The Penultimate GOP Iowa Debate: Liveblog and Recap
It’s hard to believe this is the second-to-last Republican primary debate before Iowa voters go to the caucuses on January 3. Keep your browser parked here and keep mashing “refresh” to see our newly-expanded panel’s color (and off-color) commentary, as it happens.
RECAP (scroll down for the now-concluded liveblog)
This was both the most-interesting and hardest-to-rank Republican debate thus far. In many ways, the overarching theme was “inconsistency.” The Republican rank-and-file have been striving for a “consistent conservative” to take on Barack Obama since Day One in this race, but what this debate showed is that they will have to make do with a series of individuals who at times give very good, full-throated performances and at other times lapse into caricature. Effectively, they are reduced to choosing the best actor in a grade school play, where bombast and willingness to mug to the adoring parents may mean more than actual ability (and I say this as someone who acted in grade school plays, believe you me).
Like the bruising gloves-off second debate between Perry and Romney months (!) ago, this was not a night of winners so much as losers, or rather, one loser in particular. However, since the race is now a zero-sum game, anyone who’s not losing is winning by default (since no one will show up to the caucuses and vote “undecided”). Voters are ready to forgive minor inconsistencies if the overall message they get is good enough, and that’s what the voters in Iowa will ultimately decide, since there’s arguably no “momentum” or “inevitability” anymore. Just a strange sort of grim-but-electrifying stasis with these candidates, the can-do crop with their strengths and weaknesses both on display.
Let’s move on to the rankings.
(1) Gingrich. Like Romney around November, when Cain was the frontrunner (that’s Herman Cain, you know–remember Herman Cain? I forget him at times, too), Gingrich won this debate by not losing. His mistakes were covered up by other, bigger mistakes (Romney’s in particular) and the other candidates sensing more desperate blood in the water. The only major hit that landed on him was from Ron Paul, early in the debate, about taking “taxpayer’s money” from Fannie Mae, and even then, he was quickly overshadowed by other candidates’ flubs.
The rest of Newt’s night was smooth sailing by comparison. His insistence that the Palestinians didn’t exist “as a people” until 1978 (how did a “historian” miss the 1972 Olympics?!) even got him thrown a lifeline by Rick “history is boring” Perry, of all people, who downplayed the whole issue. Gingrich’s muted discussion of the immigration issue or his “multiple wives” problem was solved by the other candidates’ unwillingness to press him. And the one time he was seriously pressed, Mitt Romney had a bit of a brain freeze and spluttered out that MOON MINING was the first major difference between the two of them, which only benefited Michele Bachmann and her new awkward “NEWT-ROMNEY” catchphrase (likely at Romney’s expense). As my colleague Andrew Martin said, “if people like Gingrich, I don’t see how this will change that.”
(2) Perry. Rick Perry had the most serendipitous night of his life on this debate stage. He was not asked many questions, and the questions he was asked, often just before commercial breaks, allowed him to hammer home a few major lines or themes. He was the only candidate, for instance, who mentioned a Predator drone going down in Iran (go ahead, imagine that an Alternate Universe Rick Perry was zipped in for this evening), but he did so in the context of saying “I don’t care about this stupid Gingrich-saying-Palestinians-are-a-myth thing, I care about what a bad guy Obama is.” He wasn’t ever asked about his “I sure do hate the gays” ad because he’s no longer taken seriously, but even in his stammering, half-baked replies that still litter his speech, he came off less like a Percocet-addled wreck and more like a vaguely self-conscious George W. Bush. If that’s all voters want in terms of a “consistent conservative,” then Rick Perry, for the first time and by the sheer-luck virtue of being the not-frontrunner, took up that mantle. But is it too late?
