10/09/2007

Michigan Debate Analysis (R)

The Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate that focused primarily on economic issues this afternoon in Dearborn, Michigan. The debate was co-moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. Matthews has found himself at the center of a controversy because of remarks he recently made at the Hardball 10th anniversary celebration. (You can read more about the remarks here.) In short, Matthews made some comments about the Bush Administration that suggested he was biased against Republicans and conservatives. Although attacking Matthews over this provided low hanging fruit for the Republican candidates, none of them took the bait and Matthews emerged unscathed.

This debate was long anticipated and scrutinized closely because it was the first time Fred Thompson was on the same stage as all the other candidates. One of the chief criticisms of his campaign is the sense that he has been evasive because of his long "testing the waters" period and his refusal to accept Mike Huckabee's invitation to one-on-one debates despite Thompson's earlier claim that he wanted to participate in smaller forums.

Another reason why this debate was unlike the others is because for the first time, the ghost of Newt Gingrich was no longer a presence. Since Gingrich had formally ruled out a presidential run, the already declared candidates didn't have to look over their shoulders anymore and fear a galvanizing figure with strong conservative credentials throwing his hat in the ring. The Democratic candidates can't quite yet say that about Al Gore, however, even though he is running out of time to jump in.

Here are my thoughts:

There are too many candidates in the race for these debates to be as useful as they possibly could be at this stage in the game. There were nine candidates on stage competing for talk time. People have often complained about the Democratic debates and how the no-shot candidates continue to be included. Future debate organizers should consider implementing a threshold for participation. This threshold could be based on polling, fundraising, campaign organization, or some other factor that reasonably assesses a candidate's credibility and/or viability. Until the number of participants in these debates is reduced, it will be much more difficult for the credible candidates to engage each other in a meaningful exchange of ideas. As a result, this will serve to the advantage of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney because it will be harder for the middle-of-the-pack candidates to distinguish themselves.

Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, and maybe Tom Tancredo should seriously reconsider their campaigns. Sam Brownback was one of the clear losers in the Ames straw poll back in August. Even worse, the candidate he lost to was Mike Huckabee, who occupies the same political niche that Brownback is trying to fill. After that straw poll (and his consistently strong debate performances), Huckabee has eclipsed Brownback in opinion polls while Brownback has remained stagnant. There's not enough room in the race for two consistent social and religious conservatives. Huckabee has earned that mantle. As for Duncan Hunter, he has the same problem with Tom Tancredo that Brownback has with Huckabee. Tancredo is polling somewhat better than Hunter and is the more compelling speaker. Both candidates are vying for the role of the anti-illegal immigration, tough on national security hardliner. To this date, Tancredo has gained a fair bit of traction while Hunter has not.

Fred Thompson performed adequately, but he did not perform well enough to squash the budding caricature of him as a bumbler who is not quite ready for prime time. Thompson's delivery was halting and uneven at times as he had a tendency to meander. The substance of what he was saying should generally placate conservatives, but at times he seemed not to know when he should finish his answers and stop talking. This led to instances of Thompson talking a lot, but saying a little. This is something he should work on before his mouth gets away from him and he says something he regrets. For example, consider his meandering response to the question about the threat of a weak dollar.

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani may want to focus on Hillary Clinton, but they do so at their own peril. Both of these candidates are the co-leaders of the Republican presidential pack. Giuliani is the national frontrunner while Romney is the early primary state frontrunner (thanks to his strong support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada). Are they both focusing on Hillary Clinton to gin up the base while drawing the spotlight away from their own warts? Is Giuliani still worried about his moderate to liberal stances on social issues? Is Romney still concerned that conservatives aren't buying his "conversion" to conservatism? Will ranting about "Hillary," "Hillarycare," and "the Clintons" be enough to make conservatives hold their noses while they vote in the primaries for the obviously not conservative Giuliani or the suspicious Romney?

