Santorum Exits, Stage Right. End Scene.

Well, it’s happened. All the pontificating and gesticulating and jockeying and vying is pretty much done. Game basically over. Mitt Romney will be your nominee for the Republican Party’s presidential race.

Did you hear that cheer?

Me, neither.

Rick Santorum’s decision to leave the race was rather sudden, but not necessarily unwarranted. His daughter, who suffers from a rare and very serious genetic disorder called Trisomy 18 which kills more than 90% of its victims by their first birthday if not in-utero, was hospitalized again over the weekend. Apparently, though the former senator did not say it directly, that was part of the influence on his decision.

I’m sure he wouldn’t have decided the same thing if he had more delegates or didn’t appear set to lose the primary in his home state of Pennsylvania on the 24th.

Say and think what you want about Rick Santorum. I’ve said before that the reason he did so surprisingly well at just the right time for a candidate was that he rarely changes his position on anything and he stands up for what he believes in, come hell or high political water. Not everybody likes what he believes in, but he didn’t need their support, anyway – there were enough people who were like-minded to bolster his race. But he never could raise enough money and he never could get as organized as the Romney people (because he never could raise enough money).

What was right about Rick Santorum was that he knew what he was talking about when it cames to matters of Congress, foreign affairs and budgeting. Sometimes his answers on those questions in debates earned him boos because the crazy audience members (I swear they’re a pack of rabid animals) wanted him to be less realistic and more wholly right-wing on those issues, but Santorum served as a representative and a senator. He knows the process and he sat on the committees. He knows what’s not going to fly on Capitol Hill, and more importantly, he’s going to tell you it won’t fly. Unlike Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, both veterans of the Hill as well, who have pie-in-the-sky ideas (moonpie-in-the-sky, in Gingrich’s case) and won’t face facts because they get in the way of a good (read: insane) soundbite from a debate. Oh, Gingrich rants against the media, but he knows they’re doing his bidding every time they run a bite.

When Santorum decided to suspend his campaign yesterday, Mitt Romney put out a statement saying he had been a worthy and able competitor who proved he had an important voice in the party and the nation.

Newt Gingrich called his campaign a remarkable testament to the power of conservative values and then “humbly” asked Senator Santorum’s supporters to check out and throw their support to him as he continues his campaign all the way to the convention “so conservatives have a real choice.”

Newt Gingrich is not humble about anything and this was the first time in months that I’ve seen him address a competitor in the race with the respect of a title before his last name. He normally just tosses out last names. Romney this, Santorum that, Obama the other. The rest of the candidates are respectful enough to put the title before the name. Governor Romney, Senator Santorum, President Obama.

So, let me check… yep. I still hate Newt Gingrich.

Ron Paul is still in the race, too, by the way. You wouldn’t know it, because once Super Tuesday came and went, his ability to challenge a frontrunner did, too. He hasn’t won a single state so far and they’ve been through half the primaries. Supporters will tell you that everyone counts the delegates wrong and Paul actually has far more delegates than anyone thinks. I don’t know whose math they’re using. Maybe it’s that drug legalization that’s getting to them.

The good news, dear readers, is that if you’re not into Republicans, you can relax a little. You’re going to have far fewer of them coming at you now. The bad news is that if you live in a swing state, the commercials are going to start hot and heavy soon. Obama v. Romney. Title fight. Whether it will be a gentleman’s game or a Mixed Martial Arts match-up remains to be seen.

Super Tuesday: Why Did It Matter?

In case anyone is wondering: yes, I did stay up until 2am watching CNN’s primary returns. Why 2am? I don’t know. Ohio was dispensed with by around 12:45. I’m just a junkie. Plus I enjoy casting imaginary films about pundits and analysts. I’ve decided that Kevin Spacey will play Ari Fleischer.

Kevin Spacey...

...Ari Fleischer

Also I might have fallen asleep for a little while.

So! Who cares about Super Tuesday, right? What difference does it make? Jack sent me a text last night pretty much asking that. “None of these clowns stand a snowball’s chance in Sarasota against Obama,” he told me. Jack thinks he’s funny. He just got back from Sarasota. It was warm and beautiful and he likes to rub that in. Now, Jack is more on the conservative side and not at all on the politically interested side, but he engages me sometimes for the sake of amusement. And of course, I replied that he’s correct. Mitt Romney has proven time and time again that he can’t seal the deal on anything with ease, and that’s really what you look for at this stage in the game. And while Rick Santorum has been surprisingly successful, it’s still really hard to fathom him as the nominee. And if he were, there’s pretty much… well, not a snowball’s chance in Sarasota that he’d win. So why was Super Tuesday so compelling that nerds like yours truly stayed up so late?

Because this campaign has the potential to redefine the Republican Party.

For a long time, Republicans have been about defense and getting the government off your back. Allegedly. Mostly the defense part. In the last 20 years or so, the party (led by whatever president was there – so, Bush I and Bush II) has spent more, bugged people more (particularly at very inappropriate times, in their bedrooms) and gone a little war-crazy.  But now? Now we’ve got Santorum and Gingrich, to some extent, telling you that not only are you prohibited from being gay and happy (which used to be synonymous), or gay and a service member; you also can’t determine your own desire or ability to be a parent. Nor can you take as a given that the government will not base its laws on religious belief. Nor is it appropriate for everyone to aspire to a four-year college degree. Nor, apparently, can you be a woman who wants to serve on the front lines in defense of her nation.

You might get emotional. And the boys might feel all protective of you. That would be new, since none of them ever risked their own lives to drag another man out of the line of fire. I guess the guy who thanked my uncle for saving him in Vietnam made up that story. And none of the men who came home from war in the last 236 years ever got a little weirded out or upset on the battlefield. And of course they’ve all been just fine and dandy upon their return.

It’s different with the womenfolk.


My point is, with the longevity of the Tea Party (they say they’re not “just” Republican, but that’s largely a load of crap), the strength of Santorum’s momentum and the unrelenting, if aggravating, presence of Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party is showing that it might be ready to move farther to the right. Like, back to the social constructs of the 40s and 50s, when women who did anything other than stay home and make babies within the church-blessed bond of marriage were sluts and prostitutes.

Ah, those were the days.

And lest you think that the Republican candidates for president soundly criticized that Radio Host Who Shall Not Be Named’s absolutely ridiculous and rancorous days-long rant similar to above against a law school student, let me remind you:

Newt Gingrich said he was pleased when the radio host apologized, but called the overall controversy “silly” and said to NBC’s David Gregory, “You know, David, I am astonished at the desperation of the elite media to avoid rising gas prices, to avoid the President’s apology to religious fanatics in Afghanistan, to avoid a trillion-dollar deficit, to avoid the longest period of unemployment since the Great Depression, and to suddenly decide that Rush Limbaugh is the great national crisis of this week.”

Nevermind how much I hate this man’s constant bitching about the “elite” media that carries his message to the masses (and he should check the definition of “elite”… it means “best.” I think he means “elitist,” which carries the connotation I believe he intends). I can appreciate wanting to get the national conversation back on track with the issues he wants to discuss, but I cannot appreciate anything less than an absolute condemnation of said radio host’s comments.

Rick Santorum said the radio host was being “absurd, but entertainers are allowed to be absurd.” Not incorrect… but not exactly a reprimand.

Mitt Romney said, “It’s not the language I would have used.” That’s just pathetic.

Ron Paul, himself an obstetrician and gynecologist who knows very well that contraception is far from just being about sex, called the radio host’s comments “over the top,” and went a step further, becoming the only candidate to call the eventual apology what it really is: “He’s doing it because some people were taking their advertisements off his program. It was his bottom line he was concerned about. I don’t think he’s very apologetic. It’s in his best interest. That’s why he did it.”

Thank you, Congressman Paul. You have demonstrated yet one more time that you are not a Republican. The Republicans are scared to go toe-to-toe with the radio host.

But, singlecell, haven’t you digressed a bit from Super Tuesday?

No. No, I have not. What Super Tuesday proved was that Mitt Romney is still the presumptive nominee, but he still couldn’t get the job done convincingly, and while he has far more delegates than the second-place Santorum, Santorum is connecting with people more.

Romney isn’t a connector. He believes in nothing that gets people fired up (aside from those who attend his rallies, who are obviously already going to vote for him). Santorum gets people’s passions ignited. It just so happens that those passions tend to involve taking choices away from women and blatantly denying a separation between Church and State. There are people who agree with him. And that’s alright. If the majority of people in the Republican Party agree with him, they’ll nominate him. If the majority of Americans agree, they’ll elect him president.

You’ll excuse me if I move to France, then.

Paris... liberte', egalite'...

Yes, I said France. Mostly to piss off Santorum. And my mother.

And by the way, an aversion to Rick Santorum does not automatically translate to support of abortion, or support of anarchy, or amorality, or immorality. It simply translates to a view of America as a nation that does not tell its people what they can and cannot do with their bodies and in their bedrooms and with their beliefs. It translates to a view that lets people’s individual beliefs dictate their actions in areas of connection to religious principle.

But as Santorum continues to succeed, the Republican Party has to consider that his message is resonating with its members. I think the party’s players are resisting that shift. But last night, as we all (okay, just me and some other nerdy nerds) waited anxiously to hear which way the tight race in all-important Ohio would go, the party must have gotten that message, loud and clear.


There were two presidential debates in New Hampshire in the span of about 14 hours. I couldn’t see or hear the one this morning. The one last night (the first in nearly a month) got a lead-in audience from “Wipeout.” Something tells me those two programs do not appeal to the same demographic. It might have been fun to see the candidates trying to clamor across giant bouncy balls covered in mud and getting socked in the head by humongous boxing gloves, but apparently that doesn’t happen until you’re elected.

You know who I wouldn’t have minded getting boxed in the ears? Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos.

They sucked.

The thing about debates that makes them debates, that makes them good, are good questions. But when they did get questions about potentially tension-mounting topics, the candidates didn’t seem to have the energy to go all-out, preferring instead to just say, “Yeah, I do stand by what I said about him being corrupt/a chicken hawk/a liar,” and letting it drop at that. (Summary: everybody stands by the nasty things they’ve said in the last few days.)

Here we are, days out of Iowa where Rick Santorum lost to Mitt Romney by eight votes and days before New Hampshire, which is where Jon Huntsman has spent all his time and effort. Rick Perry’s not even in the New Hampshire picture, but he was there for the debate. Michele Bachmann’s out of the race, Ron Paul pulled more than 20% in Iowa… shouldn’t these guys be firing on all cylinders?