(WILD CARD) Huntsman. Let’s interrupt here for a minute. Jon Huntsman wasn’t even on the stage tonight and will not be a factor at all in Iowa. But some polls have him up around 10% in New Hampshire. With “less clutter” on the stage (that is, without Huntsman out in the far wings to be asked a boring question on China), Republicans in non-Iowa states were presented with a stark choice: the suddenly-clayfooted Mitt Romney or the internally-reviled Newt Gingrich. They could go with Rick Perry, of course, but after eight years of George W. Bush, there’s still too much of the “I’m going to do whatever I want, then crash-and-burn” in Perry to appeal to a broader base of general election voters.
Huntsman had exactly what he needed to have happen to him happen tonight: Romney’s veneer of inevitability finally collapsed in a spectacular fashion, but nobody really “won” the debate. (As my colleague Alex Weinberg said, “Gingrich is not losing.” ) Now Huntsman can make the argument in places like New Hampshire, Missouri, and even Florida or Nevada that he is the person that really has a shot at defeating Barack Obama. It’s a long shot, but in the crazy world we live in, in which Newt Gingrich has displaced a pizza magnate to be the frontrunner, I wouldn’t rule it out.
(3) Paul. Back to the candidates on the actual stage. Ron Paul was not shouty or indignant in this smaller setting; indeed, he beamed happily and applauded back at his rather-vocal supporters at times. And while he still meandered at times into strange digressions into monetary policy, someone has finally convinced him that his strength is his perceived consistency: yes, it may be “outside the mainstream” on modern Republican issues, but, damnit, the modern Republican has nowhere left to turn except to a person who’s perceived as consistent in his heterodoxy. He won’t be seriously questioned unless he wins or comes in a close second in Iowa. But that serious questioning may destroy him, and he certainly proved he’s willing to stand by his purported principles even if it means taking down his candidacy with it. In the vacuum of debate-land, however, he did quite well this evening.
(4) Bachmann. This was Bachmann’s debate in so many ways. On the one hand, she positioned herself as the “anti-everybody” candidate, drawing not only clear lines between herself and Obama but also herself and an entity she called “NEWT-ROMNEY,” which prompted both men to give vaguely paternalist brush-offs that might just reignite her floundering campaign.
On the other hand, as she admitted at the tail end of her time, she’s getting this snappy “simple opposition” idea from Herman Cain. But Bachmann can’t run as a Washington outsider–she’s in Congress. Ron Paul actually started to laugh out loud as Bachmann started to explain that Herman Cain was outside of Washington in her closing statement, and that his supporters should vote for her because she was… well, she was also… uh… a “consistent conservative.” Bachmann is the last sloganeer standing in the race, and her ability to connect on issues where she seems terribly human, like discussing her parents’ divorce, will keep her in the running in Iowa. But she’s not going to travel far beyond that inconsistent, sadly-vapid tier.
(5) Santorum. Who? Despite his attempts to shoehorn in Iowa-related material, he was a non-entity in this two-hour debate. Once again, his early feistiness faded to total anonymity by the end of the evening.
(6) Romney. This is, as Voltaire might say with some degree of irony, the worst of all possible worlds for Mitt Romney. Early on, he won debates because he was able to shrug off attacks as irrelevant, because, he surely thought, he was going to win, damnit. But the Democrats’ vicious attacks on him, combined with his GOP rivals’, seemed to have been too much to bear. The second time he and Rick Perry met, he viciously swatted the Texas governor, only to have the DNC come back with an ad that mocked his frenetic “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!” response over illegal immigration. Romney succeeded in burying Perry, and he out-waited Herman Cain, but he could never have anticipated Newt Gingrich coming back from the dead to provide a serious challenge.
