To get any potential biases out of the way, I had been leaning towards Huntsman before he dropped out. I don't think there's really any good options left, but if I had to pick someone this instant it would probably be Gingrich. Romney, Gingrich, Perry and Santorum all have big government tendencies in my opinion, but I think Romney and Perry would use big government to help themselves politically, while Santorum and Gingrich would at least use big government to do what they thought was best for the country, right or wrong. I tend to agree with Gingrich's vision more than Santorum, it seems. As for Ron Paul, he's too involved in conspiracy theories, and I think having him as the national spokesman for libertarianism hurts libertarianism far more than it helps.
As always, I've summarized the candidates answers below, and scored and responded to them along the way.
- "As Republicans, we cannot fire our nominee in September." He wants to see Romney's tax records, and makes a point of having visited a town with a steel mill that had been shut down by Bain. I like the quote, but in typical Perry fashion he embeds a great quote in the middle of a rambling, uncertain answer that should've made the same point in half the time.
- During the Santorum-Romney spat about felons' voting rights, Perry speaks up to say that's a perfect example of something that should be left to the states, and says both Santorum and Romney are Washington "insiders."
- On the issue of voting ID, he says, "South Carolina is at war with this federal government and with this administration." Really? That's the most appropriate way to phrase that? (-1)
- What should the highest tax percentage be? "Twenty percent, flat tax."
- He says we need to "have a conversation" about whether Turkey should remain in NATO, and we should not be giving them any foreign aid. He says we should not have any space between us and Israel.
- He criticizes the Obama administration's "disdain" for the troops, particularly for saying the Marines urinating on corpses was "despicable" and for reducing the military's budget.
- Asked what he would do about the housing market, he doesn't say anything particular about housing, but instead talks about Texas, his proposed 20% flat tax, a balanced budget amendment and a part-time Congress. Pressed by the moderator, he says cutting taxes and cutting regulation is all we need, and we've learned from Fannie and Freddie that "we don't need the federal government in the housing market anymore." (+1)
- He says we need "thousands" of National Guard troops on the border, with Predator drones, and "the issue isn't about how much is it going to cost." So much for making Washington DC inconsequential in American's lives. He promises that within a year of taking office, "that border will be locked down." That will do wonders for the economy! (-2)
- He considers it "a badge of honor" to have been attacked by left-wing organizations, and says Ron Paul's criticisms of him come from left-wingers. He said he "shouldn't have" voted for No Child Left Behind, and if he could, he would repeal it today.
- He repeats what he said in an earlier debate about his vote against a federal right-to-work law. He says as a Senator representing a non-right-to-work state, he did not want to vote for a federal law that would change his state's law. This sounds like a principled federalism/state's rights position, if he thinks right-to-work is a state issue. But then he says, as President, he would sign a right-to-work law. Santorum is usually not so baldly political in his positions, but I can't figure out how that makes sense without resorting to the idea that he was a Senator aiming for re-election in a Democratic state. (-1)
- Asked about the negativity in campaign ads, he brings up a Romney PAC ad that attacked him for voting to give felons the right to vote. He then turns and directly asks Romney whether he believes that felons who have served their time should be able to vote. Romney stalls and makes it clear he hasn't thought about the issue before ultimately saying that those convicted of violent felonies should not get their right to vote to back. Santorum then presses the attack, bringing up Massachusetts state law, obviously having done his homework. Santorum expects Romney to have too much control over his SuperPAC, but other than that Santorum comes across as a strong, knowledgeable fighter, and Romney is mostly left spinning, wondering what happened. (+1)
- He wants to send unemployment insurance to the states, and give them flexibility to decide whether to extend or not extend it in their state, or to add other provisions.
- What should the highest tax percentage be? Same as under Reagan, 28%.
- He says a study by Brookings found that if Americans do three things, they can avoid poverty-- of those who work, who graduate high school and who get married before having children, only 2% are in poverty. Santorum ignores the first two and concludes that we need to be using government programs to encourage young girls to get married. Never mind the direction of causation there; never mind conflating factors; never mind that many people now can't find a job whether they're married or not. Santorum ignores all of that and complains that Obama doesn't want to use taxpayer money to encourage young girls to get married. (-2)
- He doesn't support a unilateral military mission in Syria, but he does support "policies that effectuate the removal of Assad," though he doesn't say what exactly those would be.
