Them’s Fightin’ Words

The gloves are off.

There were a lot of accusations, recriminations, spats and flat-out confrontations in the latest debate in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, aired on CNN last night.

It was like the political equivalent of the Real Housewives.

Not that I watch that.

Fine. Just the New Jersey one.

"Rick, I'm speaking! I'm speaking! I'm speaking! I'm speaking!"

You might be rolling your eyes, thinking this is the last thing you want to see or hear, and I get that. But I think it was great. Not because I don’t like these candidates, and not because I love it when politicians squabble over petty disagreements, but because I think it shows two things: character and un-spun approaches. A good fight is going to show you who can outwit whom and who can think fast on their feet. Being president requires both those strengths. Also, it’s good television, and if audiences are bored by debates, this is how to get them to watch.

Since Herman Cain hurdled over Mitt Romney in some polls since the last organized face-off, it was his turn to bear the brunt of the harsh questions off the top. Target: 9-9-9, Cain’s tax plan that he says is simple, transparent and effective. He would wipe out the entire federal tax code and replace it with a 9% tax across the board on income, corporations and sales. He says the reason it’s been attacked is because lobbyists, accountants and politicians don’t want to throw out the current tax code. He says it’s an easy plan. But he spent a lot of energy telling the other candidates they didn’t get it.

When you’ve got everybody on stage (except for Newt Gingrich, who seems to really like Cain) telling you your plan is crap for reasons they can specifically enumerate, you’ve got a problem.

Herman, we've got a problem.

Rick Santorum pointed out that a report from the impartial Tax Policy Center shows that 84% of Americans would actually pay more in taxes if Cain’s plan was implemented. I took a look: the worst hit would go to the low and middle class, smacking those who make between $10- and $20,000 with an increase around $2,700 a year. But homes with the highest incomes would pay less; those making more than a million per year would pay nearly half of what they pay now.

Texas governor Rick Perry told Cain that all he has to do is go to New Hampshire (or any other state that doesn’t have a sales tax) and he would find that the 9% consumer tax Cain calls for would, in fact, be a tax hike. Especially since, as Mitt Romney pointed out, the individual state sales taxes would not go away. Now you’ve got a 5, 6, 7% sales tax on top of Cain’s 9% federal tax. That’s 15% sales tax on everything you buy, every time you buy something. Plus, there’s no provision in the plan for a standard income deduction like we have now, and there’s no plan that helps families by decreasing the percentage of tax levied on income relative to dependents.

With attacks from all sides, Cain really couldn’t deflect the criticism. He wanted viewers to read the analysis of the plan posted on his website and see for themselves. Good luck. I’m fairly bright and I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. Admittedly, I’m not a business person, so I haven’t had to come up with tables and indexes; maybe someone else can look at the scoring and figure it out.

This might be the first time I can remember candidates flat-out calling for what amounts to an increase in taxes on the poor. The reality is that about half the country pays taxes. The other half have various reasons for immunity, but largely, it’s because they don’t make enough to meet the government guidelines for income tax liability. Now not only is Herman Cain saying they have to pay 9% income tax and 9% sales tax; Rep. Michele Bachmann says everyone should pay something as well. I understand that sentiment, but it’s not like the impoverished are getting away with something scandalous. Let’s find a serious way to lift them out of poverty instead of leaving them there and taxing them more.

One of the more fiery moments of the debate came when Rick Santorum challenged Mitt Romney on the issue of health care. He told Romney he has no credibility talking about “Obamacare” because of the health plan instituted in Massachusetts, accusing him of changing his story about whether it would be a good national plan. When the squabbling rose to a level at which Romney demanded to be heard without interruption, Santorum said, “You’re out of time.” It leaves Santorum looking petulant, but for a guy who can’t possibly win, he does a good job in challenging the guys to fights (he never engages Rep. Bachmann- he prefers to spar with Romney and Ron Paul). It might be his greatest value in the campaign.

Gov Rick Perry (3rd from right) stands like a cowboy. All the time. "Come 'n' git me."

