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.

Transcript: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/2012-abcyahoowmur-new-hampshire-gop-primary-debate-transcript/2012/01/07/gIQAk2AAiP_blog.html

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


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.)

Swinging For the Fences

I had a serious dilemma trying to figure out whether to watch the GOP debate or the baseball game last night.

No, really. I did.

Technically, I shouldn’t have cared about either thing. The Phillies are out, their hopes dashed in five games by Jack’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals. Pfft. Whatever. And the debates may now officially be an exercise in futility, because despite the fact that Herman Cain has surged, nobody is talking about Rick Perry anymore, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie body-slammed the right with two major announcements:

  1. He is still not running for president… no really, he means it.
  2. He is endorsing Mitt Romney.

The first thing wasn’t a surprise, because he’s been saying all along that he’s not running, but he gave a speech at the Reagan National Library and Nancy Reagan was there and some people were all “You should run” and so out of respect for the former first lady he said he would reconsider.

There are lots of reasons he answered correctly, by the way. For example, and in no particular order: his style works in New Jersey, but wouldn’t work nationally; he is far, far more moderate than some of the people who were calling on him to run realized, particularly on illegal immigration, climate change and gun control; and he doesn’t offer anything that the other guys (namely, Mitt Romney) don’t offer. He’d be a redundant candidate, and he knows it. Any run from him this year would have been only to gain national exposure to run for either the Senate or the presidency down the line.

But Tuesday, when he came out and endorsed Mitt Romney, he pushed momentum very clearly in Romney’s favor, and wasted no time doing it. It’s sort of like Game 2 of the NLCS when the Cards brought out the bats in a big way in the fourth through sixth innings. Sure, things could change, but if you wanted to beat the traffic home, you were probably okay to leave early.

That got me thinking: baseball and political campaigns are kind of similar. Both can sometimes be overly long and tedious processes. Both contain their share of change-ups and even sliders here and there. Both need good pitching to come out a winner. In either sport, a match-up can be won or lost on a single error. In either sport, there are some spectacular meltdowns and some teams that just peak early and fade.

There’s even a little bit of a financial comparison. Herman Cain and the Tampa Bay Rays both proved that they can pull off an impressive surge without having the funding that the big guys have. And both wind up sitting in the bleachers for the championship run. (Cain is too green to get the nod from the GOP.) Still, it’s fun to watch and it reminds people of why it’s sometimes so much fun to root for the underdog.

I found a way to watch both events, by the way. Hooray for the internets.

This debate was only about the economy. I hope you’ll forgive me for not giving you a real play-by-play. Nobody said anything new, and since part of my multitasking was also that I was trying to get some work done, I didn’t get to watch the whole time; I was just listening to a lot of it. So instead of giving you platforms, with which you’re familiar if you’ve read my previous debate posts (check out the Political Snark category for a comprehensive review), I’m going to break this down into baseball terms.

Herman Cain, for all his momentum recently, still can’t stop talking about his 9-9-9 plan, and in this debate, a couple of the candidates got to expose it for the overly simple problem it would likely be. In fact, this translated to my favorite Rick Santorum Moment, in which Santorum questioned Cain directly and asked him, with his lack of governing experience, how the American people could trust him not to allow that tax to be raised. Cain’s response was that there are three deterrents to that:

  1. He would ask Congress to include a 2/3 majority vote before raising the tax;
  2. His simple, visible and transparent plan would allow the American people to hold Congress’ feet to the fire;
  3. He would be president and wouldn’t sign anything that raises that tax.

Under his breath, Santorum groused, “You wouldn’t be president forever.”
And I agreed with Rick Santorum. And then the world shifted on its axis. But I digress. Point is: Cain put up a pop fly everybody would cheer for, but Santorum easily caught it and Cain was out.

A moderator asked Rep. Michele Bachmann if it was right that no Wall Street executives have gone to jail for the damage they did to the economy. Her answer was that the problem could be traced back to the federal government, not Wall Street. She said it was the government that pushed subprime loans and community reinvestment and housing goals, pushing banks to lend to those who were not qualified and withholding business merger possibilities if the banks didn’t make the loans. She said Freddie Mac & Fannie Mae created artificially low mortgage rates and lower credit qualifications for the first time in history.

Republican home run.

But later she blew the run when she championed her stance on insisting that Congress not raise the debt ceiling and give President Obama “a $2.4 billion dollar blank check.” She’s said this several times before. You know what makes me nuts about it? If there’s an amount written in, it’s not a blank check. Error. Then she said she’s a federal tax lawyer: “That’s what I do for a living.” Wait. I thought you were a congresswoman. Error #2. And then she said that if you take Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and turn it upside-down, you’ll find the devil is in the details. I don’t think she’s wrong about the flaws in the plan, but what’s with the kitsch? You just sort of called the plan evil, and called Herman Cain Satan by association. Bad throw. Error #3.

