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CNN National Security Debate Revealing…

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The CNN National Security Debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls, held at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Tuesday, November 22, featured several important and revealing distinctions between the candidates. Moderator Wolf Blitzer did a superb job moderating the debate, giving each candidate roughly equal time (even Ron Paul had more than 89 seconds to make his positions known!) and, in several instances, followed up with candidates who didn’t answer questions directly by interjecting, “Just to be precise…” and attempted to pin down candidates on the questions. The event was held among members of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom asked candidates questions directly.

One topic of particular interest was the candidates’ positions on cuts to military spending: the United States spends more money on their military than the next 17 countries combined, however several candidates came out against any meaningful cuts, and some candidates came out against any cuts whatsoever (most of the “cuts” which have been proposed are not, in fact, “cuts” but are instead reductions in the pace of growth: America’s Defense budget has about doubled in just the past nine years).

If you ask any insurance executive the best way to sell insurance, they’ll tell you in one word: fear. Scare the customer and they’ll buy. Many of the candidates in this debate were selling insurance, of the United States military variety.

There were some radical positions on display by the candidates. Here, then, is a summary:

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich exhibited none of the animosity towards moderator Wolf Blitzer that he has previously unleashed against debate moderators, and presented himself well. Some of his positions, on the other hand, were surprising in some instances, disturbing in others, and flat out incorrect on at least one.

The first question of the debate was asked by Edwin Meese, former Attorney General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, who asked whether the Patriot Act should be extended. Mr Gingrich was the first candidate to field the question, and he came out in favor of the Patriot Act and further stated he would expand it, again making a distinction between “crimes” (which should be dealt with by criminal courts) and “terrorism” (which should be dealt with however the government wishes to deal with it, which in prior debates has included torture and secret tribunals under Mr Gingrich’s vision). The most obvious problem with this notion that the protections of the Constitution do not apply to those the government deems “terrorists” is of course that the government could, at will, declare anyone a “terrorist” and thereby absolve the government of the restraints placed on it by the Constitution: the government becomes judge, jury and executioner in secret and without any restraint. That is not, of course, an example of the “rule of law”. Other countries have experimented with secret courts and arbitrary removal of citizen’s rights. It hasn’t gone well for the people of those same countries.

Wolf Blitzer, smartly, asked Texas Representative Ron Paul to comment next – smartly, because it brought out the enormous contrast between Paul and Gingrich. Ron Paul made a passionate argument against the Patriot Act, stating liberty needn’t be sacrificed for security and that the court system had worked in cases like the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma. Mr Gingrich responded by pointing out that Mr McVeigh had succeeded in killing 168 people, and that the government should have the ability to pre-empt such attacks. Dr Paul responded by pointing out that each household could have a police officer and cameras placed inside it for the purposes of reducing child abuse and wife battering, and that a police state might reduce crime but in the process the government becomes the criminals. It was a telling exchange, and showed the vast differences between the candidates.

On the issue of oil, Newt Gingrich claimed that a different energy policy would allow the United States to produce enough oil to make up for all of Iran’s production and that as a result, global oil prices would plummet. Such an approach would require the United States to increase its oil production by about 50% and would require decades (and as one questioner pointed out, the United States hasn’t purchased oil from Iran for thirty years).

Mr Gingrich’s positions, evolved from his prior positions now that he is running for President (see too Mitt Romney for another example of positions of plasticity), are always conveyed with authority and plenty of (sometimes obscure) references and name dropping, but Newt Gingrich did a solid job of presenting those positions in this debate.

Overall score: A

Herman Cain

Former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain had another poor showing, as he has in past debates on any foreign policy question. Here was a debate entirely focused on foreign policy, with nary a chance to trumpet his “9-9-9” tax plan. There was nothing in Mr Cain’s performance in this debate which can be expected to reverse his sliding poll numbers (most recently at 14% nationally[PDF]).

Herman Cain never seemed at ease during the debate, and he had that “deer caught in the headlights” look, formerly so familiar on Rick Perry’s face, on multiple occassions.

Often, Mr Cain answers foreign policy questions by saying he will listen to other people and rely upon their judgement. It’s good to get opinions, particularly on matters as important as foreign policy. But it is also important to convey the notion that, while you will seek out advice, you are the ultimate decision maker.

Rarely did Mr Cain display any of the incredible charisma he once beamed at the audience.

Overall score: C-

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul was easily the most differentiated candidate of all those present. Coming out strongly against the Patriot Act (“The Patriot Act is unpatriotic!”), the “war on drugs” (“Another war we ought to cancel!”; “I think the war on drugs is a total failure”; “Federal government is going in there and over-riding state laws”; “I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties”) and in favor of Congressional approval for acts of war (which including a rebuttal to Mr Santorum, who kept talking about the “war on terror” – Mr Paul pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not a nation or an enemy or a war).

