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GOP Race: What A Strange, Strange Trip It’s Been…

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Now that the caucus votes in Iowa have been cast, it’s time to look back on the race for the Republican Presidential nominee so far. And what a race it’s been! In a year where the pundits tell us the electorate is looking for an “outsider”, we’ve seen a lobbyist and former central banker  (Herman Cain), a disgraced House Leader with a penchant for lobbyists’ cash and affairs (Newt Gingrich) and now the king of earmarks (at least a billion dollars) and deep friend to lobbyists who lost his seat by the widest margin in the history of his state (Rick Santorum) all top the polls at some point. We’ve seen a Governor who can’t count to three (Rick Perry), a House Representative with a tentative relationship with truthfulness (Michele Bachmann) and a candidate who dropped out before a single vote was cast (Tim Pawlenty). And another House Representative who stakes out positions his opponents refuse to even consider worthy of debate, but who received one in five votes in Iowa (Ron Paul), while another candidate changes positions with remarkable fluidity to suit the mood of the electorate and is considered the “presumptive nominee” despite seemingly incapable of rising above 25% in the polls, no matter how much money he spends, how many endorsements he gets or which position he stakes out on a particular day (Mitt Romney).

Throughout the debates we’ve seen flat out lies, and lots of them: Iran has promised to launch a nuclear attack against the United States (Bachmann, and Santorum and Gingrich, to lesser extents), the HPV innoculation can lead to brain disease (Bachmann again), a panel made up of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, and which voted thirteen to one for sanctions against the House Speaker, was a “partisan attack” (Gingrich), and many more.

We’ve learned that Newt Gingrich was in favor of a personal health mandate when that view point paid (a reported $37 million to his foundation) but is against it now (at least since March). Mitt Romney was in favor of it too, and implemented it, but now considers it unconstitutional.

Rick Santorum, we learned, wants to bomb Iran and then “publicize it”, and says not a penny can be cut from the military (while the United States spends more on its military than the next twenty countries combined). He also believes the Constitution does not confer the right of privacy to individuals, including the right to consensual relations between two people in the privacy of their home (he really believes this, including a husband and wife).

The US spends more on the military than the next 20 countries combined.

We’ve seen two candidates on, essentially, book tours who suddenly found themselves leading the pack, and just as suddenly found themselves back on book tours (Gingrich and Cain).

We’ve seen a candidate who fought hard for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for a company which immediately put him on their payroll once he was trouced out of office by a disgusted electorate (Santorum). And billed taxpayers $72,000 per year for private school for his children while in office. He now runs as the “outsider” and the “true conservative”.

We’ve seen a contender who thinks any position other than “pro-war” is “dangerous”, but who repeatedly refused when he was drafted into the military (Gingrich).

And throughout it all, we’ve watched a restless electorate switch their support from one flawed candidate to another, while the political pundits label each candidate “top tier”, until their fifteen minutes are up (see Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and, soon, Santorum). That same electorate has sent to the top of the polls some of the most deeply “establishment”, big-government, big-spending candidates who have been working the system for years.

What a strange, strange trip it’s been…

The Republican Party’s Brand Problem

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What is a “brand”?

A “brand” is a product or service or organization which has values, qualities or traits deeply associated with it. It is the “identity” of a product, service or organization, and it is reinforced by “differentiators”: those things which set the brand apart from its competitors. When you buy Coke rather than the generic alternative (and typically pay far more in the process), you do so perhaps because you prefer Coke’s taste (a trait) or (more often) because Coke’s marketing efforts have associated with their product values you favor or relate to. When you buy Pepsi instead of Coke, maybe you like Pepsi’s taste, or maybe you identify with Pepsi’s efforts to position their product as “younger”. At root, however, “brand” is a function of trust: when you buy a Coke, you trust it will consistently deliver whatever it is you’ve come to expect. Whether you are in Hong Kong or London or San Francisco, when you order a hamburger at a McDonalds, you trust it will taste the same and deliver the same experience. Being true to the brand promise is of extreme importance: if the burger you ordered at any particular McDonalds was completely different than the burger at any other McDonalds, or if each can of Coke tasted differently, the brand would instantly become meaningless: the brand promise betrayed, there is no longer any reason for you to pick the brand over a competitor.

What does the idea of a “brand” mean in the context of the Republican Party? And how’s the health of the Republican Party’s “brand”?