Newt Gingrich continues his codgerly rant against all media, which makes me write him off as a sore loser arguing a call with an ump, with or without spittle. I had to chuckle at his characterization of the Occupy movement: he figures they’re basically two groups – either left-wing agitators who would happily show up at whatever movement springs up next week, or sincere middle-class people who are much more like the Tea Party. Gingrich says the difference is that the decent people pick up after themselves, and the activists trash the place and walk away.

I think Newt Gingrich might be the out-of-touch, once-great old manager in this campaign. He grumbles in the dugout while scratching himself and occasionally looks up and notes accurately that someone has just completely screwed up on strategy and cost the team. You don’t know what to do with a guy like that.

Meanwhile, if there’s an umpire in this bunch, it’s Mitt Romney. He’s the guy who doesn’t like being argued with or interrupted, but he’s also the guy with the good eye who tends to know all the rules and stays on message. He generally sees what questions are coming and knows how to call the play. He doesn’t get them all right, but if somebody gets in his face, he calmly points at the dugout and sends them on their way.

And Rick Perry is starting to strike me as the owner who has no real idea of how baseball works. (This, from the woman who just realized yesterday that, in 34 years, she has never asked anyone what the catchers’ signals to the pitchers actually stand for.) He’s still horrible in debates. His moderation does still show here and there, but mostly he’s struggling to find a way to word his answers.

Jon Huntsman is the fan who scores the game obsessively. Finally, he’s started talking about China, and man does he have useful knowledge. But now he has to find a way to make it understandable. After a question about China’s manipulation of currency and its effects on pricing and exports, he started talking about quantitative easing, parts one and two. He eventually figured out how to be social, but at the moment, nobody wants to sit next to him.

And I’m not even sure Ron Paul suited up. He didn’t blow anything. He just didn’t really get any hits or force any outs.

I’m learning a lot about baseball lately, watching the signs and thinking through the plays. And I’m starting to wonder if this bunch of candidates is doing that, or if they’re just taking the swings that will make the crowd cheer. In the major league playoffs, if you want to win the game, there’s a delicate balance. Play it right and you’ll get the crowd behind you. Play it wrong and you could be going home to watch the big games with everybody else. Or you could be the team that comes from relative obscurity and wins it all, without anybody ever really understanding how.

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.

Taking Shots

CNN snuck a debate in on me while I was out of town, so I didn’t get to watch it or recap it. You’re devastated, I know. But I have seen a fair amount of fallout from it, and on one subject in particular, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here: the HPV vaccine and the apparently fascist administration thereof. If you listen to Rep. Michele Bachmann, at least.

Now before I go further and alienate anyone who didn’t like the idea of a federal or state requirement that girls receive Gardasil injections, let me say that I do respect a parent’s decision on whether to opt out of that vaccination, or any other. These are careful considerations and not every parent wants to give their child every injection that’s recommended.

But if you’ll bear with me: there is a reality to face, here.

According to the National Institutes of Health, HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is actually an umbrella term for 150 viruses, more than 40 of which can cause cancer via sexual transmission. It causes a very high percentage of cervical cancers. It does not cause all cervical cancers, and it does not always cause cervical cancer. HPV is a virus that, in most women, will clear itself from her system in about a year and not cause any further problem. For those women who are unable to clear the virus, it alarmingly often causes cervical cancer.

Here’s my question: if we’ve finally found (and by “we” I mean “people I don’t even know,

HPV vaccine. Image from highlighthealth.com

much less claim bloodline with, but with whom I share the fraternity/sorority of being human”) a way to prevent a type of cancer… why are we bitching about it?

The reality is that even if a woman is a virgin upon marriage, there’s a decent chance her husband is not. (God love him.) There’s a decent chance he’s carrying HPV. It’s a silent virus; there are no symptoms for anyone.

So if your daughter is ever going to have sex with a man (I know nobody likes to think about it, but it’s going to happen unless she’s a lesbian… and even then she might try it once with a guy just to find out for sure), this seems like a pretty good vaccine in which to invest. Because it’s going to keep her from getting cancer from a silent virus that the majority of men carry. (According to cervicalcancer.org, 60% of women contract HPV in their lifetime; the estimate is that it is the same for men, but there are no true diagnostic tests for men.)

Now, Rep. Bachmann is making some serious political hay with this argument. And frankly, if she wants to gain ground against Texas Gov. Rick Perry, she has to. It’s the one thing she can beat him down on. He issued an executive order requiring girls (as young as 11) to get the vaccine. The recommended age was because of two things: trying to get to the girls before they became sexually active, and using the most effective window for their immune systems to absorb and process the vaccine. Perry included an opt-out plan, allowing parents to choose not to have their daughters inoculated. He has said, politically, he would like to go back and change the way he did it so that it would go through the state legislature. But I don’t see anything wrong with requiring girls to get a vaccine that will prevent cancer, and, by extension, help suppress the cost of healthcare diagnosis and treatment. It’s a win-win for girls, women, parents, and the healthcare industry. And again: parents were able to choose not to participate.