- He says American citizens who have been detained as enemy combatants should have the right to petition the government in federal court, a right that we had before the NDAA which we no longer have. As President, he says he would "maintain the standard" we had before the NDAA, presumably meaning we would go back to the way it was before, although he could've said it more clearly. (+1)
- His corporate tax plan isn't picking winners and losers because he'll "cut corporate taxes for everybody," just more for some than for others. (-1 for lack of self awareness)
- He says Mitt's Social Security plan isn't bold enough, and Newt's is "irresponsible" and "fiscal insanity." He wants to have personal retirement accounts like Newt, just not now. Not until after we've balanced the budget-- never mind that by then it will be too late. He wants to get rid of Social Security's deficit with means testing, and complains that there are 60,000 seniors earning more than $1 million per year. (-1)
- In response to Newt's plan to consolidate federal bureaucracies to pay for the Chilean model, he says we should do that anyway to reduce the deficit we already have rather than do it to pay for a new program.
- He says he had a record of 100% agreement with the NRA, and, like Romney, says the times he's voted for increased gun restrictions were working with the NRA trying to pass a bill that wasn't as restrictive as the anti-gun lobbyists really wanted. He attacks Ron Paul for voting against a bill removing gun manufacturer's liability in gun-related injuries where the gun was functioning properly, saying if Ron Paul had had his way, it would have de facto removed the Second Amendment.
- He says at Bain they invested in over a hundred companies, and some of them failed while others succeeded. He says he gained experience "turning around tough situations" in the private sector, and carried that on to the Olympics and to the governorship of Massachusetts.
- Responding to Perry, he says the steel mill that had been shut down was a result of dumping from China, and that some 40 other steel mills were also shut down at that time. He then uses that to say we need to "crack down on cheaters" like China. Interesting way to turn the question around even if I disagree with his policy.
- He's asked about job losses at a specific company Bain took over, and says it was in a shrinking industry and that they had to consolidate two factories, that all the union members at the closing factory were offered non-union jobs at the remaining factory, but a lot of them didn't want to make the switch.
- During one of his answers, Santorum turns and directly asks Romney whether he believes that felons who have served their time should be able to vote. Romney stalls and makes it clear he hasn't thought about the issue before ultimately saying that those convicted of violent felonies should not get their right to vote to back. Santorum then presses the attack, bringing up Massachusetts state law, obviously having done his homework. Santorum comes across as a strong, knowledgeable fighter, and Romney is mostly left spinning, wondering what happened. (-1)
- A question from Twitter says, "convince me you won't change again." He talks about being pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and frames both issues in a way that suggests he's never really changed his position. He says he's "always" been against gay marriage, and on pro-life issues, he implies he's always been pro-life, but just wanted to keep the government out of the issue. That doesn't exactly match what he's said before. Romney's problem isn't so much that he's changed positions, it's that he doesn't deal with the changes in a consistent manner. (-1)
- He comes out strong against bailouts, a lot stronger than he has before, saying we shouldn't look to "push government into the American economy" but rather pull it out. He doesn't want to bail out Europe, and is against giving anyone in government a "blank check" to pay back their friends, the way previous bailouts have. (+1)
- What should the highest tax percentage be? 25%.
- He's willing to release his tax records, but not until tax season in April, after the primaries will probably be over. (-1)
- He claims to "love legal immigration" and says, "I absolutely believe that those who come here illegally should not be given favoritism or a special route to becoming permanent residents or citizens that's not given to those people who have stayed in line legally." Of course, it never occurs to him that requiring people to stand in line for years on end just to come here contradicts his claim to love legal immigration. If he doesn't want illegals to have a "special route," why not extend the DREAM Act to allow everyone the same easy way in? If he really loves legal immigration, that shouldn't be a problem, should it? (-1)
- On Afghanistan, he doesn't want to negotiate with the Taliban, and especially not from "a position of weakness" after we've announced our withdrawal date.
- He says he would have signed the NDAA, and then goes on, over booing, to defend the NDAA's authorization to indefinitely detain American citizens. He says there are "a lot of things" Obama has done wrong, but says, "I don't think he is going to abuse this power," and says he wouldn't either. Glad to know he has such faith in Obama, but even if he never abuses that power, what about the next President? Or the one after that, or after that? He says people, even American citizens, who join al Qaeda, "are not entitled to rights of due process." How exactly, without due process, do you determine which American citizens have taken some action that you think strips them of their right to due process in the first place? In all the debates so far, this position is I think the most dangerous thing I've heard any of the candidates say. What makes it worse is that the moderator even gave him a possible out-- that despite it's problems, the NDAA authorized funding for the troops, so he could have said, "I don't like it but would have signed it to get funding to the troops." He doesn't take that route. He doesn't even mention it. Not only would he have signed the bill, but he truly believes that indefinite detention of American citizens is a good thing. He gives the impression that even if Obama hadn't signed it, he would have once he got into office. (-3 I usually give scores in the ±2 range, but this is serious enough to go outside that range for once)
- He would keep Social Security the way it is for those 55 and older. For the rest of us, he would apply two different inflation adjustments, a lower one for the rich and a higher one for everyone else. He would also raise the retirement age "a year or two," but for the most part would keep the system in place the way it is today. (-1)
- On Medicare, he first criticizes Obama for cutting Medicare to fund Obamacare, then says he agrees with Paul Ryan's plan to shift to premium support. He would also use means testing, giving lower benefits to the rich and higher benefits to everyone else. So he wants you to be mad at Obama for changing Medicare even though he wants to change Medicare too. At least I like the Ryan plan, so that would be good, but his rhetoric about Obama cutting Medicare makes me worry about whether he actually believes the rest of what he says. And again, this is Romney's problem-- the things he says simply lack internal consistency.
