Another Week, Another Republican Debate

The Republicans prepare for the start of the home primary stretch with a debate in Nevada. Here’s our liveblog and recap.

Good evening, team. My TFT colleague Justin Vassallo and I are recapping the last major Republican debate before the ad season truly begins. It’s all over! Below you’ll find our individual recaps and a liveblog of the debate as it happened.

JHV Recap

On the whole the debate was a lot more enlivened than last week’s. Jon Hunstman’s absence was not felt, except probably by Rick Santorum, lonely as he is at the bottom. Michele Bachmann again proved to be wonkier on taxes than she is often given credit for, and her big emotional moment was a direct appeal to moms who have husbands out of work and their homes being foreclosed upon. But how she would help them she didn’t say.

The pile on Herman Cain began right off the bat, and his defense of his 9-9-9 tax plan resorted to an amateur spiel about apples and oranges. While Rick Perry appeared more alert, Romney repelled Perry’s attacks and landed more than a few zingers in retaliation.

The biggest difference for Romney in 2011–besides not having John McCain around to poke him in the proverbial eye–is that he actually seems to enjoy running for President this time around. He’s already got his stump speech in place, and he deftly handles debate questions even when issuing the standard fare responses about rolling back regulations and repealing Obamacare. Speaking of health care, Romney continues to deflect criticism over his main legacy as Massachusetts governor rather well.

Newt Gingrich largely opted out of criticizing his competitors, part of his completely irrelevant attempt to be a softer, more cuddly Newt than the ’90s firebrand he once was. But he’s fooling himself if he thinks he’d be Romney’s top pick for Vice President.

Finally, Ron Paul basked in his usual defiance of Republican orthodoxy, willing to say cuts in defense spending (like everything else in the Federal government) were necessary. He’s a bagful of completely impractical and even dangerous ideas, but he keeps things from getting dull. (In case we forgot to mention the stage manger’s preamble, this debate was definitely a “show”–and by that definition, it certainly had higher entertainment value than the last one.)

Here’s how I rank them:

1. Romney. He’s letting his confidence show more and more, and yet he’s toned down his arrogance since 2007-2008. You can tell he’s gearing up to play for the center, knowing that Bachmann and Perry are now competing for airtime with Cain.

2. Perry/Cain. Perry was more easily unsettled, but Cain is so repetitive with his talking points, even given the company he’s in.

3. Bachmann. She’s lost a lot of traction, but she could still come around to be a spoiler for somebody in Iowa.

4. Gingrich. Sometimes I forget he has some intellectual heft, but he avoids stirring up trouble, unlike…

5. Santorum/Paul. Making trouble is all Santorum’s got beyond the family values routine. Paul is also tied with Santorum; at least he was feistier than last week.

6. The Ghost of Hunstman—goodnight, sweet prince?

CEC Recap

It’s funny that Justin closes with a “Hamlet” reference, as my friend Andrew Martin (himself a writer and critic) and I were just discussing “King Lear” in reference to a different American right wing problem this afternoon. Watching the events tonight made me think of the play’s plot synopsis: an old and possibly feeble leader divides his vast and successful authoritarian empire amongst his successors based on who pays lip service to him the most, then lives just long enough to see them trample over his accomplishments, questionable though his personality was. That’s been the Republican Party since the 1988 primaries, and now it’s coming to the ugliest of heads in this crop of candidates.

In the last debate, which focused exclusively on the economy, the candidates had to get over the relatively low bar set in the previous debates of “not coming off like they were totally crazy” (except for Michele Bachmann), and since that depended as much on the studio audience as the candidates, it was very much an open question. They succeeded, sure, but in the end, it felt like a bit of a strange victory to claim. This time, with the terms of engagement much broader and the actual nomination process a little closer, the barrier was accordingly a little higher, and this debate didn’t rise above it so much as founder on the rocks.

No single candidate could claim to have “won” this one. It was a fairly ugly back-and-forth punctuated by the wheedling cries of Bachmann demanding more airtime: “ANDERSON?! ANDERSON?! ANDERSON?!” And ultimately, the questions on the economy were sublimated to the “point-scoring” broadsides on immigration and regulation that will win the primary, but not really matter in the general election. President Obama has become the same sort of White Whale that George W. Bush was to the Democrats in the lead-up to 2004: anathema to everything “good” about the country for reasons that don’t seem to really add up at the end of the night.

