A few brief thoughts on last night's Bloomberg/Washington Post Republican debate in Hanover, New Hampshire. I'll keep this briefer than usual because the debate was less interesting than usual. If you missed the debate, you can watch it here, but I don't recommend it as a good use of your time. Instead, you might peruse the transcript.
Before I get to the candidates, a few thoughts on the moderators:
Charlie Rose as the main interviewer was not as boring as he might have been. Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty was as biased an interviewer as I've seen, beginning her questioning by asking one or two candidates whether they were upset that more Wall Street bankers have not gone to jail. Bloomberg reporter Juliana Goldman is as good looking as she is smart.
I was surprised and pleased that the issue of religion, following Pastor Jeffress' recent remarks, did not come up during the debate. I publicly predicted it would, and I was wrong.
Going in order from those who currently seem least likely to get the nomination and moving to the front-runners:
Michele Bachmann: Had an OK night, and no obvious mistakes, but the fact that I'm looking for gaffes says a lot. She, along with several others, went after Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan saying "the last thing you would do is give Congress another pipeline of a revenue stream. And this gives Congress a pipeline in a sales tax." During the part of the debate when candidates were allowed to question each other, she assailed Rick Perry for increasing Texas' spending and debt. (Perry's response was probably his only good answer of the evening.) Overall, Bachmann seemed more like she was running to be Romney's VP.
Rick Santorum: Didn't get much air time, but was fairly solid when he did and looked less constipated than usual. Was quite effective in criticizing Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan by asking the audience in the sales tax-free New Hampshire how many would support their state having a sales tax (few or no hands were raised) and then how many believed the federal government would leave the income tax rate at 9 percent (again no hands were raised.)
Ron Paul: Slightly less curmudgeonly than usual. His remarks about the Federal Reserve were more appropriate in a debate so focused on economics. Enjoyed his comments about Alan Greenspan being a disaster, keeping rates too low for too long.
Jon Huntsman: Smooth and polished, with fairly good answers to most things. He had a good moment when saying that DC rather than Pennsylvania is the gas capital of the US. Took on Mitt Romney regarding the issue of branding China as a currency manipulator. Got very few questions and little air time but seemed to have a very good grasp of the fundamentals of a free-market economy. Got a laugh when he said he wondered if Cain's 9-9-9 was the price of a pizza.
Newt Gingrich: For the fourth debate in a row, the smartest guy on the stage. Made a good point about the difference among Occupy Wall Street protesters, between those who have a real grievance and those who are "left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic." Also took a Ron Paul-like position criticizing Fed Chairman Bernanke's having spent/risked so much American taxpayer money in secret. Perhaps my favorite moment was when he asked Mitt Romney why Romney's tax plan only offers capital gains tax relief for those making under $200,000, even lower than President Obama's $250,000 threshold (more on Romney's response later.) Gingrich also mentioned that Sarah Palin was unfairly criticized for her use of the term "death panels" because what we'll get from the federal government will be along those lines.
Rick Perry: Needed a great performance tonight and most certainly didn't have one. I can't help it, but every time I hear him in an event like this I think he's clearly the least intelligent participant, right down to using "are" when "is" is correct. He seemed unsure of his answers and tripping over his own tongue (though less than during the last debate) right out of the gate. Perry spent the entire evening talking about energy exploration as the economic savior of the nation. Surely he's correct that opening America's natural resources to development is a key part of a good economic plan, Perry was every bit the broken record on this issue that Cain was on 9-9-9, but without Cain's enthusiam or charisma -- and how strange is it to see Perry's charisma slowly but surely wash away over the past few weeks? Also, Perry was pressed at least twice to offer some details of his economic plan. He begged off by saying that Romney has had years to put together a plan while he has had only eight weeks. Nevertheless, to have nothing of substance to say about an economic plan in a debate that was all about the economy was a very weak showing. If Perry needed a home run to resurrect his campaign, he didn't get it. Not even sure if he got on base. And that was without facing the fastball of a question on immigration, clearly the chink in Perry's already thin armor.
The guts of the debate were about, though not so much between, current front-runners Herman Cain and Mitt Romney.