But where everyone should have been trying to take down Romney, the effort seemed half-hearted. And where everyone should have been contrasting themselves to Rick Santorum – who stood next to Romney in the middle of the stage instead of out on the periphery like he’s always been – almost nobody did. There were random punches thrown at Jon Huntsman, who is a threat to exactly nobody including insects, and some anger lobbed at Paul from Gingrich. I’m not saying they weren’t honest critiques, but it appeared that nobody knew that it was time to marshal the forces against Romney and knock Santorum back to where he was before Iowa.

I think some of it was because the questions were so dumb.

Dumb Question #1: “Governor Romney, we just saw 200,000 new jobs created last month, and there are optimists who say this is the signal that this economy is finally turning around. Are you with those optimists?”

The question allowed Romney to say yeah, it’s nice that jobs are coming back, but it’s sure not because of President Obama. Only job losses are because of President Obama. But apart from that… it’s a stupid question. If you want to ask about the new job creation, frame the question better. Something like, “Why do you think the economy created 200,000 jobs last month? And how would your plan sustain or improve on it?”

Dumb Question #2: “Senator Santorum, you have said we don’t need a CEO, we don’t need a manager as president. What did you mean by that?”

I think this was supposed to pit Santorum against Romney vis-a-vis the latter man’s “taking care of business” approach to politics. I mean, isn’t that obviously the answer to the question? Why even bother to ask? It was followed with “were you talking about Mr. Romney?” and “Mr. Gingrich, a group supporting your run just put out a scathing attack… calling (Romney’s time at Bain Capital) ‘a story of greed,’ …saying that Bain made spectacular profits by… ‘stripping American businesses of assets, selling everything to the highest bidder and often killing jobs for big financial rewards.’ Do you agree with that characterization?”

Gingrich didn’t really answer the question. It was part of a series of eight questions about Romney’s time at Bain Capital, and because they were dumb questions, the candidates seemed unsure of why they were coming up. It’s not that records aren’t important. It’s not even that Romney’s highly touted business experience isn’t important vis-a-vis the economy. But if it takes eight questions and you still can’t get what you want out of the candidates, you’re doing it wrong. And these aren’t so-called “gotcha” questions. Sometimes questions like this do work. But with Sawyer and Stephanopoulos, they don’t. I can’t think of a reason other than a lack of gravitas.

Dumb Question #3: “Governor Huntsman… Tell us why you would be better as commander-in-chief than the other candidates on this stage?” Jeez, Diane. This is like asking him what he did on his summer vacation. (He still failed to answer it with any strength, sort of slipping into his economic plan, which is fine and all but isn’t about commanding the military. I mean it is, and I know he thinks it is because I’ve heard him talk about how having a strong economy helps the US militarily, but he didn’t articulate that this time.)

Over and over, the moderators belabored points people lost interest in after the opening question. And then there was this one:

“Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?”

—Record scraaaaattch—

Okay. First of all, Santorum is the one who doesn’t like contraception. Before the question, that was explained a little bit. But… then ask Santorum the question. Ask him to clarify his position (ahem) on birth control. Ask him what action he would take, if any, on the federal level with respect to contraception. Don’t ask Mitt Romney if he thinks the states have the right to ban it. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s not even really something Santorum has asked for. Which Romney eventually sort of said. And yet they kept pestering him about the question. Somehow it ended up being about Roe v. Wade, which I think Romney just pulled out for the sake of having something he could answer and put the whole matter to rest, already.

This topic? Went on for like ten minutes. It’s a topic that doesn’t even exist, and Stephanopoulos couldn’t let it go. I get what he wanted to happen. But it wasn’t working. Part of being the moderator is knowing when to fold ’em. Ridiculous.

It wasn’t easy to pull out any gems from this debate. But (now I’m finally getting around to it) here are a couple of things you might want to keep in mind:

Ron Paul’s fight against Rick Santorum’s sudden rise is to question how conservative his spending principles are. Santorum countered with a litany of spending measures he voted against. “I’m a Republican, not a Libertarian. I believe in some government,” he said.

Rick Perry said Republicans need someone who can beat President Obama, get tea partiers behind them and stop spending. An interesting point. There are no candidates that can do all three… but Perry seems to think he can.

On the subject of gay marriage, which everyone on the stage is against, there are varying levels of acceptable legal partnership to the candidates, which I’ve outlined in previous posts. But this time, Gingrich went so far as to say “…There is a huge jump from being understanding and considerate and concerned to saying we will institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis… ”

A sacrament? To my knowledge, only Catholics consider marriage a sacrament. A sacred thing, a blessed thing, a holy union – those are all Christian terms, but “sacrament” is decidedly Catholic. Interesting approach for the convert.

Ron Paul has no plans to run as an independent but hasn’t ruled it out. Diane Sawyer asked if everyone on the stage should rule it out. That’s both a dumb question and a completely unnecessary one; Paul is the only one who would have a shot if he ran as an independent. Unless you’re Mitt Romney and you don’t get the nomination. Then you run as an independent.

Gov. Rick Perry said he would send troops back into Iraq. This might have been the most stunning thing anybody said, and the moderators didn’t press him on it. I’m pretty sure that within 24 hours he’s going to explain that he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. For the debate, though, he circled and then settled in on the apparently foregone conclusion that the Iranians are going to take over Iraq. Which, so far, isn’t close to happening… but is a concern.

Sawyer wrapped up the debate by asking each candidate what they would be doing if they weren’t running for president on a Saturday night. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich said they’d be watching football. Paul said he’d be reading an economics textbook (I actually believe that). Perry said he’d be at the firing range (I believe that too). And Huntsman said he’d be talking with his two boys in the United States Navy. Which I don’t believe at all.

Then Sawyer and Stephanopoulos led the post-debate analysis from ABC. Which I have a huge problem with, because moderators shouldn’t lead analysis.

I think I might have enjoyed “Wipeout” more. And that’s really saying something.


Aw, Shucks: the Debate In Corn Country

After all these debates, what’s the point of another one? One word: Iowa.

Last night’s ABC News debate didn’t yield anything new in terms of policy. Nobody said anything they haven’t said before (for a mostly policy-oriented review of each debate leading up to last night’s, please see my Political Snark category). What last’s night debate did was usher in the latest phase of the campaign – the sort of Third Week of Political Advent: the run-up to the Iowa caucus, closely followed by the New Hampshire primary.

Jon Huntsman wasn’t at the debate. He’d been invited, but turned it down because he’s spending all his time and money on New Hampshire. With Herman Cain now out of the race, the stage was set for six: Santorum, Perry, Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Bachmann. ABC’s production of the debate was surprisingly unpolished; there were audio issues throughout and hiccups with “Rewind” portions that played in commercial breaks to re-show moments we’d just seen. And if Diane Sawyer was concerned about running out of time as she repeatedly stated, she should have considered taking less time to ask a question.

The moments that may have mattered, that stood out from other debates, were the awkward ones. I’m going to run with two of them: the $10,000 bet, and the Cheater Question.

As has happened in at least three debates before last night, Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on whether he’s in favor of individual mandates for health insurance coverage. Once again, he attempted to quote Romney’s book. Once again, Romney laughed (he gets quite artificially, pompously amused when he finds someone’s statements about him to be particularly offensive) and then leveled a cold gaze while saying what Perry stated was simply wrong. And then… he held out a hand… and offered a $10,000 bet.

Huh. Interesting.

Perry, wisely, didn’t take it. After two beats during which everybody tried to figure out what the hell just happened, Gov. Perry simply said, “Well, I’m not in the betting business–” and Romney went on to make his own point, to Perry’s relief since he isn’t the quickest-witted and might have struggled to finish the moment.

What’s the big deal about the offered bet? It’s not such a shocking thing that someone says, “Wanna bet?” What’s a little shocking is when someone who’s known to be wealthy  offers to bet someone ten thousand smackers. Specifically.

“Wanna bet? What do you want to bet me?” Fine. “Ten thousand dollars?” What the hell, dude?

It’s not just that it’s tone-deaf to the fact that so many Americans are struggling to bet anybody ten bucks on anything, let alone ten thousand. It’s also that he left it dangling without ever explaining his reason.

The Romney campaign today says the bet was a rhetorical moment – a claim to which I call shenanigans, because Romney waited for Perry to accept or refuse the offer, and if it were rhetorical he would have just plowed on. Romney’s people also say that only Democrats are focusing on that moment of the event, and that proves that the Democrats are “obsessed” with Romney, and that proves he’s going to win the nomination.

Which doesn’t even really make sense.

If I’m Romney’s people, here’s what I say:

“The governor was prepared to seal the deal on his bet with Gov. Perry. What he unfortunately didn’t get a chance to say was that he would donate that money to a charity of the governor’s choice – though not the Perry campaign.”

— or —

“Ten thousand dollars is the maximum amount an individual is allowed to gift to someone without a tax imposed. In a time when so many people are hurting, wouldn’t it be better if the federal government didn’t try to take money away from those who need it most?”

I prefer the first one, frankly. Of course, they’re both complete bs and not at all what Romney intended, but nobody can prove it. Either way, they do something to backpedal a bit from making the guy look like a clueless rich man.

The other very uncomfortable moment in the debate was when ABC’s Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos – a former advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton – asked the candidates if marital fidelity should be considered in choosing a president.

Oh no they di-ihn!

Herman Cain’s campaign folded because of sexual harassment and marital infidelity allegations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is an admitted philanderer. And he’s standing. Right. There.


I don’t remember who answered the question first. I think it was Rick Perry, who very firmly stated that if one cheats on one’s spouse, there’s no reason they wouldn’t cheat  their business partner or the American people. He bolstered his statement by saying that when he married his wife, he didn’t just promise her he’d be faithful; he promised God.

Then he said something dumb about how that’s stronger than a handshake in Texas and I yelled at him that he’s not Dan Rather.

Rick Santorum, perhaps the most religiously unflagging candidate and a very proud Catholic, was gentler. He said that a candidate’s personal and professional life are both fair game and up for consideration as matters of character in a political campaign. But he said he doesn’t think infidelity disqualifies someone. “I believe people  make mistakes,” he said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann said fidelity is unquestionably important but didn’t convict cheaters of being bad people. Ron Paul made a similar point.

Newt Gingrich was the last person to get the question.

I think ABC did this for two reasons: 1. to give him time to figure out how to respond; and 2. to build the anticipation since everybody knows he’s cheated on two wives.

But Gingrich handled it beautifully and humbly, without even a hint of indignation, saying he had admitted that he has cheated, that he’s gone to God for forgiveness, that he’s tried to make amends, and that people absolutely do have the right to judge an unfaithful person and make their decision about how important that is to them in choosing a president.