- After the Santorum-Gingrich split on Social Security, he says he agrees with Santorum. He wants to keep Social Security mostly the way it is now, but charge no taxes on income used for savings by the middle class.
- He says he does not think the nation needs new gun laws, that we just need to enforce the laws we already have. Asked about his record in Massachusetts with banning assault weapons and raising gun-related fees 400%, he says he signed a bill that was supported by both the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies, and says even if it restricted some rights, it opened up others, like the right to cross a road with a gun while hunting. He says he's not a "serious hunter" but he still enjoys it.
- He calls out Gingrich for saying he needs "influence" over his SuperPAC, getting Gingrich to admit that "absolutely" such influence would violate federal law. But then he waters down his point by criticizing Gingrich for a SuperPAC that supports Newt making a film with falsehoods about Mitt. So, once again, what does he really believe?
- He says they all want to get rid of SuperPACs, and allow money to be given directly to campaigns so the campaigns can run the ads they want to run. The camera pans out and everyone except Ron Paul is nodding in agreement (though to be fair, Paul is at the furthest end from the camera and with YouTube's resolution it's impossible to see his facial expression).
- He says Romney has been running on his record at Bain, so that makes it appropriate to question his record at Bain. He says Obama will be asking the same questions in the general election, so someone has to ask them now to make sure Romney has good answers. That's a convenient flip from his position earlier in the campaign, but at least it's a flip in the right direction.
- He wants to tie all unemployment insurance to business-run training programs, saying "99 weeks is an associate degree." (+1)
- What should the highest tax percentage be? 15% flat tax, and he wants to "reduce government to meet the revenue, not raise revenue to meet the government." (+1)
- Asked about things he's said that have been portrayed as racially insensitive (at best), such as calling Obama a "food stamp president" and saying that poor children should work as janitors in their schools, he has perhaps his strongest answer in any debate yet. He shares stories of children, including his daughter, who started working young and learned good a work ethic. He says for what they pay janitors in NYC, they could hire 30 kids in place of one janitor, and not only would it be a learning experience for the kids, but they'd get money too, and "Only the elites despise earning money." After a long applause, he says, "So here's my point. I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job." Not only does this get applause, he actually gets a standing ovation as the moderator cues to the commercial break. (+2)
- He calls Paul's Chinese dissident analogy "utterly irrational." "A Chinese dissident who comes here seeking freedom is not the same as a terrorist who goes to Pakistan seeking asylum." (+1)
- He's adopted the Chilean model for Social Security, saying it would be entirely optional. It would include a guaranteed benefit, but he says in Chile they've had a similar guaranteed benefit for 30 years and it's an "historical fact" that they've never had to pay out, because everyone has earned more than the guaranteed benefit. He says government won't tell you when to retire, and it turns "every American" into an investor. He says it would reduce wealth inequality by 50% over a generation "because everybody becomes a saver and an investor." It's a very strong, hopefully convincing argument for the Chilean model. (+2)
- In response to Santorum's charge that his Social Security plan is "fiscal insanity," he says he can pay for the plan by consolidating 185 separate federal bureaucracies dealing with the poor into a single block grant to the states. I'm skeptical that he can get enough money from that, but it's still probably a good idea overall. Responding again to Santorum, he says switching to the Chilean model would add $7-8 trillion to the economy over a generation because of the reinvestment, and adds that he can balance the budget without hurting today's youth because he "helped balance the budget for four consecutive years, for the only time in your lifetime."