Rudy Giuliani would be wise to evoke September 11 a bit more prudently. Giuliani has been criticized a lot recently for tying so many of his behaviors and policies to these terrorist attacks. He even went so far as to attribute his taking a call on his cell phone from his wife in the middle of a speech to the NRA to September 11. Ron Paul was making a firm point about the war in Iraq and the potential war with Iran and said that there has never been an imminent attack on the United States in 220 years. Giuliani then reminded him of September 11. Paul defended himself by saying the terrorists were "19 thugs instead of a country," but Giuliani asserted that "there were operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "we could have launched a strike that would have disrupted their operations." (These are not direct quotations.) Anyway, Giuliani's responses seem okay on the surface and would likely appeal to voters who generally do not dig a bit deeper. However, in this exchange with Ron Paul, how could a terrorist strike in Pakistan have stopped the September 11 attacks if the hijackers were all in the United States by the time these attacks became "imminent?" Will a candidate begin to poke holes in Giuliani's 9-11 mantra in the future and diminish his executive/national security image? The openings are definitely there.

Ron Paul must be taken seriously as a spoiler candidate. Paul's fundraising for the third quarter has been particularly impressive. However, because he continues to languish in the polls, it is difficult to gauge exactly where his support is coming from. Barry Goldwater conservatives who have a more libertarian view of social issues may find some resonance with Paul. The same could be said for Grover Norquist anti-tax conservatives. Ditto for anti-war liberals who like his clarity on the unconstitutionality of the war in Iraq. Younger voters who are less likely to have the same hangups that older voters have regarding issues like homosexuality and gay marriage may be more intrigued by his libertarian message as well. Paul received several rounds of sustained applause after some of his responses in this debate as well as earlier ones. The candidates most threatened by a Paul ascendancy are John McCain and Barack Obama. Iowan Republicans are a bit too socially conservative as a whole for Paul to crack, but all bets are off in New Hampshire, whose motto is "Live free or die." Because independents can participate in the New Hampshire primaries, Paul could draw independent Republicans from Obama and independent Democrats from the maverick John McCain who has traditionally attracted significant independent support. The purity, thoughtfulness, and consistency of his arguments have helped his rise from political obsolescence to annoying gadfly to a voice of logic and reason that many other candidates seem not to want to hear.

John McCain seems to be more of a national security candidate than an economic issues candidate. McCain's strong performance at the last debate in New Hampshire led to a flurry of stories about "McCain's revival." I highly doubt those stories will continue based on his performance at today's debate. McCain spoke with far less conviction when he was talking about corporate issues than he does when he talks about terrorism and Iraq. Aside from criticizing pork and wasteful government spending, McCain did not seem particularly passionate about discussing corporate profits, free trade, and labor unions.

Mitt Romney's gaffe about seeking attorneys' guidance before attacking Iran will come back to haunt him. Romney already has to deal with the caricature of being just a little too slick. A slick candidate making a gaffe about slick lawyers regarding the decidedly unslick issue of national security is problematic. And worse of all, Republicans want strong executive leadership. If a Democrat had said the president had to consult attorneys before making such critical national security decisions, he would have been absolutely pummeled by the Republicans. How will Giuliani and the other candidates exploit this misstep? It definitely undercuts his image as an executive, that's for sure.

There was a lot of sloganeering and cheerleading at the debate which came at the expense of fleshing out actual policy discussions. When the candidates were asked what the greatest threat was to the United States' economic prosperity was, several of them cited "a lack of optimism." Pep talks about "no more doom and gloom" and "being the greatest nation on Earth" may make voters feel good, but they don't address the actual threats to our nation's economic security that can be addressed by policy, such as the deficit, trade imbalances, energy independence, China, the defense budget, or taxes. It reminds me of religious conservative politicians who believe prayer is the best antidote to many of society's ills while government assistance, educational opportunities, economic development, and community involvement often go unmentioned. There's obviously nothing wrong with prayer, but anybody can pray. However, only politicians and lawmakers have access to the levers of power that control the tangible resources that can actually make a difference.