After the lead-up, after the candidates somewhat uncomfortably, but still, to their credit, with conviction, answered the question, the guy the question was aimed at hit a home run, placing a bet of his own: that an honest cheat is better than a lying cheat.

You know, I can’t really argue with that.



The Outsiders

Alright. There may be something to this Gingrich thing.

The latest debate in the GOP presidential campaign took place in Washington, DC, the city the candidates love to hate and want to live in. And the current frontrunner in the polls demonstrated why he’s pretty crafty with this politics game. For Newt Gingrich, foreign policy might not be a pet subject. But in tonight’s CNN-hosted debate with everyone’s favorite combination of savage beast and football analogy as moderator, he pretty much held court.

(Wolf Blitzer. Savage beast/football analogy. Get it?)

I stand by my belief that when it comes to foreign policy, Santorum, Bachmann and Gingrich will always be head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd in terms of what they know and understand, and their sense of reality vs. idealism. But Gingrich toned down the condescension a little and that allowed some measuredness to shine through.

Yes, this is coming from the woman who ranted against his position on education just a short time ago. Oh, and by the way, he doesn’t have a qualm about child labor. Nine-year-olds should be able to work, he said this week. So I still think he’s a little nuts.

And lest someone tell me that I’m forgetting that Ron Paul is a member of Congress: I haven’t forgotten that. But he’s not a Republican; he’s a Libertarian and an isolationist, and because of that he will not get the GOP nomination. He makes people think and he brings up excellent points very often, and so he has a place on the stage. But he will not be running against President Obama in 2012 unless he’s a third-party candidate. Therefore, this is the extent of talk about him in this post, because last night’s debate was about foreign policy, and his responses to questions on the matter are so consistently isolationist that they don’t warrant further discussion in specificity vis-a-vis the Republican campaign. Leave everyone alone; stop wasting money on war. This is the Paul Doctrine. Agree or disagree, it’s fine. In some cases I think he’s right, but I’m not going to belabor his singular point repeatedly.

I will also exclude Rep. Michele Bachmann from this discussion, but for different reasons: she isn’t saying anything new, ever. She is not expounding on anything she’s said before. She says something general and then says President Obama is bad at everything from foreign policy to basic math, sometimes she throws out some substantial and impressive understandings of numbers and legislative process, but she never really goes anywhere with any of it. If there’s one person in this race whose presence serves no one and accomplishes nothing, I think it’s her right now. She’s lost her distinct voice.

If you’ve missed my other posts on the things she and Rep. Paul have said during this campaign, check out the Political Snark category of my blog. And forgive me; I don’t have time to do pictures and fun captions today. I’m trying to get out of Dodge, do a little border-crossing of my own.

There are hard lines for Newt Gingrich: treating terror suspects like enemy combatants (including renewing the Patriot Act in total without changes to anything) is one of them. But in this particular debate, that seemed to me to be the only true hard line he took. The rest of it was pretty nuanced. But there were two questions I found important that I don’t remember hearing Gingrich answer: one about racial profiling of terror suspects, and one about whether the US should continue to fund anti HIV/AIDS and malaria programs in Africa in light of economic struggles. I suspect I know his answer to the latter; I think he’d be in favor of continuing spending because his approach to foreign aid is a little less all-or-nothing than some other candidates (which I’ll explain later). But I really would have liked to know his answer to the racial/ethnic profiling question.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a breakdown of how the others answered that:

Rick Santorum absolutely believes in profiling. He says there is a specific group of people carrying out the majority of terror plots against the country, they are radical Islamists, and they should absolutely be targeted. He didn’t say how to avoid the lone wolf plots we’ve been told are the most likely threat from here on, and how many of those don’t fit the physical profile of a radical Muslim.

Jon Huntsman is against profiling.

Mitt Romney didn’t directly answer the question, punting instead to a point about making it easier to get through security at the airport, which I thought was a transparently limited response.

Herman Cain is for what he called “targeted identification.” For those of you paying any attention at all, that means he’s in favor of racial/ethnic profiling, but he’s not in favor of calling it racial/ethnic profiling.  I’m getting really tired of his ways of trying to sell a two-foot pool by calling it a six-foot pool. There’s no There there. He’s just dancing, like a boxer trying to avoid a technical knockout.

I don’t know anything about boxing, really, but I’m pretty sure that analogy is decent.

Here’s another example: he was asked, if Israel decided to attack Iran to prevent Iran from further developing nuclear weapons, whether he would help Israel launch its attack or support it in another way. His response was that he would first determine whether the Israelis had a credible plan for success, with clarity of purpose and mission.

Forgive me, but… no sh*t, Sherlock. The only time we don’t make sure there’s a credible plan for success and clarity of purpose and mission is for our own wars. You didn’t answer the question. Would you support Israel or not? Cain’s answer is always, “It depends.” Sometimes it doesn’t depend. The point isn’t whether Israel’s goal is clear; in a situation like that, Israel’s goal is pretty damned clear: avoid being blown off the face of the earth by a nation whose leader is avowedly committed to destroying Zionism.

I mean… duh.

Here’s a third example of chickensh*t answers from Cain: Mr. Cain, do you think the US should continue its spending on anti HIV/AIDS and malaria programs in Africa? “Well, it depends on how successful they’ve been. It might be worth it; it might not. I’d want to look at the results and then decide.”

Mr. Cain, would you like pepperoni on your pizza, or sausage? “Well, it depends. I’m not sure what mood I’ll be in. I might like pepperoni; I might not. I don’t know what I’ll have a taste for. I’d like to find that out first.” Come on. The Africa question is a no-brainer. YES. Spend the money. Africa is a huge continent filled with smaller, tribal and often fractious nations, and in modern times, disease travels the world in a day. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a global pandemic perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a world stability perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a healthcare cost and pharmaceutical business perspective, it’s the right thing to do (if we’re talking capitalism). In no way is it not the right thing to do. Say yes, you unqualified disaster of a candidate. Maybe you want to spend a bit less on it in light of developments or advances in medical care indigenous to the area; fine. But don’t say “It depends.” It doesn’t.

Rick Santorum actually brilliantly summarized why you say “yes” to the effort in Africa: it was a continent on the brink, and its instability would have been a beacon for terrorists if there were no aid from stable countries. Stabilizing the area with the money spent on humanitarian aid was in the interest of national security. Santorum’s most ringing part of this argument: if you want to spend more on defense, cut the foreign aid, even aid regarded as humanitarian, to zero. You’ll spend a lot more on defense, because you will anger and imperil the world.

Cain did study for this debate. He pointed out that Iran is mountainous and those mountains may be hiding as many as 40 different nuclear sites (I don’t know where he got the number; he didn’t say). He also pointed out that if the US withdraws too quickly from Afghanistan, Iran is waiting to fill the vacuum. (This analogy may be more applicable in nations like Libya, but it’s still a fair point, in that it demonstrates that we’re better off fighting Iran’s potential power than taking a wait-and-see approach.) What he didn’t study was the name of the moderator. Called him “Blitz” instead of “Wolf,” during a pointed and indignant answer. But he corrected himself and apologized for the error. It was the funniest moment of the night. And by that I mean nothing else funny happened. But even if it had, calling Wolf Blitzer “Blitz” would have been the funniest moment of the night.

Cain’s other set of flashcards appeared to be on the issue of immigration reform (and by “immigration reform,” we mean keeping out the Mexicans, now that my people, the lazy, shiftless, thieving Irish, are off the hook). He cited a survey he didn’t name or source, that apparently says 40% of the Mexican citizens questioned believe their country is a failed state. And he said the number of people killed in Mexico last year (he didn’t specify motive) was equal to the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (he didn’t specify whether that was civilians, native military, American/allied military, or some combination thereof). Therefore, he wants to strengthen the border and enforce the laws the country already has against illegal immigration. “We don’t need new ones,” he said, and he might be right about that.

The illegal immigration discussion was surprisingly long in this debate, which featured no time limits for responses, a single moderator (the aforementioned Wolf… Or Blitz…whatever) and interpersonal conflict that, where it existed, was not the slightest bit manufactured by the moderator. This might be part of why Gingrich did so well and toned down the condescension. It left room for a broadening of perspective wherein Texas governor Rick Perry pointed out that Hamas and Hezbollah have been working in Mexico and that the Iranian government’s biggest embassy is in Venezuela. As far as Perry sees it, a discussion about illegal immigration is pointless if it doesn’t include a plan to shut down that border and keep it secure. He says he can do it in 12 months. It’s an impressive declaration from a Texas governor who hasn’t quite gotten it done yet in ten years, but I’ll allow for the fact that there are other states on that border that he can’t control.

But what about the best and brightest? Isn’t America losing potential when it ships off the immigrants who could really do something in the country? For Gingrich and Romney, the answer is yes; both men want a program that would give special visas to immigrants who are highly skilled or entrepreneurial, particularly if they are educated here.  For Gingrich, every immigrant who gets a graduate degree in math, science or engineering should be granted a visa that lets them stay… but he wouldn’t make them legal citizens.

Ditto, those who have been here for a long time and have become productive members of American society. This is where Gingrich differed most drastically from his fellow candidates and from the alleged Republican base. He doesn’t want to deport illegal immigrants who have been here for 25 years (that was his referenced number), who have done nothing wrong in that time except come into the country illegally, and who have families here. I think one of his most powerful and stand-alone moments was when he said, “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the Party For the Family is going to adopt an immigration policy that destroys families that have been here for 25 years. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, ‘Let’s create a policy that doesn’t legalize them, but doesn’t divide the families.'”

The weak point of Gingrich’s argument is that he draws a line between recent illegal immigrants and those who have been here a while. It’s hard to figure out where that line is, or who defines what a family is (Elian Gonzales, anyone?) And as the other candidates argued, anything perceived as amnesty is a magnet that is going to bring people in the back door instead of encouraging them to go the legal route. Gingrich doesn’t believe his suggestion amounts to amnesty. The others aren’t sure.

The debate over Iran may have been just as diverse as that of Mexico and the border. Rick Perry is standing by his insistence that the US find a way to shut down the Iranian Central Bank. I wish he would explain how the US could have any right or ability to do that, and what it really would mean, and how he developed this argument. I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m just saying nobody knows what he’s talking about when he says that. He also wants the option of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, an Iranian ally, so that Iran gets the message that the US is serious about shutting down Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The original question was actually about whether any sanctions could stop Iran, in light of the fact that the US hasn’t bought oil (which helps fund their nuclear program) directly from that nation in more than 30 years, and targeted sanctions have been in place for more than half that time. In other words; it’s not necessarily our money that’s helping them, so why would sanctions work against them? New Gingrich believes that on the world market, the oil produced in Iran could be replaced if the US opened up more of its own oil fields. The cost of oil, he says, would collapse in short order. But a CNN fact check after the debate demonstrated that Iran manufactures about half the oil that the US does in a year, so the US would have to increase oil production by 50% to replace Iranian oil on the world market (and there was no discussion about whether the prices would be different given who’s selling it).