Herman Cain got more air time (or at least it seemed that way) than anybody else, in part because the other candidates were attacking Cain' 9-9-9 plan, following which Cain occasionally got a chance to respond. Cain came back to 9-9-9 at every opportunity. Cain was energeting and charismatic but his answers focused too much for my taste on his signature plan. This was in part due to the fact that Charlie Rose kept coming back to it, including playing a video clip of Cain explaining the plan. Cain had a good response to a question from Juliana Goldman who said that an analysis showed Cain's plan was not revenue neutral: "The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect." He proceeded to show that he understood dynamic scoring, something sorely missing in DC policy making. Overall, Cain's performance was solid but in a way it was boring in that he addressed so few topics in his desire to be entirely focused on 9-9-9. Cain didn't lose this debate, but he didn't win it either.
Mitt Romney was, as usual, well prepared and presidential. And as usual, I think he won the debate on style points while leaving me cold on a couple of big policy issues.
First, his aggressiveness versus China is, in my view, populist economic nonsense designed for little more than to get the votes of Midwest “Reagan Democrats” and taking serious risk to do so. While Romney is right that China would not relish a trade war, that doesn't mean that they won't participate in one if pushed. Furthermore, Romney's bluster betrays a serious misunderstanding of Asian politics generally, in which "face" is extremely important. Dealing with the Chinese is not like dealing with the Russians or western Europeans; negotiating with tough language in public is a recipe for failure. Romney's position is probably a political winner, but it's economically insane.
Second, I hated his answer to Gingrich’s question about offering capital gains relief only to those earning below $200,000 a year. In short, Romney argued that those people are the ones most hurt by the current economic downturn, adding that “I’m not worried about rich people"…again more pandering, far too similar to something Obama would say. However, as Gingrich pointed out, "you actually lose economic effectiveness if you limit capital gains tax cuts only to people who don't get capital gains." Romney's position here is unwise economically, and probably not as good politically as he believes. The Republican party and economic realists in general desperately need a political leader who understands economics and isn't afraid to champion smart policies even if the explanation to the economically uneducated public is not easy. The point of capital gains tax cuts is not simply tax relief. It is that the pro-growth follow-on effects of the cuts benefit everyone, as proven during the second half of the Clinton presidency following that president's reluctant approval of capital gains tax cuts. Again, Romney is choosing populism over both principle and sound economics.
Other than these issues, Romney did a very good job, particularly in explaining how Romneycare is not like Obamacare. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you believe him; my point is that he’s become quite proficient at distancing himself from Obamacare, including reiterating his intent to repeal Obamacare.)
Romney also did a good job reminding people that he has been a job creator and a leader, and has worked most of his life in the real economy. He was effective in explaining how the Obama administration’s regulations are choking off credit to small business via community banks, showing a level of real-world understanding that Cain’s focus on 9-9-9 missed.
Romney was less clear when it came to the issue of TARP and bank bailouts. Basically he said (and Herman Cain agreed) that the bank bailout was necessary to save our entire financial system and the currency, arguing that it was the plan's implementation and bailout of particular institutions which was the problem. However, it's hard to understand what the difference is between bailing out banks and bailing out "a bank." For the average viewer who hasn't spent much time thinking about these issues, Romney's answer was probably convincing. For me, not so much.
One other interesting point: During the time when the candidates were allowed to question each other, Romney asked Michele Bachmann a complete softball question, unlike the pointed questions asked by every other candidate of someone else at the table. Again makes me think they’ve talked about her being his running mate.
Romney also routinely shows a sense of humor, something voters certainly like to see -- particularly in comparison to our famously "cool" and humorless current president.
Overall, Mitt Romney won yet another debate. He comes across as presidential and electable, as well as likeable, and yet I still struggle greatly with some of his major policy positions which strike me as so political to not even have considered principle or good economics. Unfortunately, Romney will not back away from any of these, not least because he knows that “flip-flopper” is already a charge that will come at him during a general election and he’d rather stick with an unsound position than add fuel to that fire.
Romney’s performances continue to make me wish Newt Gingrich were electable. If we put Gingrich’s brain with Romney’s more affable personality (and great hair), we’d have someone who not only could win, but would truly deserve to be president.
In political betting at Intrade.com, Rick Perry has dropped from about 19 percent to 12 percent since the debate. Mitt Romney jumped from 61 percent to 68 percent. And despite all the media attention to him, political bettors are not convinced that Herman Cain can go the distance: he is trading just over 9 percent, up less than one percent from before the debate.
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