With his veneer of inevitability damaged, Romney crumpled. Attacks on his record in Massachusetts became personal. He seemed to get upset about little things. And so tonight, when he demanded Rick Perry take a $10,000 bet over what was or wasn’t in his book, he walked into a bear trap the size of Hillary Clinton’s “Drexel moment” where she somehow promised driver’s licenses for all illegal immigrants: a red-line in American politics. He named a number just high enough to be unaffordable for most Americans but not so high as to be hyperbolically outrageous. He made a Wall Street bet in an era where the stereotypical Wall Street inhabitants and their excesses are toxic. Just like his first tussle with Perry, where his beatdown was later used against him, this little exchange, even though Romney would have won that bet had Perry taken it, will be used to paint him as unpalatable. And it will work. His sharp ripostes to Gingrich over his “you were only not a career politician because you didn’t beat Ted Kennedy in 1994″ are pyrrhic victories in the face of that stupid moment. Just like most people thought Hillary Clinton won the Drexel debate, Mitt Romney will come out of this tonight feeling fine and wake up tomorrow with his candidacy floundering.
The vicious seething discontent with Romney among the frothing-mad base of the Republican Party will come out of the woodwork after tonight. Iowa will prove an inconclusive but striking victory for Gingrich. This nomination will be a long one. And at the end of the day, the voters involved may question whether anything is worth more than a candidate that is “good enough.”
Good evening, everyone. This time around, because of big-government socialism or callous bootstrapping (your choice) I’m pleased to be the head secretary of a double-sized liveblog team:
-Justin Vassallo (JHV), a regular contributor to the TFT Politics section and one-man force behind Bedfellows, whose first proper EP just went into post-production and should be out shortly.
-Andrew Martin (AHM), a writer with many credits currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana (swing state central).
-Alex Weinberg (AJW), a structural engineer by day and a man of many diverse/perverse comedic talents by night, including the troupe Dog Court and the visionary site Dregslist. He is also my Words With Friends nemesis.
-me (CEC), some weird guy I dunno
Andrew will be joining us through the magic of technology; Alex may get bored and leave us halfway through. Such is life. Stay tuned after the show; I’ll be writing the usual follow-up.
Alright, enough about us. This debate is being held live in Des Moines, IA and is sponsored by ABC News and the Des Moines Register. You can watch it live HERE. All the “major” candidates (except Jon Huntsman, who did not break the prerequisite 5% polling mark) will be participating tonight. So, let’s get down to the business at hand.
AJW: So who do you want to win this debate?
CEC: Rick Santorum.
JHV: (after giving it some thought) Ron Paul. Because I want blood on the streets of Iowa. I want Newt and Mitt pissed off. I mean, two for one, right?
AJW: I’m rooting for the inanimate carbon rod. In Rod We Trust.
Here we go…
AHM: This opening is amazingly reality-show esque.
CEC: Can’t wait for the immunity challenge.
9:03 pm Diane Sawyer “salutes democracy” and the candidates’ commitment. I guess…
9:04 pm George S. explains the rules.
AJW: The light will turn red. And then the candidates will ignore the light.
First question: What is your “distinguishing idea” about jobs?
Gingrich: I worked with Reagan! (Drink) – but also Clinton! (AJW: by “‘worked with,’ I mean, ‘tried to impeach.’”) Says less taxes, less regulations, be “positive about people to try to create jobs.” Class warfare reference! Now a huge number of references in a short amount of time. Low corporate taxes! Etc.
Romney now: “there’s not just one thing, there’s 7.” (AHM: “RomneyBot: always the same. He should be trying hard to break out of that.”)
Ron Paul: “this stimulus creates excessive debt and malinvestment.” “Malinvestment?” A lot of hate on the Federal Reserve. (CEC: “all he needs is a gun and less teeth and he’d be Andrew Jackson.”)
9:09 pm: Perry now. Talking about a 20% flat tax, but also a new idea, a “direct line between Washington & Wall street.” (JHV: “He’s the sole supporter of flat tax left, right?”)
AJW: “SO FAR SO BORING. DIANE SAWYER IS NOT A RED MEAT LADY.”
Bachmann: replace “9-9-9″ with “win-win-win.” Oh Guhhhh. Brings up that 47% “no income tax” dog-whistle. “American energy” gets play, too. Her plan is now “THE WIN PLAN.” Includes cutting EPA. Because that will create… jobs? Toxic death? Both?