But Gingrich’s larger point in Iran was this: what’s needed is a strategy to defeat and replace the regime using minimal force; a strategy to contain radical Islam; and a plan to beat Iran without going to war and without them getting nukes, rather than a struggle to take them down once one or both of those things have happened. He would not bomb Iran unless it was a last resort and it was guaranteed to take out the regime, because anything short of doing that would only create a more dangerous climate.

Mitt Romney thinks sanctions are the way to go: harsh ones (they’re already pretty tough). He added that Ahmadinejad should be targeted for violating what he called the “genocide convention.” He was struggling here, so I’m not sure that convention actually happened, but we took his point. And he noted that the sanctions he wants would raise gas prices, but would be worth it. I think that’s the take-away from Romney here, since the rest of his answer wasn’t very strong.

But here’s where he gained strength: he told Rick Perry that a no-fly zone over Syria would be pointless. Why? Syria has 5,000 tanks on the ground. They’re not bombing their own people. A no-fly wouldn’t matter. What’s needed to deal with Syria (and remove the force of its support for Iran) is sanctions and covert operations, support for the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad regime, insurance of a future for the country after Assad, and increased pressure on the regime, like what’s already coming out of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

This was probably Romney’s best moment in what was otherwise a fairly flat debate for him.

But this is also where Jon Huntsman shined. He waited patiently for his turn and then made a solid, immutable point: sanctions against Iran will not work, because the Chinese and the Russians aren’t going to play along, and they’re the ones strengthening Iran. North Korea has a nuclear weapon; nobody touches them. Libya gave theirs up in exchange for friendship with the world; look where that got them. The national interest is not well-served by jumping into alliances we don’t fully understand.

Well, crap. Forget everything everybody else said.

And yes, they did talk about the failure of the supercommittee and what that means for defense. Or what it allegedly means (see my previous post). Romney seems squarely in the camp of the DoD, believing the triggered cuts will damage defense. He cited programs for war vehicles and materiel that would be cut. See the letter from Sen. Tom Coburn that I linked to in my previous post… or here if you don’t want to invest the time in reading the other thing… to find out why he’s pandering when he says this.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich made yet another nuanced stand. “I helped found the Military Reform Caucus in 1981 because it’s clear there are things you can do that are less expensive” than the current projected budget. He says if it takes 15 years to build weapons while Apple changes its entire scheme in nine months, something’s wrong. “We defeated Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan in three years and eight months, because we thought we were serious.” He pitched to opening up federal lands to create revenue and jobs, and saving $500 billion by increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government. In other words, the price of defense is indeed very likely too high, and it wouldn’t hurt to cut it if we step outside the lines of current thinking.

Here’s another way Gingrich is okay with coloring outside the lines: Social Security. It appears he’s done some research into Cain’s suggestion that the US model its plan after Chile. In a nutshell, you’re encouraged to save. If you don’t have as much savings as the federal government would have given you in Social Security in that time, then the government gives you the difference. According to him, Chile didn’t spend a dime on the plan, because everybody saved as much as, or more than, Social Security would have provided. This would obviously only work for those who begin paying into the system now, and it would require a total change in thinking for the whole country about the program. But it’s outside the lines. And for an old guy who can’t stop talking about the 80s, it’s a surprisingly modern approach.

To close, Donner Blitzen asked the candidates to quickly state what national security threat is not getting enough attention. Santorum said militant socialists and radical Islamists banding together in Central and South America. Romney agreed. Perry and Huntsman said China, which gives Perry a note of credibility since Huntsman was most recently the ambassador to China. Cain said he was a ballistics analyst and a computer scientist in years past (what the hell?) and nobody’s talking enough about cyberattacks.

In case you’re wondering, Bachmann agreed with everybody and Ron Paul said he’s most worried about the US’s own overreaction. Surprise.

In yet another substantive debate, I think Gingrich justified his spot at the top of the polls. Nobody hurt themselves. Santorum might have bought himself a little help in a campaign that’s got single digits. I think Romney had a weak night. And the band plays on. Many more debates to come. If they’re like this one, we’ll be well-served.

Read the full transcript here.


Beyond the Sea

People, I know this is my second political debate post in four days. That’s because it was the second GOP presidential debate in four days. I will get back to my non-political, non-stomach turning (depending on your taste) wit and Everywoman humor soon, I promise, but for now… it’s another installation of Thesinglecell’s Guide To Not (Further) Screwing Up the Country: Foreign Policy Edition.

As if I have any authority to publish a Guide for that.

This debate, televised (at least 2/3 of it) by CBS News, was all about the actions of a Commander-In-Chief. The focus: foreign policy. The mood: gentle and respectful, if not entirely agreeable – keeping with the Ghost of Reagan’s apparently renewed admonishment about speaking ill of fellow Republicans. But if you watched, you saw what might have been the most telling and educational debate thus far.

When you have three people who are or were in Congress (Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum), you have three people who automatically know far, far more about foreign policy than non-politicians and current or former governors. The wild card here was Jon Huntsman, ambassador three times over and American-Abroad once more than that. Still, when it came down to knowing what they were talking about, the candidates of Capitol Hill held the night.

The current top tier

Herman Cain is polling highest despite a very ugly week, so he got the first question: What would you do to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power? I thought his “first thing” was interesting: to assist the opposition in Iran (meaning the Iranian people) to overthrow the Ahmadinejad regime. It’s not necessarily wrong – I can see a sense to it, though what do I know? – and he didn’t say why he’d do it first, so our reasons may not match. (Mine is that it might be less messy to encourage a “democratic” overthrow of a despised leader than for the US to just take him out and suffer the wrath of a faction of extremists.) The second thing he said he’d do is develop the US’s own energy strategy. Iran uses oil as a weapon, he says.

There was a third thing, but, like Gov. Rick Perry last time, I’ve forgotten it.

It wasn’t a bad answer, just a superficial one. After watching all these debates and reading a lot about this campaign, I have not once been swayed from my feeling that Herman Cain never thought he’d get this far. Americans love a good civil uprising, so he can’t go wrong supporting a people’s revolution. But apart from ruling out military action, he didn’t say how he would do it or whether it would be any more, or different, from the current administration. He also didn’t say how he would develop energy independence. Granted, most candidates don’t dole out specifics, but I really don’t think Herman Cain has any idea how to do anything when it comes to global leadership.

Still, after all that analysis, perhaps the most ballsy declaration of the campaign thus far came from Mitt Romney a moment later: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If the country elects me, we won’t.”

Whoa. That is a call-out. A big one. I don’t know where he’s going to go with it, but that is the first bona fide scare tactic of the campaign, and I have a feeling it’s going to show up again.

Newt Gingrich (with whom we know I have a love-hate relationship, if we’re playing the home version of our game) got specific: maximize covert operations. Use a strategy closely akin to Reagan’s policy with the USSR to break the regime. Take out scientists and break up systems, all in secret, “all totally deniable.” Well… maybe a little less deniable now that he’s said this is what he’d do if he were president. Damned YouTube. Damned worldwide web.

By the way, Rick Perry’s approach was economical: shut down the Iranian Central Bank with sanctions so tough that they force Iran’s hand. Though there was lots of talk of further sanctions on Iran, Perry was the only one who said this.

"Yeah! Nukes! Woot!"

The thing about Iran that most people on the stage understood is that everything in the Middle East and Arab world is tied together. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Israel is staring into the face of an epic nightmare in a Members Only jacket. And Israel probably won’t flinch. Syria, India and Pakistan are all but locked and loaded with everything pointing toward the Holy Land. Iran with a nuke is a firestarter, and it’s hard to put out a nuclear warhead. The only guy out in the cold on this is, not surprisingly, Ron Paul, who can just be summed up as an isolationist and we can move on from discussing any of his foreign policy dogma any further in this post.

But when it comes to Pakistan, the newly convivial GOP candidates don’t reach consensus. Herman Cain says we don’t know if Pakistan is our friend or not; they’re not clear. (He’s big on clarity.)  He would demand that his Security Council find out what commitments the nation is willing to make in order to keep us on its Friends List.  He talked about a recent interview in which Afghan president Hamid Karzai told Pakistan that, if the US goes cold on Pakistan, the Afghans would support Pakistan instead of the US. He said we need a regional strategy in the Middle East so that the outcomes will be beneficial for all the allies.

I’ve finally boiled down my problem with Herman Cain: I could be him. I could say all the stuff he’s saying (except the stuff about sexual harassment of women, as I prefer to harass men).  And  you don’t want me being president of a book club, let alone the country. Other oversimplified answers to complex situations:

-Q: How do you know when to overrule generals?
Cain: make sure you surround yourself with the right people. I can assess the call when I     have the cabinet and joint chiefs together. You know if you need to overrule when you         consider all facts and ask for alternatives. The Commander-in-Chief makes judgment call     based on facts.

-Q (from National Journal’s website): C0nsidering what is happening in the Arab Spring, how can you make it work for us and not against us?
Cain: You have to look at Libya, Egypt, Yemen and all the revolutions going on and see how administration has mishandled them. They have gotten totally out of hand.

(Not only is this overly broad; I’m not even sure what it means. The American administration has mishanded someone else’s revolution? All three of those revolutions were eventually successful, and the US managed its support on a multilateral level with no casualties to American soldiers. And what’s out of hand, exactly? The rebellions themselves? They were violent. They were brutal. I’m not dismissing the horrors by any means, but that’s what rebellions are like, and if the US had gotten any more involved it would have been fingerprinted with blood rather than ink. The only thing I can think of is the very real question of who will be in charge now in each of those places. Fair question, I’ll grant, but if that’s the point, make the point.)

And I don’t think Cain is saying the simple stuff to preserve the almighty soundbite. I think it’s because he lacks depth as a candidate. If you ever want to apply a test to the depth of Cain’s responses, try this: if he’s talking like you’re an idiot for not having already known the answer to the question, like this is all incredibly obvious… he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If the folks who back him don’t see that soon, the Party is going to upset them next summer when it nominates someone else no matter what the polls say. And if the Party does pick Cain, well… that’s going to be a landslide victory for President Obama.