- He criticizes Romney for not having any influence over his SuperPAC, the one that he is legally forbidden from having influence over. Talk about a low blow. (-1)
- He says he has a 98.6% positive rating over twenty years with National Right to Life, and that the only bill they had disagreed on was welfare reform. (+1)
- No Child Left Behind is "clearly a failure" because he disagrees with standardized testing, and he says almost no teachers like it. Well, of course not. In what industry do employees actually like their performance reviews? That doesn't mean they shouldn't be done. Now it might make sense to oppose NCLB on federalism grounds, but he doesn't. He opposes it because of standardized testing. That's really disheartening to hear. (-1)
- He doesn't have a problem with negative advertising, and says his only problem with a recent ad attacking Santorum was that he couldn't fit in all his negative points in just 60 seconds.
- He wouldn't close military bases on American soil, in fact, he says, "I'd probably have more bases here at home." He only wants to close overseas bases. He has a few good zingers, saying there's a difference between military spending and defense spending, and that somehow building an embassy in Baghdad bigger than the Vatican counts as defense, but then he starts talking about the "military industrial complex." I know it's an Eisenhower quote, but I just have a hard time taking seriously anyone that uses that phrase. It's too much of a conspiracy theory codeword, and Paul is too agreeable with conspiracy theories in the first place.
- What should the highest tax percentage be? "Up until 1913 it was zero percent. What's so bad about that?" He also says inflation is a tax, and he wants inflation to be zero as well.
- He's concerned about the racial disparity in arrests, convictions and executions. He says we need to "address" the drug war but stops short of advocating actual legalization, even though it's no secret that's what he supports. He says Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with him on drugs, and on "the wars" as well.
- Asked about a statement he made that the Osama raid violated international law, he says we should have worked with the Pakistan government and had them catch him and turn him over to us. Considering the circumstantial evidence at least indicates the Pakistanis would've been more likely to warn him to get away, somehow I don't think that would have worked. He says if a Chinese dissident came to America, we wouldn't accept China killing him within America, so we shouldn't have killed bin Laden within Pakistan. (-1)
- He says we need to have a "golden rule" in foreign policy, and complains that we're ramping up to go to war with Iran. Interestingly, the "golden rule" line is boo'd, but when he says he wants to bring the troops home, he's applauded.
- He distinguishes between the Taliban and al Qaeda, saying the Taliban just wants to keep foreigners off their land, while al Qaeda wants to come here to the US and kill us.
- He, obviously, opposes the NDAA and says, "Don't give up on our American judicial system so easily." He says we've arrested 362 people related to al Qaeda, and 260 of them have been tried and convicted and are in jail, so the system works without special indefinite detentions from the NDAA. (+1)
- Defending his vote on the gun manufacturer's liability issue, he says tort reform is a state issue, and that includes medical tort reform, and he supports various tort reforms at the state level, but not the federal level.
Adding up the scores, Gingrich and Romney were clear outliers. Gingrich got +6, one of the best scores of any debate, and Romney got -7, one of the worst scores of any debate. In the middle, Santorum got -3, Perry got -2 and Paul got 0.
Rick Perry was largely a non-presence at this debate. He tried to pick a fight with Romney and Santorum, calling them Washington insiders, but neither took the bait. He mostly lost points for wanting the border to be "locked down." Ron Paul had a few good points, like distinguishing between military spending versus defense spending, and the different goals of al Qaeda and the Taliban. But he tempered that with some general zaniness, referring to the "military industrial complex," calling for zero income tax and zero inflation, saying MLK would agree with him and equating Osama bin Laden with Chinese dissidents.
Rick Santorum was clearly on the offensive, going after everybody else-- except Perry. He went after Romney on SuperPAC ads, felons voting and his Massachusetts record; he went after Newt on entitlement reform and balancing the budget; and he went after Paul on the Second Amendment. He obviously had done his homework, catching Romney flat-footed at one point, and attacking each of his major rivals on their strongest issues-- Mitt's executive experience, Newt's budget experience and Paul's constitutionalist reputation. But even though I liked his style, I didn't like his content, particularly on poverty, taxes and entitlement reform.
Mitt Romney had a horrible debate, and it's no wonder that his polls tanked and Newt's started rising right after this debate. Romney was attacked by both Santorum and Gingrich, and was handily beaten by both of them. Not only was he lacking in style, but he was horribly lacking in content. He actually defended indefinite detentions of American citizens without due process, explicitly saying that we should take away due process. Nearly every good thing he said was countered by something negative in the same answer, and his lack of internal consistency in his beliefs really shone through this time.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich had possibly his best debate of the entire season. He deflected Santorum's attack, and himself ably attacked both Romney and Paul. He made his points and made them powerfully, and for the most part, I agreed with them. I like that he's adopted the Chilean model for Social Security, as that was one of my favorite things about Cain. And his answer on the work ethic and racism question was pure gold. If he can hold that up through the rest of the campaign, and if there aren't any (more) skeletons in the closet, I think he'll be the nominee.