I don’t understand what the problem is.

I, for one, wish the HPV vaccine existed when I was young. It would be great to know that I don’t have to worry about cancer on top of everything else that every woman has to worry about once she becomes an adult, regardless of her risk factors. Even if she uses a condom (they break sometimes); even if she’s a virgin when she gets married. My mother is as Catholic as they come, and she and my father agreed that my baby sister should get the shot when it first came out. Maybe it was a year later; either way, she was a teenager. My parents would never give their daughters birth control, even if they knew we were sexually active (and we weren’t) because they believed it would encourage – by way of less discouragement – sexual activity. I’m now 34 and I’m pretty sure they still think that. But they got my little sister vaccinated as a teenager. Because my uber-Catholic mother, who once told me that French kissing is a mortal sin (ruh-roh Rorge), understood that this vaccine is not about sex. 

It’s about CANCER.

Fine. It’s a type of cancer we can get from sex. So what? It’s cancer.

And there’s a vaccine for it.

How is this NOT a “glory, hallelujah” no-brainer?!

The reason Rep. Bachmann can make hay from this argument is trifold:

1) It implies sex, even if it’s not really about sex. A sure win with Evangelicals, Tea Partiers and others who base their political votes on religious views.

2) It’s about big government. Any time any member of the government requires you to do something (besides pay taxes or obey laws), that’s a violation of Tea Party standards.

3) It’s about campaign/political contributions. And nobody likes a sell-out.

Rep. Bachmann has claimed that Gov. Perry got money from Merck, the manufacturers of Gardasil, and that’s why he pushed through an executive order requiring girls to be vaccinated against HPV.  Gov. Perry says they gave him $5,000. Other sources show he got more like $30,000.

You know what? That’s one lobby I’m happy to have around. Whatever lobby there is that says, “We’ll pay you if you make people get a shot that will prevent cancer” — I’m on-board.

And in terms of political interest, I can’t help but take issue with the way Rep. Bachmann framed her attack on Gov. Perry. “And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong. That should never be done. That’s a violation of a liberty interest. That’s– little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a Mulligan. They don’t get a do-over. The parents don’t get a do-over.”

“Innocent little 12-year-old girls.” “Government injection.”  How does that not sound like a scare tactic on a grand scale?

Rep. Bachmann claimed, after the newest CNN debate, that she met a woman whose daughter became mentally handicapped after receiving the vaccine. If that’s true, I’m heartbroken for that family. But according to the American Association of Pediatrics, it’s not true. They say there have been 35,000,000 HPV vaccinations given out and the drug has an excellent safety record, and there is zero evidence that Gardasil has caused mental handicaps. I’m not saying vaccines are perfect and I’m not saying manufacturers don’t hide things, but if you’ll give your kids shots for diphtheria, pertussis, tuberculosis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and myriad other illnesses, what is so different about one for HPV?

Odds are, it’s going to prevent cervical cancer. And that’s all it will do to your daughter.

Again, I respect it if you choose not to immunize your daughter. You have your reasons. My youngest nephew is 18 months old and has had no vaccines, and as much as that scares me, I respect his parents’ decision. But let’s remember: the government requires children to be vaccinated against several contagious viruses and/or bacteria by school age. How is this vaccine different, in a government overreach sense? If not inoculating your young daughter against HPV is your decision, I may not agree, but I’m not her mother, and that’s that. But if, God forbid, she ever gets the virus and winds up with cervical cancer, she might have a problem with the fact that you refused to let her get the shot. And you might regret it, too.

I would – truly respectfully  – ask you: is your decision because you’re afraid your daughter will have sex? Or is it because you’re worried about the potential medical side-effects of the vaccine? If it’s the former, I guarantee you: she will have sex one day. And it won’t be about her. It will be about her partner. Who you did not raise, whose morals you did not shape. And he, unwillingly, regretfully, could expose your daughter to HPV that may develop into cervical cancer. He won’t mean to. He won’t want to. He won’t even know he’s doing it. He will love your daughter and never want to hurt her. But it could happen.

If your reason is the side effects, I remind you that all the evidence thus far shows that the vaccine is very safe.

Politics are one thing. Life and death are another. If Rep. Bachmann wants to pander to Tea Party Religious Right extremists, that’s where the votes are for her, and that’s what she needs to do. But I hope Americans see it for what it is, and I hope Rick Perry never apologizes for wanting girls to be protected.

It’s not about sex. It’s about cancer. And there is something Rep. Bachmann was right about. Innocent girls don’t get a do-over. And neither do their parents.