With that said, let’s move on to ranking the candidates:

1. Romney. Go ahead, say it: he’s won every debate up to now in my rankings, so I must be in the tank for him, right? After all, he did stake out the most consistently centrist positions and blah-blah-blah I must be some effete northeastern liberal. But this was his worst debate so far, and in in this realm of brutal-yet-contained expectations, Romney didn’t win so much as “survived best.” Despite withering attacks from Santorum and less-cogent attacks from Perry, he beat back criticisms and displayed his frenetic strained smile enough to make you wonder if he was popping Dexedrine. Perry tried to attack him not once but twice on illegal immigration, and both times Romney hit him back so hard you wanted Anderson Cooper to step in and call it a TKO.

Romney only made one serious gaffe that I caught, so short in length as to be effectively insignificant: when Rick Santorum tried to shout him down over a debate over Romneycare, Romney motormouthed “I’m-paying-for-this-microphone,” a Reagan quote from the 1980 primaries. Both Perry and Santorum caught it and tried to jump on it, but in the cross-talk, nothing came of it. Yet it illustrated everything about Romney that people find fault with: he’s a phony, patching together whatever works to get elected. He’s effectively had six years of practice and it shows on debate stages, but that doesn’t always disguise his fundamental insincerity. He’s just gotten better at cloaking it.

This debate showed that he could take and return a punch in fine order. But he also demonstrated why he’s still so disliked as a candidate, and why the race is not yet regarded as a foregone conclusion: when it’s likely you only base your campaign in a region of Massachusetts because the ZIP code there is 01776, there’s a legitimate question to ask about whether you want to be President more than you have principles. Romney is Nixon in Reagan’s clothing, and neither man could really survive a Republican primary without serious “makeup” these days.

2. Cain. Someone has to go in second place, and it may as well be the man who’s neck-and-neck in the polls with Romney. Despite an opening round that cut a few gashes in the “9-9-9″ orthodoxy, Cain maintained his composure and often pivoted back later in the evening to the actual question asked rather than going off on his own, reminding his audience that he was “solutions-oriented” in a night that seemed to dance around solutions. That being said, when Michele Bachmann lectures you on component taxes and wins that argument, you are doing something wrong.

But when you gain the audience’s love and support for reaffirming your belief that Occupy Wall Street should “blame themselves” for not having jobs, or insist that they should instead march on the White House, you also have a finger on the pulse of the rage of the Tea Party types better than any of the other candidates. It’d be foolish to write Cain off now just because Romney got a little more attention in a battering debate.

3. Gingrich. As Ludacris once rapped, “better yet, put me in office, make me your Vice-President/Hillary hated on you, so that [expletive deleted] is irrelevant.” It’s not that Gingrich is really running to be Vice-President. Without Jon Huntsman around (he boycotted the event to try and bolster his standings in New Hampshire, in case you were wondering), Gingrich let his blowhard flag really fly, citing obscure things like the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787 while still being obnoxiously magnanimous to the other candidates. He wants to be the Cinderella story of the 2012 campaign, getting the “bold truth-teller” label and taking Cain’s voters away from him once people come to terms with the fact that he’s unelectable. But a certain Senator named Joe Biden tried exactly the same thing in 2008, and finished fifth in Iowa. Just saying.

4. Paul. Someone finally told Ron Paul to stop raising his voice as if every question was a personal affront, because he did much better this time around. Without the specifically economic questions to drag him into discussions of the gold standard, his “cut everything!” refrains got a little more love in responses. He did have the audacity to ask a very startling question about Reagan trading for hostages in Iran to the other candidates, which effectively dumbfounded them late in the evening before Gingrich and Santorum both chimed in to try and “fall on the ball,” so to speak. As usual, it seemed like Paul was often off in his own little z-axis of an x-y algebra problem, but unlike the previous debates, it sometimes felt like that z-axis might actually matter in solving the overall equation.

