the most part he said things I generally agreed with. In this debate, that was all he needed to win.

Ron Paul in this debate was for the most part not the typical Ron Paul. I was actually very surprised, and pleasantly so, by his defense of free trade. He often comes across as an isolationist, and it's good to hear a defense of free trade from someone on the stage now that Johnson's gone Libertarian and Huntsman's out completely. On the other hand, he repeated that we need more of a "correction," read recession, to get the country on the right track again. He also showed that despite his earlier defense of free trade, he still supports militarizing the southern border. It was also very interesting to hear someone who has so passionately argued against group rights suddenly do a 180 when it happens to be a group that not only is he a member of, but that he admits is the largest source of donations for his campaign.

And publishing this, I'm now only two debates behind. :)


  1. Thanks again. I'm not surprised to see Paul defend free trade, and I think you may have been mistaken to correlate isolationism with protectionism. Paul doesn't want to get involved in international military action, but it doesn't mean he doesn't want to trade with them; in fact he wants to trade instead of fighting.

    I also have to quibble with your strong reaction to Paul's "correction" talk. I interpret this as, for instance, saying that the government helped the housing bubble and now is trying to keep house prices propped up, but they are at artificial unsustainable levels and we either have to let them be corrected or condemn the housing industry to permanent and increasing subsidization. Unfortunately if the government pours money into things and artificially props them up, it's going to hurt a bit if the spigots get turned off, but weaning ourselves off that addiction is the only real way forward. So I tend to see "correction" talk as frank honesty which I like much more than the usual pandering that spending cuts will automatically save the economy. Better to admit that short-term pain is worth long-term gain than pretend there is no pain at all.

    But that's coming from my bias! Overall I agree with most of your reactions :)

    1. Maybe I just haven't heard Paul talk enough about trade. He says a lot of things that certainly mesh with a pro-trade position, like opposing sanctions, but he usually doesn't talk about trade specifically, at least not in the debates. I have seen a fair amount of people who oppose free trade, especially NAFTA, who also support Ron Paul. He certainly draws more support from total isolationists than anyone else in the race, and maybe I've unfairly projected those views onto Paul himself.

      As for the "correction" talk, you've paid more attention specifically to Paul than I have, so maybe you're right. I agree that we shouldn't be propping up housing prices, but I interpret his talk as more general than a specific industry. I don't like the bailouts of 2008 and 2009, but I worry if Paul had been President at that point, he would've gotten on TV and talked about how this was just a correction and we shouldn't worry but rather embrace it. If most people believed that, that might not be so bad, but as it is I think such talk would've made things even worse.