Too general about the generals

Let’s move on to questions about Afghanistan. Here, I fault Gov. Rick Perry for the same problem as Mr. Cain: generalities that prove he doesn’t have the depth he needs to discuss the topic. Example: “the mission must be completed… the timetable (for withdrawal) is irresponsible… we’re discussing the combat on the ground with commanders in the field and making progress, but we have to train Afghan security forces so that they can protect their own country. ” That was almost the entirety of his answer to whether the American effort on the ground was working.

He didn’t say a thing there that we haven’t been hearing for at least five years.

Bachmann knows her numbers

And then the Capitol Gang weighed in and took the rest of the kids’ lunch money. Had to see it coming, really: what governor or ex-governor or pizza CEO is going to have a grasp on this stuff? Foreign policy, believe it or not, is where Rep. Michele Bachmann shines. She’s on the House Intelligence Committee and it shows: she gives out numbers and explains why she thinks a 40,000-troop surge would have been better than the 30,000 the US sent to Afghanistan (it would have allowed the US to go into both the south and the east at the same time, instead of focusing on the south). Her attempted populism and her struggle to regain ground come through eventually, but she’s at her most confident when she’s talking solid facts, and she understands those facts and their implications, not just in Afghanistan, but in the Middle East and North Africa.

Rick Santorum has a good deal of foreign policy experience from his time in the Senate.  His biggest points last night may not have played well to the base, but he was right about them: Pakistan has to be a friend to the US, by which he means, Psst… be nice to Pakistan. They have nukes. If we piss them off, they start a fight. Gov. Perry wants to start his administration with zero dollars going to any foreign country until they make their case that they deserve it. That’s a cute parental allowance approach, but Santorum pointed out the flaw right away: If Pakistan starts getting money from someone else, the other benefactor gains the upper hand over the US, and that creates, by default, a more dangerous situation for the US. Santorum’s prescription: Get through the quagmire with Pakistan the same way we had to get through it with Saudi Arabia after 9/11.

That’s a slam dunk answer, not because it’s populist, but because it’s realistic. And it’s the same one Bachmann had.

In debates, we often look for the applause lines, the lines that get the audience to cheer. But in this debate, there was one particular statement that froze everyone solid and silent for a second, which, in politics and live television, is an eternity. It was the sound of Newt Gingrich answering a question from CBS’s Scott Pelley: “Mr. Speaker, how do you make peace in Pakistan without negotiating with the Taliban?”

The answer?

(Beat.) “I don’t think you do.”

It was a stunning, and amazingly frank, response that I give the former speaker credit for. Which might only be because I agree with him. That’s typically the circumstance under which I give people credit for things.

Even Scott Pelley was taken aback when Gingrich said it, and so had to take about half a second to recover before beginning to clarify with a second question, which Gingrich interrupted. “I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we’ve talked about as a country that we– we don’t have a clue how hard this is gonna be.” He meant “we” as a country, not just the folks on the stage. He meant “we” as in the Pentagon and the administration and Congress and US allies. He went on to explain that the Taliban and other terrorists have sanctuary in Pakistan. It’s a safe haven. And until the US figures out a way to end that (presumably while understanding the points Santorum and Bachmann made about friendship), it’s never going to stop.

Hear him out on Pakistan

Holy crap. He’s, um… he’s probably not wrong. Pakistan really kind of sucks. And we kind of have to be nice to them.

Two candidates tried to at least see the bets laid by the Capitol Gang on foreign policy: Gov. Rick Perry, who talked about his experience commanding 20,000 National Guard members in Texas on the border with Mexico (a point I read as desperate), and Jon Huntsman, whose experience overseas in political and business capacities earn him more stars than the governors (his experiences are valid and he couches them in the context of worldy reality vs. ignorant idealism, but none of his answers were significant enough politically to earn him major points). He did get a China trade question in this debate: see his answer to same in the last debate.

One other thing I’d like to mention: the candidates’ position on torture.

  • Cain – against torture, considers waterboarding to be enhanced interrogation
  • Paul – waterboarding is torture; torture is illegal in American and international law, not to mention immoral and impractical… and un-American.
  • Huntsman – this country has values and a name brand in the world. “We dimish our standing and our values of liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture. Waterboarding is torture.”
  • Bachmann – willing to use waterboarding, says the president is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA.

This gets me off on a bit of a tangent: Herman Cain wants to keep Gitmo open and allow the use of all enhanced interrogation (ended by Pres. Obama in an executive order). Santorum and Perry agree, though Perry made a point to say he’s against torture. Okay, I gotta jump in, here… what exactly is the problem with the Obama administration’s way of handling terrorists? Osama bin Laden: dead. Ayman Al-Zawahiri: dead. Anwar Al-Awlaki: dead. I’m sorry, is something not working?

It was good to see a debate focusing entirely on foreign policy. It was good to see those who lack depth exposed. You might have noticed I didn’t mention Mitt Romney much; he handled himself perfectly fine in this debate, and I didn’t end up feeling uncomfortable with the idea of him at the helm of a global superpower, but he didn’t shine. If you afford me nothing else, afford me this: nobody wants to elect a president who doesn’t know what he or she is doing in the world. If you can prove me wrong on that, then you can prove to me why Herman Cain should still be on top in the next round of polls.

Read the full transcript here (remember to click through to Part 2 – this debate was segmented for broadcast)

Now On My Bookshelf: Hiroshima In the Morning – Rahna Reiko Rizzuto


The American Educational Standard: Up For Debate

Yes. There was another debate. This time hosted by CNBC on the campus of  in Rochester, Michigan. And I’m doing this post a little differently, because… well, frankly, I feel like it. I’m going to mostly just rant about one particular topic they discussed, and the reaction thereto, which made me wonder if I was having a stroke and just hallucinating what they said. Turns out… nope.

This debate focused almost entirely on the economy, and when I say almost entirely, I mean there was only one question that wasn’t about the economy. It was the question Herman Cain got about sexual harassment allegations. The moderator tried desperately (and pathetically) to link it to economic subjects by talking about CEOs and character, but the question was still about scandal. Cain responded that the American people deserve better than someone who gets tried in the court of public opinion on (he says) false allegations.

The audience booed when he got the question and cheered raucously when he answered it. As usual, the crowd really got fired up a lot in this event. I have to remember that they’re going to be oriented to the right of political medians since they’re attending a GOP debate, so maybe they’re just more likely to cheer for things like Newt Gingrich basically telling an entire generation of Americans (while standing on a college campus) that they’re a bunch of bums who expect too much from their education.


"Oh, you academic elite, you just don't get it."

Fine, I’ll be more specific: about 2/3 of the way through the debate, the candidates got a question on the burden of student loan debt. Among the answers: suggestions that maybe everyone should just go to college online instead of at institutions with actual brick-and-mortar buildings. Sure. Who needs the formative social and intellectual experience of college? Just do it over the web, alone, in your basement. Like porn.

Ron Paul, not surprisingly, began ranting about the Fed creating a bubble, audit the Fed, now the government holds a bunch of debt for an education system that isn’t working and is spitting out kids who can’t get jobs. On its face, that’s hard to argue against. But here’s where it started going to the zoo: Paul said he wants to get rid of the department of education and give tax credits to students if you have to. So the moderator asked how kids are supposed to pay for school if they can’t get government-backed student loans, and Paul said, “The way you pay for cell phones and computers!”

"Cell phones and computers! Ahh, that was a good one!"

Um… what?

I think what he was trying to say is that the market principles of supply and demand will eventually lower the price of tuition, but it’s a totally unequal comparison that left him looking absolutely clueless about how much it costs to go to college. As usual with Paul, I think there were thoughts in his head that had to go unexpressed due to time constraints, and he couldn’t congeal a coherent response, leaving viewers to take their own cognitive leaps.

"I crack myself up! They bought it! Can you believe it?!"

And then we proceeded to the next zoo exhibit when Newt Gingrich curmudgeonly blurted that these little rat bastards are just going to have to work for it. He cited the Johnson administration’s investment in student loan programs that eventually ballooned, he said, to allow kids to go to school longer because they don’t see the cost; take fewer hours per semester; and tolerate absurd rises in tuition. (“Absurd” is one of Gingrich’s favorite words.) Then he used the College of the Ozarks as an example of what he wants: a school you can’t apply to unless you need student aid, but which has no student aid. Students have to work 20 hours a week during the class year and 40 hours a week during the summer to pay for school, and most of them graduate with no debt. And then he said this:

“It will be a culture shock for the students of America to learn we actually expect them to go to class, study, get out quickly, charge as little as possible, and emerge debt-free by doing the right things for four years.”

The crowd went wild.

And my head exploded.

I don’t even know where to start with this. Does anyone even know a graduate of the College of the Ozarks? But I suppose I’ll start with the ways in which I think they might be right: I agree that tuition goes up absurdly from year to year at most schools. I agree that the federal loan system isn’t really working very well, creating insurmountable debt for students and for the government. And I agree that maybe more tax credits for parents or students paying tuition costs would help.

And that’s about where my agreement ends.

I did not hear anyone talk about how to actually get costs at colleges and universities down while still offering students the best possible competitive education, with highly qualified teachers and well-developed curricula that implements up-to-date resources. That is what is necessary to continue the education of America, which, by the way, is what leads to American business and manufacturing success… which leads to a better economy. Sure, back when American business and manufacturing were booming, a lot of people didn’t go to college, and there are people who didn’t go to college who have succeeded in business astronomically well (Bill Gates comes to mind). But it’s the exception, not the rule, in a changed world and a global marketplace. And in a time when we are hammering away on the American education system and the need for higher learning so that we can be successful as individuals and as a nation, it sort of tweaked me off to hear Newt Gingrich say that college kids just expect to ride through school without a care.

Does he know a college kid?

I worked before college. I babysat as a kid and had a job by the time I was 15. I worked when I was in college, 1995 – 1999. I worked a lot. And my school, my freshman year, cost $16,000 in tuition alone. By my senior year, it was $19,000. That’s incredibly good for a private, small, liberal arts college that has consistently been ranked among the best buys in education by US News and World Report from years before I started all the way through the present day. My four-year scholarship paid $8,000 a year. I was the oldest child and my parents saved for their entire married lives to send me (and my sisters) to college. My school turned out to be the second-least expensive of the four daughters. And I still had a student loan. It wasn’t a big one, but it was there.