9:12 pm: Santorum’s talking. CEC: “Rick Santorum has gone places that no man should go. In Iowa, I mean.”
Lots of talk about manufacturing and rural stuff. When Sawyer gets in with a question, he takes it as an opportunity to answer! Says he doesn’t want to commit to a number of jobs created in the first four years of his presidency, and Diane Sawyer immediately regrets asking an open question. (AHM: “I can’t wait until Rick Santorum is our President.”)
9:14 pm: Ooh. The payroll tax cut. Do you support adding $1,000 in taxes to working class people? Bachmann, cleverly, says it’s about senior citizens getting their Social Security checks. Because senior citizens vote. (JHV: “But if you cut that tax cut, you’re destroying consumer confidence.”)
9:16 pm: Romney says he’s in favor of the payroll tax cut, but pivots to “the Obama economy” and says that it’s a “band-aid.” Goes after Obama. Gets in a line about golf.
9:18 pm: Another question to Santorum! Whoa! Again, social security, nothing either way. (AJW: “He looks he’s going to cry! And that pancake makeup? Ugh.”) Ron Paul: “Extend it, but pay for it by bringing troops home.” (AJW: “Stammering is not a good look for Ron Paul.” CEC: “Anything is rarely a good look for Ron Paul.”)
9:21 pm: The Mitt Romney bot stalls!
George S. asks: “Who’s the most conservative?” To Romney, bringing up Gingrich’s quote. Romney says “there’re lots of differences,” but when pressed to name one, first says “uhh…” he wants to build a… uh… MOON MINING COLONY” Then he goes to schools and janitors, and to capital gains, but the damage is done.
MOON. MINING. COLONIES.
9:24 pm: Gingrich responds, point-by-point, but says, as a preliminary point, “the only reason you’re not a career politician, Mitt, is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994!” Dayyymn.
Goes through, says nice things about space and how poor kids should work and not UNION JANITORS IN NEW YORK CITY RAGGH.
9:26 pm: Nice retort from Mitt: “okay, well, if I had been a football player, I would’ve been in the NFL, too, like I dreamed… but losing to Teddy Kennedy was the best thing that happened to me, because I got to work in the private sector!”
9:27 pm: Fight between Paul and Gingrich. Paul says Gingrich took Fannie Mae money, which was taxpayer’s money. Gingrich says “it’s the private sector!”, mixed boos.
9:29 pm: Bachmann says she’s the best conservative, not… “NEWT-ROMNEY.” What kind of horrible monster is that? But she insists on keeping it up, just like this “WIN PLAN.” She insists that the nominee must be “totally different” from President Obama. Gets cheers!
9:32 pm: Gingrich says “Michelle, some of the things you’re saying just aren’t true,” says he got paid as a speaker because he was such a good speaker. Romney says he’s going to be a much better contrast to Obama, gets applause! (AHM: “Romney does seem more likeable tonight.”)
9:33 pm: AJW: Romney is looking at everyone with that look that says “I’m smarter than anyone in the room, but… you know… continue. continue.”
9:34 pm: Perry and Romney fight about mandates: Romney says “oh man, you totally mandated things too… VACCINE MANDATES!”
9:37 pm: After a weird historical digression from Gingrich, back to Perry & Romney fighting. Romney offers a $10,000 bet that what Perry says about his book isn’t true. Perry refuses to take it! Ooh.
9:38 pm: Bachmann: “Do we really think either of these men will repeal ObamaCare in 2012?” Romney (cutting in): “Yes.” Audience: laugher, applause. Whoops.
9:41 pm: Santorum blathers on about something-or-other, but back to Bachmann! She says “I saw that America was going to lose.”
CEC: “Lose what?”
Roomate’s boyfriend (eating dinner in the other room): “Backgammon!”
9:43 pm: first break! It’s been a hell of a brawl so far, between Bachmann’s grotesque “NEWT-ROMNEY” sloganeering and Perry attempting to bring out new statements, but Romney’s mini-brain-freeze and recovery seemed to be the biggest issue. Will they focus on “MOON. COLONIES.” or his clever reposte to Newt’s “Teddy Kennedy moment?”