5. Santorum. Rick Santorum has decided that going for broke on family values is the only way he’s going to rise above the pack, but his vitriolic attacks on Romney only allowed the frontrunner to parry and riposte in a sort of “why am I talking to you, you funny little man” way. Santorum effectively conceded the economy as an issue when he said “I have an economic plan and all that, but…,” and he’s not going to win this election that way. Thanks for playing, Rick. Good luck in retirement as a lobbyist for Pennsylvania’s coal industry.

6. Bachmann. Between her laser stare, her irate tone of voice, and her repeated shouts to Anderson Cooper for a chance to butt in, Michele Bachmann did herself no favors. Her best moments of the evening came early on, in talking about taxes with Herman Cain, but by the end of the night, where she sort of implied that Libya was not a part of “Africa,” dog-whistled by dropping the phrase “anchor babies” into a discussion on the Fourteenth Amendment, and insisted that the president’s relatives should be deported, it was clear which constituents she was talking to. Unfortunately for her, the “vitriolically crazy” segment of the population will not get her elected, just make her money. That’s the “Sarah Palin lesson,” and Bachmann would do well to follow in Palin’s well-paid footsteps at this juncture.

7. Perry. Believe it or not, Perry’s answers were better this time around. He was able to actually channel anger and indignation while talking about more things (though not many more things) than how his jobs plan would create energy-related jobs. But in his ill-advised decision to go after Mitt Romney over having illegal immigrants work in the contracting company that cut his lawn was the kiss of death. Romney wrecked Perry in front of a favorable crowd, getting them to boo the Texas governor and cheer his replies. When Romney turned to Perry and said that he would need to learn how to wait his turn in a conversation if he wanted to be President of the United States, you could see Perry sag. His only saving grace is that Romney apparently still thinks he’s the most dangerous candidate out there, given his money intake, but after this, he’s going to need to pray that undecided voters watch a lot of his TV ads and no more actual debates.

So that’s that! Here’s our coverage of how it all went down:

Liveblog

JHV: You can have some of my whiskey if you want.
CEC: Thanks. Think I will. Lord knows I’m gonna need it after this.
JHV: You could always just copy-paste last week’s recap and see if anything changes.

8:02 pm: Here we go. A pretty epic opener. “The presidential campaign GOES WEST,” says the announcer, before Anderson Cooper introduces us to the Sands Convention Center at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Uh.

JHV: This music is even more ominous than last week.

8:04 pm: The candidates are introduced by walking boringly out on stage.

JHV: Newt Gingrich lumbers like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Winnie-the-Pooh.
CEC: Poor Rick Santorum. Looks a little more like Howard Dean and less like Nic Cage tonight with that desperate smile.
JHV: Either desperate, or reptilian.

8:06 pm: Now they’re singing the national anthem.

CEC: Romney is lip-synching along to the national anthem!
JHV: So is Rick! Santorum, that is. (Referring to the male vocalist) God, that guy’s mic handling is impeccable. Spike it! Yeahhh.

8:08 pm: Now the candidates are introducing themselves.

JHV: Michele Bachmann looks like she’s ready to board a yacht. A yacht to the edge of the world.

8:09 pm: “I’m Ron Paul, champion of liberty.” What?

8:10 pm: Cain and Romney lead with their business credentials. Rick Perry says he’s a job-creator and “not a conservative of convenience.”

8:12 pm: First question from the audience: what’s your view on replacing the income tax with a sales tax? Cooper directs it to Bachmann. She says that, like the income tax, Congress’d just be raising it later on. She says “that’s a tax plan, not a jobs plan.” But she still looks like a Gilbert & Sullivan character.

8:13 pm: Herman Cain, in response, says to check his web site, because his plan works. People who are attacking it, he says, are just folks who have something to gain from the current convoluted system. Gets a little applause from the audience.

8:14 pm: Santorum takes a few swings, says that it won’t provide “breaks for families,” compares the birth rates in Europe.

CEC: Pushing the family values is all he’s got left at this point.

8:15 pm: Herman Cain given 30 seconds to respond, says “I invite every American to do their own math.” Then he mentions some weird Orwellian thing called “Opportunity Zones.” Huh?