This debate was, to a degree, make-or-break for Gov. Rick Perry, who’s crashed and burned in the previous face-offs. And he came out like a gunslinger last night. Perhaps the single most acrimonious moment was when Gov. Rick Perry flat-out accused Mitt Romney of hiring illegal immigrants. Romney at first denied knowing what he was talking about; then, upon challenge, he explained that his wife and he hired landscapers, who turned out to employ illegal immigrants, and when the Romneys realized it, they terminated the service with that company. But wow, did this get heated between the two men. I mean there were death stares. These two guys really don’t like each other. It led to another showdown of interruptions, so intense that Romney asked Anderson Cooper to break it up. When Cooper allowed Romney to speak and Perry interrupted again, Romney condescendingly, but with humor, said, “You have a problem with allowing people to finish speaking. And if you want to be President of the United States, I would suggest that you allow both people to speak.”

Fightin' words all over the place.

If Mitt Romney were my father, I would be terrified. My father was big on manners.

There were three controversial issues raised in the debate that I thought provoked compelling responses. Anderson Cooper asked, in light of Rev. Robert Jeffress’ condemnation of Mormonism as a “cult” while speaking at a Value Voters event headlined by Gov. Rick Perry, whether faith was fair game in a campaign. Rick Santorum, who is a vigorous Catholic, made his stand clear: values are important. If a candidate professes a religion, it is entirely fair to look at the values taught by that religion and parse how it will affect a candidate’s decision-making. But parsing the road to salvation is entirely different and should not be part of the debate over politics.

It was, to me, an impressive and fair-minded answer from a guy I often consider to be a closed-minded hot-head.

What? I admit my biases.

Gov. Rick Perry, by the way, repeated that he did not agree with Rev. Jeffress’ statements, and Romney was gracious enough to accept that without offense.

Another controversial topic was the Occupy movement. I’m surprised that it only rendered one question. Days ago, Herman Cain had said that if a person is angry that they’re jobless and not rich, they shouldn’t blame Wall Street; they should blame themselves. It’s exactly the kind of thing most self-made, successful businessmen would say. He stood by it emphatically at the debate, even though it’s not going to sit well with independent voters. Ron Paul countered, saying he understands why people are angry, and he said Cain’s approach blames the victims in most cases. He used it to get into his adversity to the Fed, and that’s where Cain accused him of mixing problems. But Cain also suggested that the protestors are in the wrong place; he wants them to march on the White House instead of Wall Street.

Which means they’re blaming government instead of themselves. I’m confused.

But here’s the moment that may do Cain the most harm going forward: he got a question about his stance on negotiating with terrorists. Could he see himself making a deal for a prisoner swap, similar to the one made yesterday in which the Palestinian Authority released an Israeli soldier. Cain said yes. The reason it’s a bit of a flap is because, in an interview prior to the debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Cain if he could see himself making a deal that, say, released all the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a benefit to the US.

And Cain said yes.

After the debate, Anderson Cooper did an informal one-on-one with Cain, and played the soundbite from the Blitzer interview. Upon returning from tape, a slack-faced Cain said very succinctly: “I misspoke. We were moving fast (with the interview) at the time and I misspoke. I would not do that.”

Generally I would suspect this was a bs answer because he’s trying to walk back a mistake, but his response here struck me as genuine. Still, if fewer people saw the Cooper interview after the debate, the negotiation question may come back to bite him.

I don’t know if Herman Cain will hold on to his momentum after this debate. Not being able to explain his “simple” tax plan is a problem, and he was exposed for novice levels of knowledge in other areas, like foreign policy. If Rick Santorum stays in the race just to hammer away at the poll-toppers, his greatest service will be to make people think twice, and that’s not a bad thing. Rep. Michele Bachmann is done. She can’t claw her way back from the basement with anything near the way she performed in the debate, spouting answers unrelated to questions and shooting for cute turns of phrase. Ron Paul may hold steady, which is to say he’s not going to rise; he’s got his staunch supporters and I don’t think he’ll gather many more (though I believe he’ll get the Occupy vote). Gov. Rick Perry did much better in this debate; he may come back a bit in the polls. Mitt Romney may actually suffer a tad for his patriarchal condescension and his anger at interruptions. And Newt Gingrich continues to fascinate me. But I’m sensing a pattern now. His intelligence means he’s easily and genuinely clever. And the crowd ate it up.

I think I’m finally starting to figure out debate audiences.

"Now you're getting it!"

You can read the full transcript of the debate here. (I feel sorry for the transcribers in this one.)