The Republican Party likes to brand itself as the party of small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. Their brand promise is lower government spending, less governmental intrusion into the lives of Americans, safety and the ability to transact business with limited governmental constraints, and minimal direct governmental participation in the economy.

How has the GOP performed on its brand promise? Are the party’s differentiators meaningful to their customers, the Amercian electorate? The answers, in short, are: poorly and no.

Many voters today see little difference between the Republican and Democratic parties: independent voters are now the largest segment of the electorate, and the fastest growing. Republican George W Bush, of the ostensibly “small government” party, increased government spending substantially: the rate of non-defense discretionary spending growth during the first term of his Presidency was over 3,500% greater than it was under President Clinton’s first term, and over 230% higher than President Carter. This was in following his father’s footsteps: George HW Bush increased spending over 6,800% faster than President Reagan. When it comes to “small government” and fiscal prudence, the Republican Party has lost, entirely, any ability to differentiate from the Democrats: for the period 1988 – 2004, Bush 43 (a Republican) grew government spending the fastest, followed by Clinton’s (a Democrat) second term, then Bush 42 (a Republican), and finally Clinton’s (a Democrat) first term. Going back a bit farther, President Nixon increased spending at a rate five times faster than President Carter did. There is no difference between the parties, and this undermines the Republican brand significantly (it doesn’t damage the Democrats nearly as much, as their branding has not often made fiscal prudence a brand promise).

On the issue of liberty and freedom, there is likewise little to differentiate the party brands: President George W Bush substantially reduced individual freedom by way of (among other things) authorizing warrantless wiretaps of citizens of the United States and effectively eliminated habeus corpus protection; President Obama (among other things) granted retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who went along with these wiretaps, and subsequently extended his interpretation of a President’s powers to include the assissination of United States’ citizens without charge, trial or conviction. A Republican and a Democrat, with little to distinguish their stances on personal freedom and liberty.

In more recent times, the Republican party has also come to be the home of the “social conservatives”: that part of the electorate most pre-occupied with issues such as abortion, gay marriage and “Christian values”, and often identified as the “religious right”. This segment of the party has significantly diluted the Republican brand, and in focusing on “social conservative” issues, has dimished the core differentiators of the Republican brand we mentioned earlier: small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. And while 78% of those Republicans aged fifty-eight or older described themselves as “social conservatives”, 46% of Republicans aged eighteen to thirty-seven describe themselves as “social moderates”. The “social conservative” aspect of the Republican brand is a losing proposition for the party in the medium to long term.

The rapid growth and substantial number of independent voters is the consequence of the parties’ diluted brands: if Coke and Pepsi and the no-name brand all taste exactly the same and are the same price, what compelling reason beyond inertia is there to make a person pick Coke over Pepsi, or Pepsi over Coke, or either over the no-name brand?  This is where the GOP finds itself in 2012. And things are going to get much worse for the Republican Party establishment: the younger the voter, the less likely that voter is to be a member of the Republican Party. 37% of the party’s members are fifty-eight or older, and 24% are between forty-eight and fifty-seven, but only 14%-15% of members are between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-seven, and just 6% are between eighteen and twenty-seven. The party is aging, and new voters do not find the brand compelling.

The conventional thinking is that the Republican Party is for people who have stuff (which they don’t want the government to take away), and the Democratic Party is for people who don’t have stuff (and want the government to give them stuff), and as people get stuff, they shift to the Republican Party. But that thinking is deeply flawed: the current generation of voters aged eighteen to twenty-seven have stuff, and they’re not joining the Republican fold (in 2008, 58% of voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine were either Democrats or leaned Democrat, while only 33% of that age group were, or leaned, Republican, a downward trend that has continued uninterrupted since at least 1992, when Republicans had a 47% to 46% edge in this age group).

The Republican Party has repeatedly betrayed its brand promise, and the party no longer has the core differentiators it once did. As such, it does not have a meaningful sales pitch for new customers – those people reaching voting age. The party’s brand has become “New Coke”.

What can the Republican Party do to reverse this slide and rebuild the party’s brand? And are they doing it?

