The ABC Republican Debate, billed as a debate on domestic and foreign policy, was turned by the moderators George Stephenopolous and Diane Sawyer into a circular firing squad with Gingrich in the middle. The evening resembled an ambush more than a debate, with most of the questions explicitly designed to require the candidates to take shots at Gingrich. That said, the consensus of 20,000 plus viewers responding to the debate from Yahoo as well as the analysts of the ABC News crew was that Gingrich had done well to the point of solidifying a position as the presumptive nominee, Bachman helped herself to a degree, and Romney hurt himself, perhaps badly. I concur, though I would add that Ron Paul gave some very good answers, as did Rick Perry.
The Debate Overview:
As surprisingly good as CNN's debate was several weeks ago, ABC's debate was that surprisingly horrendous. This was not a debate where the candidates were asked to explain policy and make a positive case for why they should be nominated. Two of the questions asked give a flavor for the degree to which this was an ambush aimed largely at Gingrich. On the issue of Faith, the sole question asked was:
Should voters consider marital fidelity when making their choices for President?"
Ready, Aim for the Newt, Fire!!! Almost as bad, on the issue of "foreign policy," the only question asked was:
Speaker Gingrich managed to cause something of a stir overnight in the Middle East with comments he made in an interview on a Jewish channel in which he called the Palestinians an "invented people." And I just wondered, Congressman Paul, if I can start with you, do you agree with that characterization . . .?
The Debate Highlights:
Every candidate had some good moments during the evening, despite the way in which the "debate" was conducted by ABC. The three best were (in my humble opinion):
1. Ron Paul: While discussing the healthcare mandate, stated "Once government uses force to mold behavior or mold the economy, they've overstepped the bounds and violated the whole concept of our revolution and our Constitution." That drew much applause.
2. Rick Perry: When asked to pile on about how bad Newt was for saying that the Palestinians were an invented people, went Gingrich on the moderators, saying that "this is a minor issue that the media has blown out of proportion." He then went on to discuss the foreign policy missteps of the Obama administration, concluding that "this President is the problem, not something Newt Gingrich said."
3. Newt Gingrich: After being called out by Romney for being a career politician, Gingrich responded to Romney, "[l]et's be candid the only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
The Debate Lowlights (mostly, the Romney reel):
1. The worst answer of the night came from Romney in response to the "foreign policy" question, asking the candidates to criticize Gingrich for calling the Palestinians an "invented people." To begin with, Gingrich's statement was accurate (see here and here), and when finally asked by the moderators, Gingrich defended his statement on the need to be honest about what is going on in the Muslim world (see video at the bottom of this post). Romney took the position that, as a matter of policy, we shouldn't be saying anything to make the Muslims angry, whether its true or not. He added the caveat that we could speak the truth on such issues only if we cleared it with Israel first.
The problem is much bigger than Palestine and Israel - that is just a proxy for the larger struggle. Gingrich fully understands that. Whitewashing the problems of the Muslim world, even as Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power, is the precise opposite of what our President needs to be doing. To the contrary, our next President needs to be shining a Xenon searchlight on reality, otherwise Salafism will continue to metastasise throughout the world and the cost to America in blood and gold to fight this scourge will rise exponentially. Romney's answer was profoundly weak and it is clear that he has neither any real understanding of the problem, nor the fortitude to address it openly and honestly.
2. On the issue of "faith," Rick Perry opined that any person who would commit adultery could never be trusted. It was a pretty unseemly display of naked ambition, particularly coming from a man running in large measure on being deeply pious. Apparently, all that Christian dogma about forgiving the sins of the repentant has been suspended by the Perry camp until the conclusion of the Republican primary.
3. Romney had his Pawlenty moment responding to the question, "what (positive) things have you learned from your challengers?" Romney didn't answer the question directly, but rather waxed poetically - and transparetnly - about how important leadership was, and that each candidate has a different leadership style. He stopped there. Anyone who is paying attention knows that Romney is having every one of his surrogates attack Gingrich with the meme that Gingrich has poor leadership. Fair enough, but then Romney stops short of coming out with that himself. Wow. Did this joker have his cajones snipped or what?