Frehsman year I made $50 a week from the school for working on campus, unlimited hours that weren’t tracked; I just worked until the job was done. Spring of sophomore year, I was working without pay in an internship for at least 20 hours a week. By junior year, I was working those hours or more (sometimes 30) with pay, for $7.50 an hour, in the industry in which I wanted to work upon graduation. By senior year, I was working up to 38 hours a week. But I wasn’t paying my tuition or my room and board, because I wasn’t making a salary that was livable. I was just trying to save money so I could be independent when I graduated, get a place and not move back home. I was paying for my car insurance and my gas, and some incidentals here and there, but I was not a wasteful kid. My guy friends bought my beer. My money went to a car and an apartment when I graduated, and health insurance until my employer’s program kicked in. My paychecks through college got me to graduation. My $25,000 salary when I graduated kept me paying my bills and eating. That’s what I worked 20-38 hours a week (sometimes with two jobs) to build up.

And not everyone can work 20 hours a week. Some kids aren’t blessed with the same gifts. They have to study harder, spend more time on things. And by the way, Mr. Speaker: if you want them to work 20 hours a week for pay while they’re in school, you’re leaving them no time to get internships that might give them entry into their field of study.

This is all a bunch of shouting at the rain, because Paul and Gingrich won’t get the nomination. I’m angry about their responses because they reflect what, judging by crowd reaction, is apparently a larger sentiment: you damned kids and your “intellectual endeavors.” Come down off your high horse and stop whining about how much it costs to get the education we’re telling you is essential to your escape from poverty.

I get that some kids don’t appreciate what they have, and some kids don’t realize that maybe they can afford the time to bear some of the financial burden of college. But to call out an entire segment of the American population – the ones who will take care of you when you’re really old, by the way – is just ignorant, careless and a lot of other words I won’t use because they’re blue. I’ve said since I was 19 that my generation will be the first not do to as well as or better than its parents. The generation after mine is in a world of hurt, too. They want something better, and Gingrich made it sound like the problem with the American higher education system is the students. And the crowd seemed to agree.

I’ve been saying for months that I might do a post on debate audiences. I intended it to be funny. But every time they cheer rampantly for things like this, I can’t fathom understanding them enough to do it. To be honest, the way debate crowds cheer for things I find completely objectionable really scares me. It seems fairly obvious that these people are voting with their voices and will probably vote with levers or paper ballots on election day. I have to hope they’re just excited to be there, and that their exuberance is the product of a strange kind of Orwellian group-think that takes over. Because if this many people all over the country really think that a candidate for president should not be questioned about sexual harassment allegations, that college students are lazy golddiggers, that gay people don’t deserve rights and protection from violence at the hands of their own military brethren, that might always makes right, that only white Christian straight Americans deserve food and healthcare and affordable roofs over their heads, that companies always matter more than individuals because that’s where the money is… I don’t understand what we’re doing anymore.

End of rant. Other, semi-impartial debate observations in brief:

"Hey, everybody! I've got you all fooled!"

Herman Cain’s answer to everything is “it’s not true” or “grow the economy” or “999.” That’s all he’s got. I don’t get why he’s still polling a the top. Wake up, America. There, I said it.

Most of the candidates are isolationist when it comes to Europe’s debt crisis. They do not want the US to step in beyond the capacity it holds with the International Monetary Fund.

"How can I convince you? What do you want me to say?"

Romney had a weak answer when questioned about how Americans can be sure he’ll stand firm on his positions if he changes his mind so often to run for office. He said he’s a steady and consistent man who’s been with the same woman for 42 years, in the same church all his life. It was a personal approach to a professional problem and I’m not sure it will work.

It seems the candidates have been scolded by the ghost of Ronald Reagan (and apparently he’s a saint now), so they did much, much less fighting with each other and gave each other much more credit and leeway on positions. Very interesting change from the last two debates.

Nobody won this debate, but Rick Perry had a total mental meltdown when he was asked which departments of the federal government he would eliminate. I can’t even describe it to you, so I’ll link to it instead.

Huntsman embraced the Occupy movement by saying he wants to be president of the 99%… but he also wants to be president of the 1%. Everyone else either avoided talk of the Occupy movement or distanced themselves from the people involved (and Gingrich still thinks they’re all a bunch of bums, like college kids, who, along with the media and “academia,” have no clue about history. He said it. I swear. And once again, the crowd roared in his favor. These people realize they’re on TV, right? They’re part of the media machine at this point. They know that, right?)

Michele Bachmann says freedom isn’t free, so people who are destitute should pay something – even if it’s “$10… the cost of two Happy Meals.” I don’t know whether that example was meant as a way to quantify what $10 is or if it was a sweeping judgment on the poor.

Herman Cain said the previous Congress kept a House bill off the floor because it would have required Americans to send healthcare control back to doctors and patients. He said “Princess Nancy” kept it in committee. He was referring to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. To call her “Princess Nancy” in the face of a growing sexual harassment scandal was incredibly stupid, let alone disrespectful.

"Ha! Did you hear that?! How is this guy standing here?"

The moderators (who sucked, by the way, and I usually don’t say that) gave Romney the lion’s share of time responding to what do do about China vis-a-vis trade, currency manipulation and the rising possibility that they will overpower the US in the world. I get that this is because he’s the likely nominee, but there’s a guy standing all the way down stage left who was the freaking ambassador to China. You wanna maybe ask him? Romney said he’d slap tariffs on China because they’re manipulating market price with their control of currency valuation. Huntsman (who laughed when the moderator told him he had 30 seconds to answer the same question) said you can toss out applause lines about slapping on tariffs, but that’s only pandering; it won’t work and in fact it will cause a trade war, because they’ll put tariffs on American goods in exchange. He said you have to continue sitting down and talking out trade options, without glamour or flash, but with productivity.

Why isn’t anybody listening to this guy? Oh, yeah, because the crowd wants blood instead of rationale.

Moderator Jim Cramer is completely obnoxious and better suited for a bad sports show than CNBC. Yelling questions at candidates is not helpful. It is entertaining, though.

Going forward: Cain’s got a lot to lose, and I think he’s on minute 13 of his 15. But nobody was particularly impressive tonight, so things might stagnate for a while until this Cain mess is over.


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.)

Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Some Dogs and a New Guy

Apparently, a lot of debate viewers have dogs who did not respond well to Fox News’s last debate’s  “Time’s Up” bell.

As the latest debate got underway last night on Fox News Channel, paper doll host Bret Baier explained that they would use a new indication that a candidate had talked too long. He said the network got a lot of feedback from dog owners saying the last one (the Texaco full service ding) confused their dogs into thinking someone was at the front door.

All about the ding.

I’m pretty sure he was serious.

This time, they used that sound your Facebook page makes when you get a new instant message. Bret says they got the sound from Google, which co-sponsored the debate and contributed a lot of either confusing, pointless or largely unqualified survey stats to the evening, along with some citizens’ questions submitted via YouTube.

Before I really get going, let me say this: I always feel bad if I don’t assess every element of the debate, because I don’t want to leave out something that someone might have found important. But if I do every element, I’ll be here all day. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I hit some significant observations and don’t necessarily give you a complete blow-by-blow. I will, however, give you full coverage of the topics I present. I will tell you what each candidate who responded to the topic had to say. If someone is not mentioned in a topic, it’s because he or she did not address it.

Let’s begin.

Uh-buh-dee-buh-dee-buh-dee... get some drills in, Gov.

Gov. Rick Perry needs practice. For a front-runner, he’s just struggling in debates to make  his points smoothly. He spent the first half stilted and stuttering. It’s a shame for him, because if he could have delivered the lines better, they would probably have had more impact. But when you can’t even remember what month the newly-elected president gets to move into the White House, you’re not off to a great start.

He did enumerate a couple of ways he wanted to get small businesses to hire: lower the tax burden on them and institute sweeping tax reform that somehow adds up to not allowing frivolous lawsuits against doctors. I think, if he’d been able to say it right, he would have wanted to say that the health care industry is a major employer, both in small and large scale models, which he knows from his time as governor of a big state. And he wants to keep health care workers from fearing lawsuits, because fear of lawsuits (and needing funds to fight those that are inevitable) hinders hiring.

Is there anybody else in the hunt? Probably not.

The first zinger of the night, I think, was directed not at a candidate on the stage, but at President Obama. It came when Mitt Romney said, “To create jobs, it helps to have had a job. And I have.” He spent a little time last night reminding people that he’d spent his whole life in the private sector. He told everyone he had only spent four years as governor of Massachusetts and that was the extent of his political office.

Sooo… you just told everyone that you couldn’t get re-elected and you basically have a very limited amount of political leadership experience.

Interesting approach.

I get the “outside the beltway” thing, but sometimes I think it’s dangerous to tell people you barely know how to govern anything. It was the biggest threat to President Obama’s candidacy in the last election, but somehow it doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican.

Romney says America’s economy depends on being more attractive to businesses by cutting corporate tax rates and making sure business and government are allies instead of opponents. He took a broad approach for a minute in explaining that the country needs a trade policy that favors the US rather than the other nations, and he briefly emphasized a need for energy security (which is my favorite “surprise” element of job creation and economic issues because we’re still not used to hearing it even though it’s true).

Then he stepped outside the lines of business a bit and said that the middle class is the part of America hurt most by Obama’s economic policies, so he would cut taxes for the middle class.

I find this to be an easy pitch to swing at, frankly. Of course the middle class is the most hurt; it always is. The rich (and by “rich” I personally am talking about people whose income is at about a million or more per year) are almost never really hurt, and the poor are so poor that nothing pulls them out of it; nobody talks about how to lift the poor out of poverty. I guess maybe poor people don’t vote. It’s hard to care who runs the place when you can’t feed your kids.

If we follow what seems to be the Tea Party theme, the way to get rich is to work your ass off without any help from anyone or any agency, and the way to stay rich is to pay fewer taxes. So Megyn Kelly asked Rep. Michele Bachmann: “Out of every dollar I own, how much do you think that I should deserve to keep?”

"Keep it all! Wait..."

Bachmann said you earned every dollar, and you should get to keep every dollar.

I was about to ask the television if that meant no taxes for anybody ever when she remembered that sometimes a populist approach is transparent bull puckey. “Obviously we have to give money back to the government, but we have to have a completely different mindset, and that mindset is the American people are the geniuses of the economy. It’s certainly not the government. Private solutions in the private sector give certainty, and that will drive the economy.”

At first I wasn’t sure I knew what she meant. Then I thought she must have missed all of 2008 and 2009, because I’m pretty sure we let the private sector try to come up with private solutions for decades and what they came up with was, “Our big bosses are really rich and we’ve gone bankrupt. Save us. After years of no one telling us to stop eating so much, we’ve grown too big to be able to wipe ourselves.” I don’t really know why business-focused, regulation-hating candidates don’t remember that.

Unions, gay people and educators: Talk to the hand.