Almost all the candidates currently competing for the Republican Presidential nomination are running on a platform based not upon the core Republican brand, but on relatively recent changes to that brand, which coincide with the dilution of party support among new voters – the “New Coke” of the Republican Party: social conservatism, military interventionism and big government. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is considered “conservative” because he is staunchly “pro-life” and wants to bomb Iran (while his history in office shows him indistinguishable from a Democrat when it comes to the “Classic Coke” version of the Republican Party: he voted in favor of increasing the debt ceiling, consistently voted in favor of earmarks, backed Arlen Spector in his run for Presidential nominee of the Republican Party (Spector, a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-gun rights and pro-affirmative action candidate, subsequently switched sides, becoming a Democrat in 2009), does not believe United States citizens enjoy privacy protection under the Constitution, and believes the government should involve itself in private enterprise by picking certain sectors for special treatment (Mr Santorum would like to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers, and only manufacturers)). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney implemented a government health care program while Governor, increased state spending by over 32% in four years and, in an effort to appeal to the “New Coke” Republican brand, switched from “pro-choice” to “pro-life”. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, believes the federal government should be responsible for finanically assisting citizens’ home purchases, has signed a “New Coke” document entitled a “Pledge of Fidelity” promising not to cheat on his current wife, and wants to remove more personal freedoms by strengthening the Patriot Act. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who increased spending over 82% in Texas, focuses on the “war on religion” the federal government is supposedly waging. These candidates all believe that “New Coke” is a winning formula, and they are doubling-down on it. And this lack of differentiation has resulted in a fractured field: no candidate received more than 25% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

The lone candidate seeking to rebrand the Republican Party, to bring back “Classic Coke”, is Texas Representative Ron Paul: he proposes cutting government spending by one trillion dollars in the first year, eliminating five federal departments, increasing personal liberties by doing away with things such as the Patriot Act and permitting states to decide issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Mr Paul’s foreign policy, which calls for non-interventionism and only Congressionally-authorized wars, is materially different from the Democrats and every other candidate. And that rebranding, that original formula, is resonating with customers: in the Iowa caucuses, 48% of caucus goers aged seventeen to twenty-nine voted for Mr Paul, as did 43% of independents. These are the very customers the Republican Party desperately needs in the years and decades ahead.

For those efforts to rebrand the Republican Party, Ron Paul has been alternately ignored or reviled. The Republican Party doggedly insists that “New Coke” is the winning formula, and any suggestions that “Classic Coke” should be reintroduced is met with open hostility. Mr Paul has been called “dangerous” and more recently “disgusting” by his fellow Republican, Rick Santorum. Mr Paul’s foreign policy is dismissed out of hand: a non-interventionist defense policy is not even permitted debate. But as we’ve seen already, independents are the largest share of the electorate, and they are demonstrating a genuine taste for “Classic Coke”. And in hypothetical match ups against President Obama, Mr Paul’s “Classic Coke” matches Mitt Romney’s chances for victory in a general election.

The Republican Party establishment ignores this erosion of its brand at its peril: with nearly twice as many young people leaning Democrat rather than Republican, and with independent voters the deciding factor in general elections, “New Coke” is a strategy for failure. The Republican Party’s brand is materially and demonstrably diluted, and the party is going to need to engage in a serious rebranding exercise, building meaningful differentiators and building trust with new customers. Those customers are waiting, and they seem to have a thirst for “Classic Coke”.

Written by westcoastsuccess

January 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm

4 Things to Watch For in CNN National Security Debate of GOP Presidential Hopefuls…

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Tomorrow’s (Tuesday, November 22, 2011) debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC, and produced by CNN, will focus on National Security. Here, then, are four things to watch for in this, the final debate of November:

  1. Can Herman Cain stop the bleeding?

    Former National Restaurant Assocation lobbyist Herman Cain has seen his support plummet dramatically: the latest CNN poll [PDF] shows support for Mr Cain down almost half between October and November (from 25% to 14%). Is there any way for Mr Cain to stop the slide, or reverse the trend? There are really just three options for Herman Cain: hope one of his rivals (most likely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) sees a substantial drop and further hope to fill the void that leaves, or hope the voting public’s memories are short and both the allegations of sexual harassment, and perhaps more importantly Mr Cain’s seemingly shallow grasp of issues outside the realm of his proposed tax plan, are forgotten, or make a bold move and attempt to recapture the lead. Notably, security/foreign policy has been a real weakness for candidate Cain.

  2. Will Texas Governor Rick Perry continue his largely gaffe-free recent debate performances?

    In the two debates since his now-famous “oops” moment in Michigan, Rick Perry has performed without any overt failures and less of struggles to articulate himself which were a hallmark of every prior debate. Still, with just 12% support in that same CNN poll, a history of heavy spending as Governor of Texas and a platform he has yet to fully articulate, it may be an awfully steep hill for Mr Perry to climb (and Perry is polling around 3% in New Hampshire, according to Bloomberg).

