Republican Candidates’ Debate in New Hampshire: Few Surprises; Impressive Participants, Save the Moderator

–Richard E. Vatz

Just a few observations on the CNN Republican presidential candidate debate, some evidenced-based and some mostly impressionistic:

1. Good Lord: what ever happened to the serious, issue-centered John King I used to love to watch? Over and over and over and over, he emitted noises as each candidate gave his or her answers. The intent appeared to be to communicate his (King’s) dissatisfaction with the responsiveness of the answer or the length of the answer. He did this after a few seconds for the vast majority of the answers. He then introduced irrelevant touchy-feely questions (called “This or That — to learn more about our candidates” — really dumb and even more invalid than dumb) which was like a splash of cold water on the good, crisp answers of the participants. Elvis or Johnny Cash? C’mon John…if there’s humor, it will flow naturally. Bring back the old John King. He improved a little in the second half of the debate.

2. Each candidate was true to form. Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul was consistent, but why not ask him about his stunning statement that he would not have attacked Osama bin Laden at his compound? I do, though, like the participation of a serious Constitutionalist in a Republican debate to remind us of how debate starting points have shifted significantly to the left.

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3. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich did not explain in any convincing way why his castigating of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan as “social engineering” was justified, saying he was only warning that if the American people initially oppose a plan, maybe Republicans should do so. Yeah, that’s leadership. But give Gingrich his due: he is informed, articulate and often makes necessary insights.

4. Gov. Mitt Romney was not convincing regarding the lack of a contradiction between Romneycare and Obamacare. He said the president’s health care plan creates many more taxes and defunds Medicare, and Romney supports “state-centric” programs. Why does that speak to the relative irresponsibility of Obama’s plan, except in scope? You ought to see how irresponsible Romneycare is on the open wallet for psychiatric care for the “worried well.” To be fair, on other issues Gov. Romney sounded authoritative and articulate and presidential. He has my vote…as soon as he convinces me on his credibility on health care.

5. Gov. Tim Pawlenty continues to impress…did he imply unrealistic optimism with his rhetoric wanting to assume 5% annual economic growth? Yes, but why would any reasonable disinterested observer find this dispositive? He was clear, informed, and consistent in his opposition to Obama policies.

6. Rep. Michele Bachmann was surprisingly cool, clear and articulate. She is not going to be the Republican presidential nominee, but she is a bright, thoughtful woman. She is capable of the surprising, off-the-wall comment, but she was impressive in this debate.

7. Radio host Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have never shown a hint of significant support for a presidential run. They should not have been in this debate, although I do think Rep. Paul adds significantly to the discussion (see above).

8. A plea to whoever determines topics and formats: do not have debates last more than an hour or at most one and one-half hours. And please get to foreign policy before the last 16% of a debate, if you’re serious. There were hints of interesting lines of argument that were given insufficient time to be developed. Gov. Pawlenty made a firm, compelling argument for internationalism, but then King never got back to him. Rep. Bachmann and Speaker Gingrich made interesting cautionary statements regarding blind policy-making in Libya…but there was little follow-up. Perhaps some of the “This or That” time could have been added to foreign policy consideration or some time from the questionably worthy abortion component of the debate. Or maybe some screening of value-free questions, such as “What have you learned in the last two hours” from King or, from a questioner, what about the fact that the American people think the Republicans present a weak field? Dear reader, what could anyone say of value to such time-wasting questions?

Overall verdict: no surprises; insufficiently good clash due to too many candidates and poor moderation by a formerly talented moderator. Still, the candidates with a chance of getting the
nomination — Romney and Pawlenty — did generally well, and slightly more so Pawlenty.

–Dr. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

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