Ron Paul, for once, got some air time, and it was an excellent decision on the part of CNN producers, because the contrast was, at times, shocking. On the issue of the extension of the Patriot Act, Mr Gingrich’s argument that pre-emptive and extra-judicial actions should be permitted the government was smartly rebutted by Dr Paul’s plea that liberty need not be sacrificed for security, calling on the Founding Fathers in the process. On the issue of defense cuts, Mr Paul put the other candidates to shame, pointing out the “cuts” were only reductions in the speed of increased spending, not real cuts.

Overall, it was Mr Paul’s strongest debate to date, and even amidst the deeply establishment Republican crowd, Ron Paul drew cheers and applause for his anti-war, anti-interventionist positions. With Paul in a dead heat in Iowa, his performance in this debate may put him on top with the anti-Romney crowd in the state.

Overall score: A

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the hawkish approach, bemoaning defense cuts, favoring intervention in Iran and backing Israel by stating his first foreign visit as President will be to Israel.

Where Mitt Romney has been playing it relatively slow and steady, and avoiding engaging the other candidates since the Las Vegas entanglements with Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman seemed to get under Mr Romney’s skin on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.

Mr Romney is in a difficult bind, despite being the “front runner” in most media circles: essentially three quarters of Republican voters want a candidate for President who is not Mitt Romney, and it doesn’t appear as though anything Mr Romney says or does, or the other candidates’ rises and falls, have any impact on that cruel fact.

Mitt Romney’s best chance to win the nomination, it seems, is to split the conservative votes among the other contenders. But again, here Mr Romney is in a bind, because the voters seems to flock en masse to the most prominent anti-Romney candidate of the moment (currently Newt Gingrich). Do his performances at these debates win him any new voters? Probably not, according to the polls. So for Mitt Romney, the debates are something to get through without any obvious gaffes. That he did.

Overall score: B-

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry, while still occassionally tongue-tied and cursed with the intellectual gravitas of Pauly Shore on a bad day, nonetheless has now marked his third consecutive debate without a major embarrassment. Mr Perry’s policy ideas still seem half-baked (as in not really fully formed, and certainly not fully articulated), like his plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (to which Mitt Romney replied by pointing out the Syrian government is not attacking its people with aircraft but that they do have 5,000 tanks and therefore perhaps a “no-drive” zone would be more appropriate), or his solution to Pakistan, which seemed to be some concept of creating a trade zone among several countries and forcing them to work together.

Rick Perry continues to seem like the only kid on a stage of men, but at least it’s no longer so painful to watch, almost to the point that one feels a bit sorry for the man. It’s clear Mr Perry is much more comfortable speaking one-on-one, and he often turns to whichever candidate is beside him to address a point directly to another human, rather than the wider audience. But Mr Perry is at best a puppet with deep-pocketed string masters, and it shows. His greatest accomplishment in this race may be that he has held on as long as he has – his poll numbers are certainly stagnant.

Overall score: C+ (this is an “A” on the Perry Bell Curve).

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, it is hard to believe now, was once considered a front-runner, after narrowly defeating Ron Paul in the Ames, Iowa straw poll. Since then, her poll numbers have plummeted, and she regularly polls in the low single digits. What’s a candidate to do?

Make odd statements and appear increasingly like a fringe candidate as you move towards the totalitarian territory where Rick Santorum lives, that’s what.

Some select statements:

“We won the peace in Iraq.” Yes. Iraq. That bastion of peaceful tranquility.

“Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists.” This in support of reinstating torture tactics against suspects who have never been formally charged and whose revelations while being tortured are of little to no use (CNN has an interesting fact-check on this statement).

“…most recent decision he [President Obama] made to cancel the Keystone Pipeline.” That pipeline has been delayed, not canceled, by the Obama administration.

Ms Bachmann, in short, did nothing to distinguish herself, and a few things to embarrass herself.

Overall score: D

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman had a strong night, in a debate focused on topics he’s most familiar with as a former Ambassador.

Mr Huntsman made well-articulated points on China and Pakistan, and at one point engaged with Mitt Romney on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan (Mr Romney wants troops to remain longer in that country; Mr Huntsman wants to bring them home but leave a small contingent behind).

All Mr Huntsman’s marbles are on New Hampshire, and unfortunately for him, he is not polling in the top two there (positions held by Mr Romney and Mr Paul).

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum opined that people should be treated differently (read: more harshly) depending upon the religious beliefs they hold, by way of applying different standards to Muslims in security screenings and other state intrusions. Hitler, too, believed people of different religious beliefs should be treated differently. On the other hand, The Founding Fathers of the United States, most notably did not, enshrining freedom of belief in the Constitution. Mr Santorum, throughout these debates, has never shied away from the more fascist side of the spectrum, and later applauded Lincoln for “trampling on the civil rights” of Americans. It is deeply reassuring that Mr Santorum has never polled much above 1% – his positions on foreign policy, and his almost viceral disgust for civil liberties, is truly frightening.

Overall score: F (The world becomes a safer and saner place once Mr Santorum retires from politics).

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