  3. Can Texas Representative Ron Paul, currently in a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa and in a distant second place in New Hampshire, change the perception of his security policies?

    Virtually every media account of Dr Paul’s foreign and national security policies includes the word “isolationist”. Will Ron Paul be able to successfully argue that the presence of the United States’ military in 150 countries around the globe, and the interventionist foreign policy of the past 60 years, is a cause of threats to America’s security? Will Mr Paul’s message (effectively, “If we go to other people’s sandboxes and kick down their sand castles, they will want to come to our sandbox and kick down our sand castles”) resonate with voters in the midst of six far more “hawkish” candidates (former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s views are similar to Ron Paul’s; the rest of the candidates are all in favor of interventionism and nation building, particularly former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann).

  4. Will other candidates label Newt Gingrich a “flip-flopper” in light of his new web site?

    The New York Times published an article about Mr Gingrich’s new web site, on which the candidate explains his reasons for changing his position on seven issues (among them, the personal mandate for health care, which Mr Gingrich used to be in favor of but now considers unconstitutional). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been the favored target of “flip-flopping” accusations to date; will the candidates attempt to bestow Mr Gingrich with similar accusations?

The debate begins at 8pm ET on CNN. (Note: for the complete schedule of upcoming Republican debates, as well as links to all previously aired debates, visit 2012 Election Central).

5 Things to Watch For in Tonight’s GOP Debate…

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The latest in the long series of debates between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination takes place at 5pm ET tonight, Saturday November 19th at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa (live stream available here). Here are five things to keep an eye on during the debate:

  1. Does Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9”?

    Former lobbyist Herman Cain (who, interestingly, supported Mitt Romney in the 2008 race) has shown great appeal with voters when a question can be answered by working in his “9-9-9” tax plan, but has seemed far out of his depth when issues stray to things like foreign policy (where he’s made several odd statements about China and Libya and other topics). With poll numbers heading south, and Mr Cain’s “9-9-9” mantra growing repetitive, will Herman Cain find another winning line?

  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance?

    Recent polls show Texas Representative Ron Paul in a four way tie for first place in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire. With a strong ground game and poll numbers higher than Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, but disproprotinately less media coverage (an alternate title to this point could easily have been, “Will Ron Paul get more than 89 seconds in this debate?”), Dr Paul has a chance to solidify recent gains with another strong performance.

  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls?

    With a new spotlight shining on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, given his recent rise in the polls, the debate will be a chance for Mr Gingrich to consolidate his standing. However amusing his often flippant responses are (the alternative title for this point might well have been, “How long will it take Mr Gingrich to attack the moderators or avoid answering an unfavorable question by employing sarcasm?”), he’ll now have to answer questions about his dealings with Freddie Mac and other potential skeletons in his closet (as did Mr Cain upon his time in the spotlight amidst surging poll numbers).

  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat?

    Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn’t spent much effort or money in Iowa, and his poll numbers reflect that fact. This debate, in Iowa, won’t feature Mitt Romney. Will his absence give his fellow contenders the chance to pull away?

  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing?

    The rest of the field is hanging on by a thread, with the exception of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who would be out of the running entirely but for his rich campaign chest. With less than seven weeks until voting begins, will any of the candidates on the margins go for a game changing performance?

Is There a Path for Ron Paul to the Republican Presidential Nomination?

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House Representative Ron Paul of Texas, currently running for the Republican Presidential nomination, presents an unusual case: here is a candidate who gets the third largest amount of campaign contributions among GOP Presidential hopefuls (behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry), who spoke to the causes of the Tea Party long before the modern Tea Party was born (and when doing so often meant being a lone voice, and frequently ridiculed), who consistently polls higher than former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum combined (and consistently higher than Rick Perry, but for Perry’s initial surge) and who has been consistent about his positions throughout his twenty-two years in public office, rather than adopting positions for the sake of popularity among voters of the moment. Ron Paul also polls well against President Obama in theoretical head-to-head match ups, beating every other candidate except Mitt Romney (and Ron Paul beats Obama among independent voters by 48% to 39%, according to this Public Policy Poll). At the same time, Dr Paul gets an inordinately low amount of media coverage: witness his eighty-nine seconds of air time at the South Carolina candidates debate on foreign policy, or, as we previously reported, his lack of coverage after finishing second in the Ames, Iowa straw poll (missing first place by just 152 votes out of 16,892 total votes cast). This is a candidate the media, and the establishment, clearly dismisses (see too the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study of media coverage of candidate Paul).