8:16 pm: since Bachmann got mentioned, she gets a response, and actually gets very wonky about components of production.

8:17 pm: Perry: “Herman, I love you, brother, but… go to New Hampshire.” He says “it’s not gonna fly, Herman, it’s not gonna fly.”

8:18 pm: Cain claims this is all apples to oranges, because, once again, the tax code will be eliminated. He tries to go into detail, but gets cut off.

8:19 pm: Over to Ron Paul, who says he’d replace the income tax with nothing. Cheers! He’s less shouty and more self-righteous.

8:20 pm: Cain says his plan just “removes hidden taxes.”

8:21 pm: Romney asks Cain a question! They’re having a conversation about whether the state sales taxes would still apply. Cain, after some “apples and oranges” discussion, admits it, and Romney says “well, then, I’m gonna have a bushel of apples and oranges, because I’m gonna be paying both taxes.”

JHV: He’s just cutting to his stump speech. He’s way more on his game than last week.
CEC: He’s always on his game, but yeah.

8:22 pm: Gingrich compliments Cain for “focusing on big issues.”

JHV: Like Republican wedge issues?

Gingrich goes on to “focus on very narrow tax cuts,” cites Romney’s jobs-jobs-jobs pivot, and doesn’t really do anything interesting.

8:24 pm: Bachmann says: tax the 47%. Then she goes on to “take on the economic miracle of the 1980s” out of the Reagan era and “flatten the tax code.” Then she says the regular “repeal everything” and tosses in “MICHELLE BACHMANN DOT COM” as Anderson Cooper cuts her off.

8:26 pm: Rick Perry now, offered a chance to attack Romney, instead pivots to jobs-jobs-jobs, saying that “I’ve laid out my plan,” but then says his plan is all about “American Energy Independence!” Slow at times, forceful at others, but better than usual.

CEC: That’s the best answer I’ve heard him give in all these debates. And it still kinda sucked.
JHV: Agreed.

8:26 pm: Romney broadens it and says it’s not just energy, but manufacturing etc.

8:27 pm: Santorum talks about income mobility, name-checks Europe, and admits that manufacturing is the reason why low-income people over there can raise up. Then he hits Romney on Obamacare, saying he has “no credibility.”

JHV: It really says something about the state of the country when Republicans are willing to say that people in Western Europe have it better.

8:30 pm: Santorum and Romney have a talk-over-each-other fight and then Santorum says “you’re outta time.” The crowd boos him! Wow. Awful. Romney keeps his cool, throws in an “I’m paying for this microphone,” which prompts Perry to say something along the lines of “that’s not your line, brother.”

8:31 pm: Did Romney just say about Ron Paul, “I may not be a doctor, like this wingnut over here…”?!

8:32 pm: Gingrich, as usual, says something nice about Romney, then kicks in Romney as a “big government” strategy.

8:33 pm: Now Gingrich and Romney are fighting about where the individual mandate came from. Romney first says “We got it from you,” and eventually they agree that the Heritage Foundation did it, “against Hillarycare.”

JHV: What is this liberal think tank called “the Heritage Foundation”?

8:34 pm: Oh god, Bachmann starts shouting for more airtime. Then she says Obamacare is so broken the administration wants to throw it out. Oh lord.

8:39 pm: Back after a commercial break. To Ron Paul: anything in Obamacare you’d keep? Nope. “If you want better healthcare, you have to allow people to opt out of government medicine.”

8:40 pm: To Herman Cain, same question. “No. I think we all agree that Obamacare must be repealed, because it’s a disaster.” He goes on to talk about “H.R. 3400,” which would, according to him, “passes market-centered, market-driven patient reforms.” That sound you heard was a thousand fact-checkers slamming that into their Lexis searches.

8:42 pm: Holy shit, anarchy. Perry asked about health care in Texas, first says it’s one of the best systems in the world. Then he pivots to Romney and says it sucks because of “illegals,” and says that Romney hired illegals. Booing! Then Perry tries to talk over Romney, and then Romney shouts: “ANDERSON!” Goddamn, he beats Perry down, and then says “These’ve been a tough couple of debates for Rick.”