AJW: “If Gingrich is actually in favor of moon colonies, man, whatever. He could be in favor of outlawing abortion, killing all the gay people–I want to play golf on the moon in my lifetime.”
JHV: “The theme music reminds me of Robocop.”
CEC: “[AHM,] who do you think’s winning so far?”
AHM: “Bachmann! Seriously. You?”
CEC: “It’s a wash.”
9:49 pm: Ruh-roh: the question is — is marital fidelity important in picking a candidate? Question goes to… Rick Perry! He says his deal with his wife is “stronger than a handshake in Texas,” to some hokey laughs. Then he says “if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner.”
Now to Santorum! He says “character matters,” and turns to Iowa-pandering, saying that they say “who can we trust?”
9:51 pm: Ron Paul says it’s more important to take the oath of office seriously. That’s actually a good answer.
JHV: “This may be Ron Paul’s best debate… but with Huntsman gone, Romney’s got the ‘nice hair’ cornered.”
9:53 pm: Some discussion of Europe from Mitt, who wisely says his ad about his family was actually about fighting Obama. “AJW: “Well, you know, in Italy, people can just pluck grapes from the vine hanging above their bed.”
9:54 pm: Bachmann talks, but the camera cuts to her grotesque-looking husband. Not flattering.
9:55 pm: Ooh, now finally to Gingrich. He says “I’ve said up-front and openly, I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness… but I’m a 68-year-old grandfather, and people have to look at what I am now.”
JHV: “I’m a 68-year-old grandfather. I can fuck who I want! C’mon.”
AJW: “What is that black flag pin Gingrich is wearing?”
CEC: “The Shabab flag.”
AJW: “It’s like an American flag, but black.”
CEC: “I… AM… IRONMAN.”
Question to Gingrich on immigration. He says we need “Citizen Review Boards” to determine whether people are good enough Americans to stay, but couches it in compassionate terms. Hushed silence from audience.
AHM: “Gingrich is being a dick.”
9:59 pm: Romney talks about his own “non-amnesty amnesty plan.”
JHV: “Isn’t this a major expansion of the immigration service?”
CEC: “BIG GOVERNMENT!”
AHM: “Immigration is boring.”
10:01 pm: Now to Perry, who decries this “intellectual” discussion and says we should just “enforce the laws we already have in place.” Gets applause! But stumbles over whether soldiers, who “haven’t been caught… in a violent situation…” should be deported too.
AHM: “Perry is kind of on his own little wavelength over there. Invented by GOD.”
10:04 pm: Ron Paul talks about the Israel/Palestine issue, says some wonky (but true!) things about how Israel and Palestine are both invented.
10:05 pm: But then Gingrich doubles-down on his whole “Palestinians are invented” thing, saying that they’re just all a bunch of extremists lobbing rockets, with “aid that we pay for.” Oh dear.
JHV: “That got the biggest applause of the night.”
10:07 pm: Romney says, effectively, “I agree with everything except the Palestinians being invented thing.” Tacitly accuses Gingrich of being a loose cannon.
10:09 pm: Gingrich blasts back, saying “I’m a Reaganite,” and, y’know Reagan did some crazy shit too, and it BROUGHT DOWN THE SOVIET UNION.
10:11 pm: Others are asked “who got the better of this argument?” Bachmann trots out her “I was on a kibbutz” speech. Santorum kind of blathers on.
AHM: “Rick Santorum, who you love more, Romney or Gingrich?”
But Perry does rather well, saying “this is a minor issue” and pivoting to how Obama “lost a Predator drone in Iran.”
CEC: “And that got the greatest applause of the night.”
10:20 pm: “When is the last time you had a financial strain?” Ooh. Tough question. Rick Perry talks about how he “never had a time in my life where I gave everything up,” but prefaces it with a long historical background. Decent answer, but a bit too winding, with “that record, that record…” fading out.