Mike Huckabee is very, very dangerous. I've written about Huckabee's potential as early as the second Republican debate back in May. I've studied Huckabee's comments in all the debates so far and he seems to be a much more credible, thoughtful conservative than either Romney or Thompson. He is also able to make references to Southern and rural culture that sound natural, rather than forced. For example, Huckabee made a simple analogy about NASCAR and taxes or some other economic policy. ("In NASCAR, when you pull into the pit stop, you get what you need and you get it fast.") This is a perfect example of breaking down political double talk into plain ol' English. He even managed to casually work in a reference to "Goober and Gomer" for good measure! While Giuliani and Romney train their guns on each other and on Hillary Clinton, they had better be careful that Huckabee doesn't snatch the nomination from them. During the post-debate show Huckabee said, "If A takes care of B, then C will be the nominee." This could be prophetic. The problem Huckabee poses for Romney and Giuliani is that they cannot attack his conservative credentials. It's no secret that conservatives are conflicted about Romney, Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson. But Huckabee is a much better ideological fit for them and he can talk about his conservatism much more credibly. He is a better speaker than Thompson and can match Romney and Giuliani in terms of executive experience. Huckabee has been clawing his way through the pack on a shoestring budget and is finally getting some fairly steady press coverage. Consider the recent Des Moines Register Poll showing Huckabee in third in Iowa ahead of Giuliani. Simply put, Mike Huckabee is real. This candidate is a much more serious threat to the Democrats in general than Rudy Giuliani is.

5 comment(s):

Silence Dogood said...

I tend to agree with some of Ron Paul's comments on foreign policy (not some of the more isolationist things like dropping out of the U.N.) but his take on Sept. 11th for instance I tend to agree with. However, 220? years? Is the war of 1812 that small of a footnote anymore - they did set the White House on fire?

oso diablo said...

another good post. couple of comments/thoughts...

1. Where was Alan Keys?
2. I believe it was only Romney who cited "lack of optimism" as the greatest threat to the economy. Rudy said education; Brownback cited the breakdown of the family structure.
3. Do you believe Paul will run as a 3rd party candidate?
4. I started up my own Huckabee blog. Follow my profile link to find it, if interested.

Anthony Palmer said...

Silence,

I think the War of 1812 is a bit too abstract for most voters to wrap their brains around. I get the sense that even minor spats such as Vietnam and WWII barely warrant a grunt among today's younger generation, unfortunately.

Oso,

Thanks for your comment. And good luck with your new blog! I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty to add you to my blogroll. I have several philosophical disagreements with Mike Huckabee, but I do respect the way he presents his political arguments. Very affable man.

Regarding the optimism thing, you are right that Romney cited that as the main economic threat. Brownback said "this country rocks" and said we shouldn't be so pessimistic, but I don't remember what he was talking about. And Rudy Giuliani chastized Maria Bartiromo for suggesting that London could overtake New York as the financial capital of the world and said we should be a bit more optimistic and that "nothing will ever overtake New York" or something to that effect.

Thanks for reading The 7-10! I'm always happy to receive comments from faithful readers. And again, good luck with your new blog. I'll keep checking it from time to time to see if I've missed a few interesting news tidbits.

oso diablo said...

finally got a chance to watch the whole thing, and i saw the part you're referring to, where everyone talked about what the GOP needs to do to win back the confidence of Americans on the economy.

thanks for the add.

Thane Eichenauer said...

Where was Alan Keyes
He was excluded.

Do you believe Paul will run as a 3rd party candidate?
Mr. Paul ran as a 3rd party (Libertarian) candidate in 1988 and fared pretty darn poorly. The world hasn't changed enough in 20 years for it to be worth while for anyone to run as a 3rd party candidate for President who isn't in it to make a point instead of to win the office.

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