8:45 pm: Continued anarchy! After some point-scoring back and forth about Romney hiring “illegals” versus Perry granting “amnesty” for people in Texas, and when Perry interrupts again, Romney, exasperated, says, “you have a real problem with letting people speak before you start talking, and if you want to be President of the United States, you’re gonna have to let other people talk once in awhile.” Wow.

8:47 pm: Perry, now fired-up from his slam from Romney, gets to talk about immigration (Cain did, and gave a decent response). Perry says he wants Predator drones to create a Virtual Border Fence. Decent response, but kinda out there.

8:49 pm: Bachmann says President Obama’s relatives are illegal aliens! Then she says she’d build a Berlin Wall style double-fence along the entire border. And enforce English as the national language.

JHV: A moat? With alligators? No, I will build an underwater fence. To stop their submarines.

8:50 pm: Perry gets to respond, says, “for someone who’s been in the United States Congress to lecture me on border control, that’s just wrong.” Bachmann tries to cut him off, but Romney cuts in and says “everyone on this stage loves legal immigration.” Very very tepid applause. Then he goes after Perry for not “turning off the magnets,” saying he’s like “a college coach who says he’s got experience when he’s lost 40 games.”

8:52 pm: Given a chance to respond, Perry says “the #1 magnet is people like you, Mitt.” Crowd boos him! Romney says “I think we’ve been down this road before… and it sounds like the audience agrees with me.” Rick Perry. Owned.

8:54 pm: Gingrich gives warm platitudes on Latinos being citizens, then Paul says “we’ve been focusing too much on groups. We need to focus more on the individual.” Then he says something incredible: minorities are still discriminated against in court.

8:55 pm: To Cain: should the Fourteenth Amendment’s system for citizenship change? Cain decides he doesn’t want to answer that question and instead answers the “Latino voters” question by saying “boosting the economy.”

8:57 pm: Perry gets the same question, tries to do what Cain did, and then when Cooper tells him “I’d raaaather you answer the question I asked,” Perry says “you ask the questions, and I’ll answer them the way I want to.” Some murmured “uhhh”-sounds from the crowds, and Perry pivots to… surprise… energy.

8:59 pm: Ah-hah, Cooper asks it to Bachmann. She’ll answer that one. She immediately shouts “anchor babies.” Dog whistle.

JHV: Is that a thing?
CEC: Yep.
JHV: Huh.

9:00 pm: Santorum says “the basic building block of society is not the individual, it’s the family, and the Latino community understands that.” Now he wants to talk about moral values, and he says “look, I’m for jobs too… but family and faith in America is being crushed by the Courts.”

9:01 pm: Paul, given a chance to respond, basically says “bring the troops home.” Gets mixed applause and discontent.

9:02 pm: Gingrich, asked about Yucca Mountain, says “I’m not a scientist, that’s what the scientists picked.”

CEC: What? Gingrich? Saying scientists are right? Deferring to scientists?

9:03 pm: Now everyone is agreeing that Yucca Mountain is bad except for Gingrich. This is a boring local issue. But boring local issues make up a huge part of the early-state primary politics.

9:05 pm: Astute question – how will you fix the foreclosure problem? They give it to… Rick Santorum. Gahh. He manages to ruffle feathers by saying TARP was wrong and Romney/Perry/Cain were at fault. So now they get to talk. Perry just says “wrong,” Santorum says “right,” and nothing really happens. Romney talks about “markets knowing better than people.” Cain talks about “owning up” to his support, but then pivots to answering the question and reform.

JHV: They’re not talking about the foreclosure thing, really. I think we can say people with foreclosures and debts are now a significant part of the electorate.
CEC: Yep.

9:08 pm: Bachmann has a message to moms suffering from foreclosure. Hold on. This is very strange. Then Anderson calls time on her.

9:10 pm: Anderson Cooper gets to ask the Occupy Wall Street question to Cain: you said people should blame themselves – do you stand by it?

JHV: At long last.
CEC: Oh shit! The audience is applauding.

And the applause gets louder as Cain says yes! They should be protesting in front of the White House for a trillion dollars of legislation, because Wall Street didn’t “waste a trillion dollars.” More applause!

CEC: What? They didn’t?