Most “pundits” are of the opinion that Mr Paul’s support is “a mile deep but an inch wide”. In other words, his supporters are few but passionate. It is also assumed that Representative Paul has a “ceiling” on his support, somewhere around 10%, above which he cannot climb.

But multiple recent polls show Ron Paul in a virtual tie in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire (trailing Mitt Romney). So today we ask: are there a set of circumstances whereby Representative Paul could win the Republican Presidential nomination?

So far, the course of the nomination campaign has made clear that there are really only two votes: Mitt Romney or someone not Mitt Romney. Consider this: Mr Romney consistently polled around 23% when Rick Perry entered the race with polling numbers in the forties. After Mr Perry’s numbers receded dramatically (down to the high single digits currently), where was Mr Romney left? Around 23%. The same thing happened while former lobbyist Herman Cain experienced a significant surge and subsequent decline (thought Mr Cain’s decline appears not yet finished): as voters’ support left Mr Cain, it did not go to Mr Romney. The latest “anti-Romney” candidate has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has seen his poll numbers rise dramatically as Mr Cain’s have fallen (and as Mr Perry’s continue to fall). But Mr Gingrich’s period in the spotlight as the “anti-Romney” is as fragile as was Mr Cain’s, and Mr Perry’s before him: new revelations that Newt Gingrich accepted between $1.6 million and $1.7 million from Freddie Mac (the amount was previously thought to be $300,000, the figure used in the Michigan debate) could seriously harm Mr Gingrich (who claims these funds were not for lobbying purposes but rather for “historical consultation”). The former Speaker also has a style which, while initially appearing amusingly acerbic, often reveals itself to be more akin to a method of deflecting some inconvenient truths – witness Gingrich’s response when pressed by Mitt Romney about Mr Gingrich’s support of a personal mandate for health care coverage (“We got the idea [for a personal mandate in Massachusetts] from Newt Gingrich”): Mr Gingrich denied he favored a personal mandate several times, before, finally, conceding that he was indeed in favor of an individual mandate for health care (for the record, Newt Gingrich had this to say in 1993: “I am for people, individuals — exactly like automobile insurance — individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”). If Newt Gingrich’s polling numbers collapse like Rick Perry’s did and like Herman Cain’s are, where does that leave the “anti-Romney” voters?

Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames, Iowa straw poll, but who has seen her polling numbers shrink dramatically since, doesn’t seem a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. Statements like this one, from the South Carolina debate, don’t help: “It seems like the world is gearing up for a world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China under President Obama, is running on a platform somewhere to the left of Mitt Romney. That’s hardly going to appeal to that significant portion of Republicans who are opposed to Mr Romney for being too far to the left.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum hasn’t often polled above 1%, and when he lost his re-election bid for the senate, he lost it very convincingly: his loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. was by the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania (which makes Mr Santorum’s statement at the Las Vegas debate particularly amusing: “I can win Pennsylvania, and if we win Pennsylvania, we win the election!”).

That brings us back to Representative Ron Paul.

There are currently somewhere around three quarters of Republicans who do not wish to see Mitt Romney as their candidate for President. Many of those same Republicans do not wish to see Ron Paul as the candidate. If the only real options come down to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the race will be decided by three things:

  • Will the “anti-Romney” Republicans be more likely to hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney, or similarly hold their noses and vote for Ron Paul?
  • Will other “anti-Romney” candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich siphon off enough votes from Mitt Romney to allow Ron Paul to squeak out a win with 20% to 25% of the vote (it seems far easier to imagine a Romney supporter switching to Gingrich or Cain than it is to imagine a Paul supporter making that same switch)?
  • What role will independents play?

If, as it increasingly looks like, Tea Party supporters are left with a choice between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the remaining candidates take votes from Romney but not Paul, and enough “anti-war” independents register as Republicans and support Ron Paul, there may indeed be a path for Dr Paul to the nomination.

Largely, this race has come down to “establishment versus anti-establishment”, with Mitt Romney firmly representing the “establishment” and other candidates temporarily (but ultimately unsatisfactorily) representing the “anti-establishment”, except for candidate Ron Paul, who has been “anti-establishment” for over two decades now (with about 99% of his campaign contributions coming from individuals, versus 56% for Mr Romney).

