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Des Moines, Iowa GOP Debate Features Tears from Multiple Candidates…

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The November 19, 2011 debate between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa was at least as noteworthy for the odd sight of multiple Presidential hopefuls breaking down in tears, and the absence of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as it was for any answers elicited from the candidates. It often had the feel of a daytime talk show more than a serious debate, with multiple candidates choosing to bare their souls for the cameras. Religious themes were prevelant throughout the debate.

Rather than our usual candidate performance overview, for this article we’ll outline the themes covered, and then we’ll address how the candidates performed against our list of five things to look for:

The Crying

The waterworks began during the second hour, with former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain, as he struggled to recall his battle with cancer, and paused for long stretches in attempts to collect himself. Mr Cain’s tale of his stage four cancer diagnosis, his will to battle through it and his ultimate triumph were moving, and set the tone for what followed.

And what followed sometimes felt like a contest between the candidates to one-up each other with stories of tragedy and heartache and battles fought and sometimes won. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum used an extraordinarily lengthy story about his youngest daughter’s life and death struggle to argue against government health care. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did likewise with a dramatic story of a child who is a friend of his, and who suffered from numerous medical challenges, over which he ultimately triumphed, and also a tale of Mr Gingrich’s former feelings of “emptiness”. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann told the story of her parents’ divorce and her family’s struggle to survive thereafter. The tears flowed, heart strings were pulled (in often rather calculated ways, a cynic might say). Only Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Representative Ron Paul kept things upbeat, in Perry’s case recounting his rise from humble beginnings in a very small town, and in Paul’s case stating that, while he has had some difficulties, the life he’s been blessed with makes those difficulties trivial (although Ron Paul later added that he hates seeing himself on television and had a promising athletic career cut short for medical reasons).

Whether inducing pity translates successfully into votes remains to be seen – some viewers no doubt feel it “humanizes” the candidates, while others may be more inclined to think, “Ya, we all have our problems”. In any case, it was odd, unexpected, sometimes touching and at other times painful to watch.

The Comedy

Rick Perry had perhaps the best lines of the evening, starting during his story about growing up in small town Texas (“I think there were about thirteen kids in my graduating class, and I’m happy to tell you I graduated in the top ten!”) and continuing with his quips referencing his “oops moment” (As Ron Paul discussed cutting the Education Department, Mr Perry added, “And energy too!”, referring to the department he was famously unable to recall during the Michigan debate. The moderator quipped, “Governor, is there a third Department you’d like to cut?”).

Another funny line came after Rick Santorum explained how he considered it a “miracle” that he won the race for Pennsylvania Senator and that God had put him there. The moderator responded with: “What message did God have for you when you lost the last race?”

Newt Gingrich, on the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors, said, “That is why you have to tell them: go get a job, right after you go have a bath”.

When health care came up, the moderator chimed in with: “If only Mitt Romney were here.” Herman Cain responded with, “Mitt who?”

The Religion

The debate was heavy with religious topics, with candidates asked to describe when they were “called by God” and asked to reveal their personal struggles in “this sanctuary” of the First Federated Church. The first question asked candidates to elaborate on their feelings about what the words “so help me God” in the Oath of Office of the President mean to them (notably, unlike Oaths of Office for the judiciary, military, Congress and others, this is not part of the Constitutionally prescribed oath, although it has been traditionally included by Presidents). However important distinctions emerged:

  • Rick Santorum declared Muslims must “modernize” their religion as it is “stuck in the seventh century”. It is unclear if Muslims are looking to Mr Santorum for guidance on reforming their belief system;
  • Newt Gingrich argued that the United States Constitution is predicated upon Judeo-Christian principles and that the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the United States Declaration of Independence in fact means “the pursuit of wisdom”, and further seemed to argue that “liberty” leads to “libertines”;
  • Michele Bachmann cited a law passed by Lyndon Johnson which prohibits preachers from discussing politics (the Internal Revenue Service, which is charged with enforcing that law, has been challenged repeatedly by churches);
  • Ron Paul made the point that (contrary to Mr Gingrich’s argument) “liberty” is not the same as being “libertine” and that “liberty” comes with the consequences of decisions;
  • Michele Bachmann stated that she has a “biblical world view” and that God “created government”, and that she would like to “see what he [God] has to say about it”;
  • Rick Santorum argued that “liberty” is not “what you want to do but what you ought to do”, in comportment with God’s law.
  • Newt Gingrich argued the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives Congress the right, with a simple majority of Congress, to declare life begins at conception. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (which is presumably what Mr Gingrich is referring to) deals with citizenship.

The Courts

Perhaps the most revealing opinions came on the topic of what to do with the Supreme Court in instances whereby the Court rules in a way which does not satisfy the candidate’s point of view. The issue arose in the context of both gay marriage and abortion. Newt Gingrich, rather shockingly, called for the government to remove the Court’s power to rule on the constitutionality of certain issues. Such a plan, of course, would have profound implications: a federal government no longer bound by the Constitution where it deems itself above the scrutiny of the court. Mr Gingrich no doubt views this in light of court interference with items he supports, but such a stance would have equal power under a different administration, which might pass laws antithetical to Mr Gingrich’s views, and Mr Gingrich would have no recourse whatsoever to challenge the validity of such a law. On this issue, Mr Gingrich seems to share the view point of Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, who appears to believe the government can pass any law, and is not constrained by the Constitution. It was a shocking revelation by Mr Gingrich.

Rick Perry reiterated his argument that the terms of Supreme Court Justices should be limited (the issue of the Constitutional Amendment this would require, and whether it would pass, did not arise).

Rick Santorum would like to abolish the Ninth Circuit Courts, which he stated after Newt Gingrich declared that he would abolish the court of Federal District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio.

The Wars

Candidates fell into their now-predictable stances on war: Mr Santorum seemed, as usual, almost eager to go to war; Ms Bachmann lamented the lack of access by the government to waterboarding and other torture methods; Mr Gingrich trumpeted his “big-government Republican” world view; Dr Paul argued for the Congressional approval required for war, and then only in defense.

The Five Things We Suggested Viewers Look For

  1. Did Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9”? Mr Cain continued to lack the confidence and charisma which he exudes (in buckets) when on the topic of his “9-9-9” tax plan. The debate did not showcase any new planks for Mr Cain to showcase his personality with.
  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance? Dr Paul’s performance was solid. He did nothing to “hit it out of the park” but also remained consistent throughout, and drew applause often. The most important distinction Ron Paul made probably came on the topic of whether government should attempt to force a particular cultural perspective on the populace: all the other candidates seemed to favor the government peddling cultural values; Ron Paul instead argued the government should not be in the business of enforcing culture. It’s an important distinction, because the other candidates argue that the “left” is forcing a cultural viewpoint, and argue not that it is not government’s place to do so, but rather that government should instead push a different cultural agenda.
  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls? Mr Gingrich was more subdued and less combative than he usually is in these debates, and his points were well received by the crowd.
  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat? This remains to be seen, but in a caucus state, it’s hard to imagine Mr Romney’s absence won’t have an impact.
  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing? Rick Santorum clearly savored the opportunity to get more speaking time, and got a good opportunity to show how his candidacy is different than the others. Viewership was particularly low for this debate, however (it was only streamed online and not broadcast on television – you can find it archived here), therefore it’s unclear if Mr Santorum’s increased air time will result in a bump in the polls in Iowa. Rick Perry, too, had his best debate to date, generally articulate and didn’t exhibit the “deer in the headlights” syndrome he has so commonly demonstrated in these debates.

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