Those of you who want to read my thoughts on all the candidates' performances in last night's Bloomberg/Washington Post Republican presidential debate (transcript) can find them at this link. For now, however, I'd like to focus on the three front-running candidates:
Rick Perry needed a great performance and didn't have one. Between mismatching verbs and nouns, stumbling in his speech (though less than last time), and returning time after time after time to his plan to expand domestic energy exploration, he seemed like a man with few ideas and not a very good grasp of those. For a guy who needed a home run, Perry didn't even get on base.
Herman Cain was energetic and charismatic, but is beginning to fall into the "one trick pony" category. No matter what the question was about, Cain kept returning to his 9-9-9 plan. It's one thing to focus, but another thing for that focus to keep a candidate from demonstrating understanding of a wider range of issues. Cain showed that he could hold his own, but his signature plan was almost the only thing he talked about and that plan finally came under some substantive attack, with Rick Santorum effectively asking the audience for a show of hands to show a lack of enthusiasm for a national sales tax and a lack of belief that the tax rates would be kept at 9 percent. While Mr. Cain certainly benefited from receiving more air time and attention than any other candidate, I would venture that the net impact of the debate was fairly neutral for him.
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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