4. At one point during the debate, Perry repeated for the umpteenth time the canard that Romney embraced the individual mandate in his first book as a national plan. Romney turned to him, said that Perry was wrong, and then offered to bet him "$10,000" on it. My sympathies lie with Romney on that one, but apparently the many people interacting through Yahoo saw it as a huge negative. This from Yahoo:
When we asked viewers, "Did you like seeing Mitt Romney ask Rick Perry to accept a $10,000 wager?," just 33 percent of the first 1,200 people who responded people answered "yes." By the time the question closed at 11 p.m. with just over 25,000 votes, 70 percent of Yahoo! watchers said "no," they did not like the wager.
NPR politics editor Neal Carruth commented on Twitter: "Suspect the $10,000 bet will remind people of this photo." The picture, from the Romney's days at Bain Capital, shows the candidate and his colleagues gleefully posing with money. Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the National Review, tweeted, "Memo to Romney: Please don't now say that proceeds from $10,000 bet would have gone to charity."
The Debate Oddities:
1. There was a heap of pandering going on in Iowa. Gingrich made a point of calling the Iowa governor a role model, Bachman reminded us several times that she was born in Iowa, and Rick Santorum tried to work in the names of all of the 99 counties he's visited.
2. Michelle Bachman is trying to pick up the Cain supporters, repeatedly stating that she had renamed her economic plan "win win win" in honor of the Hermanator. I do like her, but she is just a little off center. She is sort of the conservative version of Nancy Pelosi, only a lot less psychotic.
1. Gingrich was under constant attack, but he responded to each attack effectively with deft answers and equanimity. Anyone who hoped to see Gingrich implode at some point between now and the elections must be disheartened indeed. The ABC news team thought that Newt Gingrich came out of the debate as the "inevitable nominee." I concur.
2. No Republican nominee should consider doing a debate in the general election hosted by ABC News. Their performance was horrid and designed to hurt the Republicans.
Update: Prof. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection posts his comments on the debate here. The Prof. also has a separate post with several videos, two of which I have included below.
This first video is Newt defending his comment that Palestinians are an "invented people" (replaced with the full video on this question)
This second video is of Perry "going Newt" on the moderators for asking the question whether the other nominees agreed with Newt's characterization of the Palestinians as an "invented people."
Do visit Legal Insurrection for the rest of the videos and some interesting tweet captures.
The Coffee Shop is the first blog to have the full debate video posted. You'll find it here.
Other Debate Commentary:
Politico: Republican Debate In Iowa; Newt Gingrich Unbloodied, Unbowed
Real Clear Politics: Free-for-All Iowa Debate Highlights Fluid Race
LAT: Mitt Romney's $10,000 Bet Could Come Back To Haunt Him
WaPo: Iowa Republican Debate: Winners and Losers
Dave Weigel at Slate has written a column, The Iowa Debate: Newt Wins The Dress Rehearsal. In it, he identifies the "foreign policy" question as the moment Newt won the debate. I concur. This from Weigel:
[Gingrich's] last full-on grapple with Romney came when the former governor attacked him, in a sort of more-in-sorrow-than-anger way, for saying that the Palestinians were an "invented people." That, said Romney, was complicating things for Israelis.
"The Israelis are getting rocketed every day," snorted Gingrich. "We're not making life more difficult. The Obama administration is making life more difficult." Plus, he was right on the facts. "Palestinian did not become a common term until after 1977." That's the sort of knowledge-bomb that Republicans dream of dropping on Obama—they feel like this is right, but here's a candidate who can say so.
And then Gingrich closed the loop.
"I'm a Reaganite," he said. "I'm proud to be a Reaganite. Even at the point of causing some confusion with the timid."
Who was "the timid?" Whoever viewers thought it should be. Obama. Romney. The media. All of them, as far as they're concerned, would lose in a showdown with Newt Gingrich. And this is how he won the debate.