Rick Santorum got a YouTube question about whether he would support a federal right to work law allowing workers to choose whether or not to join a union. His response was limited to public employees, which he says is the fastest-growing segment of union workers and the segment that is costing the country the most money. In short, he doesn’t believe that any of them should be unionized and he doesn’t want any of them to get negotiated wages and benefits.

I guess nobody is going to work for his administration, and he’ll clean his own office.

Herman Cain got to talk more about his 9-9-9 tax plan: eliminating the entire federal tax code and changing it to a simple 9% on companies, income and national sales. He was asked if that meant that, down the line, Americans could see hikes in all three of those categories. He said no, but never explained why not.

As the debate drifted away from jobs and budgets, Ron Paul got to make his first splash when someone asked how he would restore the 10th amendment (which theoretically limits federal government control over states) and allow states to govern themselves. His answer: the president would have to veto every bill that violates states’ rights.

"What? I was done."

That was his entire answer. He still had about 27 seconds left. Which was sort of refreshing. When the questioners told him that, he took the opportunity to talk about needing to bring health care and education back to state levels of government. Make no mistake: Ron Paul is not a Republican. He is a Libertarian. The RINO thing is just his best shot at a national spotlight. He’s an idea guy and although he seems jazzed by his relatively good performance in national polls, he knows he’s never going to get the party nod.

Then the questions turned to Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico.

Wait, who?

Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico is running for president. FYI.

Johnson has been in the race a while, but very quietly. It turned out there’s a reason for that, besides a lack of funding: He’s a one-note campaigner. He promises to submit a balanced budget proposal to Congress in 2013, which means a 43% cut in spending across the board, in every department. But it took him a little while to say it, so the Time’s Up ding rang out.

Or was that just someone Googling Gary Johnson?

I’d like to see his budget. I’m curious as to what happens to the highway I drive on every day and the banana I have for breakfast that may or may not be coated with poison.

That’s not all the guy said, so I’ll be fair and also tell you that he wants to get rid of the federal tax code and institute a flat sales tax to take care of everything. And that is really all he has on his platform. But his best line came far later in the debate. “My neighbors’ two dogs have created more shovel-ready programs than this administration.” The entire audience roared. That’s the line that will make people remember him. Expect to hear it going forward.

Time to discuss social security, and I got to learn something. Perry talked about the ability of certain state employees and retirees to opt out of Social Security and only get their retirement benefits from the state.  I don’t know how it would work – I’m not sure what the plan for payment would be, but Perry favors it.

This is where Mitt Romney’s moderation shows, and I think it’s to his benefit in the nomination fight. He basically insisted that’s a dumb idea to leave retirement funding to states, and that Social Security is the responsibility of the federal government and it needs to be fixed and the American people need to know that the president is committed to making it work. Romney, apparently, remembers that FDR instituted the program as a federal gig.

"First, you go to Chile..."

Herman Cain didn’t get this question, but he circled back to it later and insisted that the US adopt the Chilean model of retirement funding. He’s big on this. But since nobody knows what it is, and also it relates to a South American country and that just makes people uncomfortable, it’s a hard sell. Chileans use a personal retirement account and, according to Cain, 30 other countries have modeled their programs after it, and it’s successful. He’s going to keep pushing this. I’d look for some feature articles on it as the campaign goes along, because Cain did well in this debate and I think he might be around for a little while.

And then there was a bunch of silliness about books. It was like Perry and Romney were slapping each other over whose book was better. They used each others’ publications as battering rams: “You said this in your book.” “Well you said that in your book.” It seemed like a strange distraction, but in reality it was a way for two governors without Congressional voting records to push each other about their stances on various issues. I’d say the most successful jab (or the one that would have been most successful if Perry could speak without tripping over himself) was when Perry pointed out that Romney’s hardback book said Romney believed the whole country could benefit from Massachusetts’ established “Romneycare,” but the paperback edition did not show that sentence. Romney didn’t do much to dispute the point other than to say he never really said that. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the assertion was more nuanced than Perry would have us believe.

"Anything your book says, my book says better."

By now you may have noticed I’m not talking much about anybody other than Perry and Romney. That’s because nobody really is. In a USA Today/Gallup poll last week, Perry pulled a 31%, while Romney took 24% (that’s a smaller distance from first to second than the previous polling). Rep. Ron Paul garnered 13%. And believe it or not, Rep. Bachmann, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain were all tied at 5%. Five percent. Michele Bachmann fell off a cliff when Perry got into the race, and I still haven’t quite figured out why, but it’s possible that her freefall could leave the door open for Sarah Palin. I wouldn’t be surprised if Palin has been watching for it to happen – the old Early Flame-Out. With Bachmann fading, and time ticking away, Palin might decide to get in on the double-dutch jump just when she can peak at the right time.

"Atta boy, Jonny."

But that doesn’t mean the other candidates aren’t worth listening to, because they bring ideas to the table that the frontrunners don’t articulate. Take, for example, Jon Huntsman. I was surprised to hear him flatly declare that he would not raise taxes. Period. And then he started quoting Ronald Reagan. (It always gets around to that, but he’s not the guy I thought would do it, so this tells me he’s trying harder to look like a Republican and shed the image of having worked for Obama as ambassador to China.) But if you hung through the easy lobs, you got to hear him say we can’t fix anything in this country until we fix the economy, and we can’t fix the economy without fixing its underlying structural problems. For him, that means phasing out loopholes and deductions, and creating an 8-14-23% personal tax rate. He wants to take corporate tax from 35% to 25% to encourage business growth, but he would eliminate corporate subsidies because the country can’t afford them. When questioned about his stated willingness to subsidize alternative energy sources, he deftly explained that he would be in favor of initial short-term subsidies with a rapid phase-out plan because we need a bridge between our current energy sources (coal, oil) and the sources of the future (wind, solar)… like natural gas.

Then the moderators brought out the Haterade and it was time to talk about which departments in the federal government they hated most. Herman Cain actually got the first question, which was “if you were forced to eliminate one department, which one would it be, and why?” I don’t really know why he grinned, but he said if he was forced (and I thought his emphasis suggested that he wouldn’t necessarily want to get rid of any of them), it would likely be the EPA, which he says has gotten out of control with its regulations. He cited a plan for the agency to regulate dust.

One look at my home right now tells me I’m in trouble with the EPA.

And then we moved on to hating the department of education. Almost all the candidates say they want to get rid of it and give full control of education to states and localities. This gave Rick Santorum a chance to get back on his family-focused horse and give out some hard numbers at the same time: 20 years ago, the federal funding contribution for education to the states was 3%. Now it’s 11% and education is worse. He says it doesn’t serve the customer (using a business approach here), and that the customer is the parents, who have the real responsibility for educating children.

I see his point, but I think the “customer” is the child, and there are so many parents who fall down on the job at home that the schools had to step in. If we give all that control back to parents, we’re in for a world of hurt. Which is why I was glad to hear Jon Huntsman say that the federal input on education is all about the nation’s competitiveness. I got a little excited, because I happen to agree, and here’s a guy who was ambassador to freaking China who’s about to explain why.

Except he didn’t.

Instead he pushed for localizing education, but never said he’d eliminate the federal department. And he emphasized the need for kids to learn critical reading and writing skills by the age of six.

Gingrich, Perry and Paul advocated school choice at the very least, and something akin to a voucher program that lets parents decide where to send their kids instead of automatically plugging them into the public school in their district.  But Paul wants to go so far as to give tax credits to people who opt out of public schools. Gingrich wants something like a Pell Grant system for grades K-12 so parents can pay for their kids’ education at schools where tuition is charged. And Romney made what I thought was a pretty impactful point: “all the talk about classroom size is promoted by teachers’ unions so they can hire more teachers.” Wow. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s a big jab that allowed Romney to say he would stand firm against teachers’ unions. When Rick Perry pushed the point that Romney “favors” the current Race To the Top federal plan, Romney explained that he thinks Education Secretary Arne Duncan is right to believe that teachers should be evaluated and thrown out if they’re not performing well, and he believes kids should be tested to make sure they’re meeting educational standards. Once again, Romney’s moderation comes through, though he does favor school choice.

On the topic of illegal immigration: Rep. Bachmann wants to build a fence on every inch of border with Mexico. It’s a popular response for the Tea Party and others, but when the governor of Texas says there’s no way in hell it’s going to be practical, I think you have to listen; his state has 1200 miles of border with Mexico. The problem with him is that his record on preventing illegal immigration is suspect and Romney tried to hit him on that a little in this debate. He pounded Perry on in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, who themselves never became legalized. He pointed out that four years of in-state tuition at University of Texas equals $100,000 in discounts to illegal immigrants, and that’s a magnet that doesn’t make sense. It was a good blow, but Perry stopped stuttering when he explained that he still thinks it’s more important to educate people so they don’t become drags on society. Which is a fair point until Rick Santorum emphatically opines that nobody said they couldn’t go to college at all– but why subsidize it and give illegals a reason to come to Texas? It might have been Santorum’s finest moment.

"Do you unnastand the wuhds that ah comin' outta my mouf?"

Gingrich believes nobody should get that in-state benefit. He also firmly believes English should be the official language, favors a fence and points out that the visa system makes it too difficult for foreign nationals to visit the US, and the immigration laws make illegal entry too easy.

Ron Paul wants to eliminate birthright citizenship so parents aren’t motivated to come to the US to deliver their babies. The moderator asked him about his assertion in the last debate that a fence might eventually be used to keep Americans in. This was really the only point in the night where Paul went to the zoo a little bit. He tried to make the point that Americans do sometimes want to leave the country with their money. (I’m pretty sure they don’t go to Mexico, unless it’s for vacation.) But he did land a decent point when he said that a data bank keeping track of citizenship would keep track of everyone, not just illegals, and that amounts to a national ID system that infringes on personal liberties.

At this point in the debate, the natives started getting a little restless and the interruptions began, particularly when it came to discussion on the Middle East. With the Palestinian Authority in the news for formally requesting recognition from the UN, the GOP has its claws out. Romney took the most emphatic stance that there should not be one inch of space between the US and its allies (in this case, Israel), and that no one should apologize for that. If you have a problem with your ally, discuss it privately, but support them staunchly in public. Although he didn’t mention the late president, this is a very Reaganesque attitude, and it was clearly a shot at the Obama administration.

Herman Cain insisted that the “peace through strength” philosophy Reagan espoused needed one element added at the moment: clarity. He says the Obama administration has sent mixed signals on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. (For the record, President Obama told the UN this week that the only way peace can be achieved in the Middle East is for Israel and the Palestinians to find it between themselves, and he does not think the PA should be recognized by the UN.)