9:12 pm: Now Paul and Cain are negotiating over how this was all “mismanaged,” but it’s weak sauce compared to Cain’s assertion.

9:13 pm: Romney pivots it to the President, saying “he’s made it harder for the economy to reboot.” Gives the usual “he has no experience” thing, and makes the curious assertion that “the president has no jobs plan, even now.” You mean, that thing he’s campaigning on?

JHV: I think that Romney citing the decline in median middle class income over the last three years is going to help Romney in the general election.
CEC: Yeah?
JHV: Yeah. It paints Obama like he’s Carter.

9:17 pm: Second commercial break.

JHV: You think Perry’s done better, the same, or worse?
CEC: Worse. Well, I mean, his answers are better, but those exchanges with Romney just killed him.
JHV: Yeah. I mean, Romney’s turning up the heat. Still, it’s funny to see Gingrich cling to the buddy system.
CEC: He’s running for Vice-President. In the earlier debates, he was more combative. Sorta, “yeah, fuck all y’all, I’m brilliant.” Now, he’s realized, “welp, not gonna win, better make friends.” Funny, though, without Huntsman there, he’s much more filling in that role of “blowhard.”
JHV: Yeah, Huntsman’s absence is… not felt.

9:22 pm: Back, and the question is if faith matters in politics, trying to draw out the Romney-faith thing. Santorum and Gingrich both answer in generalities, although points to Gingrich for referencing the Northwest Territorial Ordinance of 1787. Dude loves his Jeopardy facts.

9:23 pm: Specifically to Perry, he slurs a kind of non-response. Romney gives an answer on tolerance. Perry kind of shrugs.

JHV: He takes so… long… to say… anything! I just had this horrible image of Perry and Putin trying to negotiate something and the translators shaking their heads.

9:27 pm: Question: should we cut $500 million in defense spending? Bachmann gives an answer about how “disrespected we are in the world… the President has put us in Libya. He has now put us in Africa.”

9:29 pm: Gingrich: “I’m a hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk.”

9:30 pm: Paul: “I don’t want to cut defense. But [the Pentagon] does a lot of things that don’t help our defense at all. Like: why do we have so many troops in Korea?” Uh…

9:31 pm: Question regarding Israel negotiating for Shalit. Cain, given a sorta “gotcha” question, says you’d have to consider the issue, but then backtracks and says “I don’t recall [the hypothetical] being about Al-Qaeda.” Nice hedging.

9:33 pm: Waitaminute. Santorum just mentioned the “political-based failure” of the current president’s policies.

CEC: “Like… killing Bin Laden? Toppling Qaddafi?”

9:34 pm: Question from the audience to Perry. Why do we give foreign aid money at all? Perry says sure! Cut everything, cut the UN.

JHV: Can we say the percentage again that goes to foreign aid? Just so the readers know?
CEC: Less than 1%.
JHV: …thank you.

9:37 pm: Romney says there is some value to foreign aid. Ron Paul says: nope, not even to Israel. To Bachmann (who’s agitating for more time): Israel is our greatest ally. Also Herman Cain is naive. Cain kinda splutters through it.

9:45 pm: back from the last commercial break. Question: who can best beat Obama? Santorum whinges about how he was super conservative. Romney says “I think we need someone who can both defeat President Obama and get the country on the right track again.

(Santorum speaks)
JHV: Ah, all those things we don’t need.
(Romney responds)
JHV: Meanwhile, *ding-ding-ding*.

9:38 pm: Perry gets to throw some dirt at Romney’s jobs record. Romney throws the “you chaired Al Gore’s campaign” back to him, then Romney says that the jobs created were 40% for illegal immigrants. Perry says “that is an absolute falsehood… you failed as governor of MA, Mitt.” Booing. Romney gets cheers in responding!

CEC: Something I hadn’t considered… NV went overwhelmingly for Romney in ’08. And it’s got a lotta Mormons. I wonder how friendly this audience is to Romney?

9:52 pm: Anderson says it’s time to wrap it up. Bachmann shouts: ANDERSON ANDERSON ANDERSON! She and Gingrich both get 30 seconds each, but apart from Gingrich shouting about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, nothing really happened.

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for our recaps.

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on ...read more

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