10:22 pm: Romney: “I didn’t grow up poor. But I had a dad that grew up poor, and he made sure” that he grew up right.
JHV: “I think it’s surprising. Romney is very good at channeling compassion when he needs to. But he does it so rarely. It’s like he’s afraid of appearing weak.”
10:23 pm: Ron Paul pivots to currency destruction on this question. Gets applause.
10:25 pm: Santorum pivots to family values, says “it’s important to [focus on] the family.” But surprisingly, in talking mostly about single-parent homes, appears to accidentally make the case for gay marriage.
10:26 pm: Bachmann talks about how her parents got divorced, and how she “went to below poverty overnight,” how she knows “what it’s like for single moms to struggle.” It’s surprisingly moving and clear-eyed, especially in contrast to her earlier shouting about how horrible Barack Obama is.
CEC: “That’s her strongest argument in every debate.”
AJW: “She seems to be the least oligarchical candidate up there. It helps.”
10:28 pm: Gingrich kind of gives a blathering reminder about his past, then says “my wife runs Gingrich Industries.”
AJW: “DO NOT MENTION YOUR CRAZY WIFE.”
AHM: “Right? My creepy wife runs my company that produces terrible books. Also she’s part of the reason why I got drummed out of office.”
10:31 pm: A talk about the mandate, Romney gets applause for mentioning federalism, saying “states can do whatever the heck they want,” Gingrich kind of flops around.
AHM: “How many times are we going to talk about the mandate? [Romney and Gingrich] flip-flopped on the mandate. Move the fuck on.”
10:34 pm: Ron Paul, on the mandate, just says that government should get out of “behavior,” which Perry seizes upon to talk about how Washington is bad, and gets applause! Second big applause as they go to commercial of the night.
10:36 pm: CEC: “So who’s winning?”
JHV: “Gingrich is winning, but I mean, Romney and Paul are tied for second.”
AJW: “I think Gingrich is not losing.”
AHM: “I mean, if people like Gingrich, I don’t see how this will change that.”
JHV: “Yeah, when Bachmann and Santorum say outrageous things, people say, well, they’re unelectable, but when Gingrich says them, they say, oh, he’s the frontrunner, and so he’s acting like he is the perfect union of electability and conservativism that he’s really not.”
AHM: “I can’t help but think people will just start liking him less when they remember who he is.”
AJW: “I will say, in a debate where everyone is not losing, Bachmann is actually hitting her points.”
JHV: “I feel like Gingrich is Nixonian as well.”
CEC: “How so?”
JHV: “With Romney, it’s a pursuit of power. With Gingrich, it’s a pursuit of relevance. And he’s never been a flip-flopper the way Romney is – but he’s too curious. He gets himself in trouble, because in his pursuit of ideas, he’s willing to consider things that are out of the conservative mainstream. That’s that career politician argument.”
CEC: “That argument’s a shadow of the ‘you’re an intellectual’ argument they bring up against Obama.”
10:41 pm: Here we go. “In lieu of closing statements,” say something that you learned from others on the stage.
Santorum: Learned from Newt’s tapes. Booorring.
Perry: Ron Paul, because he taught about how the Federal Reserve works. (AHM: “Before then, Rick Perry did not know about the Federal Reserve.”)
Romney: Says “the only people outside the debate are Ron Paul supporters.
Gingrich: says first Terry Branstead, Governor of Iowa (clever answer), then says Perry about the Tenth Amendment and Santorum on Iran, because “if we survive” (?!?) it’ll be because of people like him.
Paul: says Perry, because “it’s always nice when people come to you.”
Bachmann: Says Herman Cain(!?) because the 9-9-9 plan was “so simple” and so “outside of Washington,” and then, as Ron Paul laughs openly at her because she is also a Washington insider, says “I am a proven conservative.” What?
Aaaand… that’s a wrap! Thanks very much for reading, and thanks to the excellent color-commentary team of Justin, Alex and Andrew.
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