Rick Perry got a question about Pakistan and the hypothetical that it may lose control of its nuclear weapons to the Taliban. He believes he would first build a relationship with Pakistan that’s stronger than the current one. He had a little trouble articulating it, but I suspect it’s because he was trying to show he has somewhat of a handle on foreign policy issues and his head was moving faster than his mouth. He brought up a specific terror network in Pakistan called Haqqani (I Googled it; it’s closely allied with the Taliban) and said India needs to know for certain that the US is its ally. He believes we don’t have strong enough allies in the region to help us if the nuke situation became a reality.

You can't call him expressionless.

Then there was some acrimonious disagreement between Rick Santorum (who, frankly, is very pouty and angry and has no poker face whatsoever) and Jon Huntsman over military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Santorum says he does not favor taking troops out of Iraq; he’d rather heed the generals’ call for 20-30,000 troops to keep force protection, and he believes the US needs to stand by its reasons for being there. Huntsman went in (unasked) for the throat when he differed, saying he’s the only person on stage with foreign policy experience, but he wound up sort of foundering on his point. He drew a line back to the economy saying that America can’t fix other countries’ problems without fixing its own economy, and that the only people who can really save Iraq are the Iraqis, and the only people who can really save Afghanistan are the Afghans. It was a bizarrely isolationist point I’d more expect from Ron Paul, and Santorum shot back with what I think was another really good punch for him on the night:  “Just because our economy is sick doesn’t mean our country is sick or our values are sick. And we are going to stand up for our country.”

But then he got a question, asked by a gay service member via YouTube, about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (which was officially eliminated from policy this week). Santorum insisted that if he were president, he’d put DADT back into effect. He believes repealing it injects a social program into the military and that we can’t conduct social experiments on the military. I find this to be sort of idiotic. It’s not like the military has been the first line in the introduction of gay rights issues for the country. In fact, it’s pretty much the last line. “Any type of sexual activity has no place in the military, and the fact that we’re making a point to recognize them and give them a special privilege in the form of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell injects a social program into the military,” Santorum emphatically pronounced. To me, that’s incredibly ignorant and shows that Santorum doesn’t understand that sex has a place everywhere in human sociology and that it’s not a “special privilege” to try to keep people from being beaten or discharged because of who they love.

I really wish some conservatives would begin to understand that homosexuality isn’t just about sex.

Speaking of sex, let’s revisit Rep. Bachmann’s HPV vaccine argument, shall we? After the last debate, Bachmann says a distraught mother told her that her daughter developed mental retardation after getting the vaccine. The American Association of Pediatrics shot back immediately, telling the world that there is zero evidence of this, and that the vaccine has an excellent safety record. The moderators asked Bachmann if she stands by her statements on the matter. Bachmann’s response was curious. She said she never actually made that claim.

“I only related what her story was,” she said. It was jaw-dropping.

"Hey, I was just telling you what she told me."

Again, Bachmann shows she’s bad at walking missteps back. But she recovered when she argued that the real issue is that it’s not appropriate for a governor (Rick Perry) to decide that a child should get a shot to prevent an STD, and she pointed out that he took money from the drug company that makes the vaccine… a company that hired Perry’s former Chief of Staff to lobby on their behalf.

Perhaps Perry’s most powerful moment of the night came next. “I did get lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old woman who had stage four cervical cancer.”

Everybody got quiet.

“I’ve readily admitted we should have had an opt-in, but I don’t know what part of ‘opt-out’ most parents don’t get. I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

As I’ve said, there were other topics discussed in the debate that I did not go into here. You can find a transcript here. In general, Rick Santorum had some strong moments in this debate, but his stance on DADT doesn’t keep with what most Americans think at this point, and he’s still just pissed off at everybody all the time. Michele Bachmann did nothing to gain points. Ron Paul played it less crazy, I think because he’s moving up in the polls, and that might have done him a favor or two, but he also didn’t get to pontificate on his signature issues. Herman Cain had a good night, and the audience learned about his recovery from stage 4 colon and liver cancer, which earned him a well-deserved and respectful ovation. Huntsman missed some opportunities and Gingrich didn’t do much at all. Johnson basically confused everyone with his presence and didn’t say anything other than “I promise to present a balanced budget to Congress in 2013.” Rick Perry got in his own way more than any one else did, but I think all these debates are bearing out the notion that Mitt Romney is the most poised and gives the most solid responses to questions.

From now on, Perry and Romney are the only people in the room.

Monuments To Mediocrity: How Soundbites Ruined Government (and Why It’s Our Fault)

We live in an age of immediacy and abbreviation. Email instead of snail mail. Texts instead of voicemails. One hundred forty (oh, sorry, 140) characters in a tweet. Four hundred thirty-two (432) characters in a Facebook status update. Drive-thru restaurants. ATMs. (We can’t even spell those words out.) Give it to me quick and let me get on with my life. If it can be done without me having to actually listen to you, so much the better.

So is it any wonder that the world of politics is what it is today?

The clearest example I can find in recent history is the 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry v. Bush. Why did Kerry lose that election? I, personally, don’t believe it was because of the Swiftboat thing. I believe it was because Kerry did not know how to speak in easily-digested, clever, 15-second soundbites. He was mocked, made the subject of late-night comedy, for his tendency to go on and on about any particular topic. I remember a Jon Stewart bit, years later, about what he named his boat. (If you don’t have the patience to watch the whole thing, just fast-forward to the 2:04 mark.) It was hilarious, sure. But was the joke actually on us?

What Senator John Kerry understood, for which the rest of us just didn’t have time, is that governing is not easily boiled down to a quick snippet of memorable slogans. This is complicated stuff. And one needs a complicated mind to understand it and do it well.

In American history, there are examples of complicated minds who understood how to govern while also understanding how to speak to the American people. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Ted Kennedy. Ann Richards. You’ll notice I’m giving relatively recent references. That’s not because of politics. That’s because of Americans.

When Americans pioneered and then embraced the nature of the mass media (r)evolution, politics had to change. No longer could we put up with wordy fireside chats.

(Who wants to sit and stare at a radio?)

No more did we tolerate laborious discussion in a public forum without some flash to entertain us. As the digital age dawned and then grew, we didn’t want to sit for hours and watch debates. We wanted soundbites. We wanted low-effort ways to figure out in an instant who we liked and who we didn’t. Maybe it mattered what they said. Maybe it only mattered how they said it.

Suddenly, there was a ubiquitous poll question on every network’s graphics: Which candidate would you rather have a beer with/invite to a backyard barbeque?

Really? This is how we’re deciding who will run the country? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough beers and been to enough backyard barbeques to tell you in no uncertain terms that I do not want any of the people with whom I spent that time to become the leader of the free world. Beer pong and badminton skills do not a president make.

Except for President George W. Bush, the first man elected almost exclusively, you have to figure, because he won the backyard barbeque poll.

Mmmmm... pork!

Look where that got us.

Somehow, in the technology age, wit and pith overtook erudition and intelligence as our main standards of leadership. We favored sassy over smart, savvy over strategic, composed over considerate. We wanted style instead of substance and punch instead of precision. “Bring it on” instead of “Achieving our goals does not require us to build a flawless democracy, defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy—what we’re talking about is “good-enough” governance, basic sustainable economic development and Afghan security forces capable enough that we can draw down our forces.”

Ironically, when it comes to politics, the Information Age is actually keeping us from truly being informed. And now, we blame politicians for the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t shoulder some of the blame. By and large, they’ve given in to the hype, and the next thing we know, they’re offering Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. But what would we do if they all bucked the trend and spoke like Senator John Kerry instead of like President George W. Bush?

When we think of our most honored leaders, our most revered patriots, we think of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington and Kennedy. We remember Jefferson and Dr. King. Those are the men to whom monuments have been erected. And we cherish them not only because they could give fine speeches with soaring rhetoric, or write documents that give us chills. We cherish them because they had the brains to back it up.

Somehow, we’ve gone from that level of appreciation to completely writing off an impressive leader because he said he was for the Iraq war spending bill before he was against it, (halfway down the page) and then trying to offer his reasons. Fine, so Kerry wasn’t the best at playing the game. Since when is changing one’s position in the face of the facts – and wanting people to understand why – such a loathsome quality?

Now, we’re gearing up for the next presidential race. No one has announced for sure that they’re running, but here’s who’s stirring the pot:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who paints himself as “the opposite of Obama.” Interesting, since he’s a good ol’ Southern white boy with a Confederate flag hanging in his office.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who thinks the American Revolution began in New Hampshire rather than Massachusetts, and holds up tea bags when she talks.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is widely regarded as one of the most cerebral politicians around, who thought Sen. Kerry was a flip-flopper… and then flip-flopped on Libya.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.The only person so far to form an exploratory committee (required to start raising campaign funds). His present strategy includes apologizing for his support of cap-and-trade.

Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are still out there, floating around in the pool of potential candidates, but none of them have really committed to anything, and none of them showed up in Iowa or New Hampshire recently.

Is anyone else completely underwhelmed by this lot? These Packers of the Populist Punch who bring nothing formidable to bear on the national conversation? Who may be capable, but apparently aren’t desirous, of articulating anything other than party lines?

This week, we’re back to hearing soundbites about the budget battle. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Eric Cantor squaring off against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Chuck Schumer (who got caught on tape this week telling fellow Dems what words to use in interviews about the budget process. Like this is a huge surprise, and everyone thought it was pure coincidence that all of the Republicans use the same words, and all of the Democrats use the same words). “The Democrats need to show that they’re serious about fixing the problem” vs. “The Republicans need to decide which is worse: angering their Tea Party base or shutting down the federal government.”

And both sides repeatedly spouting the new favored line in modern rhetoric: that the other side is “kicking the can down the road.”

My personal opinion, based on the actual budget proposals in play, is that both sides still have it wrong. And I think they both know it. There is a $1.5 trillion deficit. Democrats want to cut $21 billion in spending for the fiscal year, but might be willing to take it to $33 billion if they trim defense and “mandatory” programs that get automatic funding. Republicans want to cut $61 billion, including funding for Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Environmental Protection Agency, and education programs. They’re not willing to lower the number. And lest we believe that the Republicans are the closest to the correct answer because they want to cut the most, we should require them to show their work: their $61 billion cut would make it basically impossible to enact the health care overhaul. So now you know their motive.

That doesn’t really work in a soundbite, though.

I’m sitting here now, staring at how I’ve wound up this entry, and I’m thinking, “It needs something. It needs… pizzazz.” But you know what? I’m going to leave it like it is. Because reaching for pizzazz just means I’ve fallen for the same tricks I’ve been ranting against.