Can Ron Paul pull off a surpise upset? We’ll start to find out in less than seven weeks.

South Carolina GOP Debate: Waterboarding, Foreign Aid and Iran…

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The CBS News/National Journal debate between GOP Presidential hopefuls, held Saturday, November 12th in Spartanburg, South Carolina, focused on foreign policy, and shed light on some significant differences between the candidates. Additionally, moderators Scott Pelley of CBS and Major Garrett (that is his name, and not his rank) of National Journal were a substantial improvement from the moderators CNBC featured in the Wednesday economic debate in Michigan: neither Mr Pelley nor Mr Garrett featured the synthetic histrionics of a Jim Cramer or the eye rolls of Maria Bartiromo. The one trip up came early, when Scott Pelley insisted former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had used up his time. Mr Romney protested, noting the yellow warning light was still on, and Mr Pelley promptly apologized and let Mr Romney finish. Both moderators did a good job keeping candidates within their alloted time. Strangely (and confusingly, for many), the debate lasted ninety minutes, however only sixty minutes were aired on television, the final half-hour pre-empted by NCIS.

Moderators Scott Pelley (CBS) and Major Garrett (National Journal) proved a significant upgrade over the CNBC moderators

The entire ninety minutes was streamed at the CBS News site, however the accompanying live comment stream showed a great many people complaining about cut outs and generally poor reception of the stream (no such problems were encountered on our feed of the stream, however we’re on a 25 Mbs fibre optic line).

Notably, the candidates were not given anywhere near equal time during this debate, with, most notably Ron Paul (but Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann) spending long periods without getting a chance to speak to a question.

The debate featured some interesting responses from the candidates, to be sure.

Here, then, is a brief overview of the candidates’ performances (we’ve noted each candidate’s position on “nation building”, foreign aid, war with Iran, torture/”waterboarding”, and whether the president is permitted to unilaterrally assassinate United States citizens):

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry fared fairly well, by his standards (that is, however, a particularly low bar indeed). There were no overt mistakes (other than referring to House Represenatative Ron Paul as “Senator” at one point).

Governor Perry seems to be peeking at Dr Paul’s playbook a lot these days: in the prior debate, his now infamous brain cramp occurred as he unveiled his “lite” version of Ron Paul’s plan to eliminate five Departments (Perry’s plan instead prososes to eliminate three). This time, Mr Perry pledged to start all foreign aid at “zero”, which sounds remarkably similar to Mr Paul’s plan to eliminate foreign aid entirely, but differs materially on the details. For example, candidate Perry pledges not to cut all foreign aid, but to evaluate the amount each year. As he was laying out his plan, his aides were simultaneously tweeting assurances that Israel would certainly qualify and continue to receive significant funds from United States tax payers. Things like this continue to reveal Mr Perry for what he is: a politician who wants desperately to say the “right things” to appeal to voters, while being rather steadfastly committed to the status quo (see too his spending record in as Governor of Texas, whereby he has increased state spending by over 80% during his time in office but continues to attempt to portray himself as the “real conservative” and fiscally responsible).

On the issue of torture, Mr Perry again hedged, first stating he opposes torture, but then saying he favors anything which will “save young American lives” and further stated, “This is war. That is what happens in war.” The takeaway, yet again, was that Governor Perry wants to say the thing which will appeal the most, and if he does not get the requisite applause with his first answer, he is willing to try another.

While Mr Perry did not have a gaffe such as that he exhibited in Michigan, he continues to struggle to communicate. For example, at one point he stated, “This whole issue of allowing cyber security to go on”; he presumably meant “cyber attacks”.

Nation building: unknown.

Foreign aid: Yes, and substantial aid to Israel, but he will “zero out” aid in the beginning and re-evaluate. “Obviously Israel is a special ally and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level”.

War with Iran: unknown.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes, sometimes: “That is what happens in war.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Rick Santorum

The most hawkish of all the GOP Presidential hopefuls, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued the case in favor of continuing financial aid to Pakistan, claiming their possession of nuclear weapons makes it imperative that they remain the United States’ “friends” (“Pakistan must be our friend”). There are a few fundmental problems with this position:

  • maintaining a flow of substantial money (approaching $20 billion over the past decade) to Pakistan to “help fight terrorism” does not motivate Pakistan to eliminate “terrorism” – quite the opposite, since absent the threat of “terrorism”, the money spigot will be turned off. If anything, it encourages Pakistan to make it appear as though they are fighting “terrorism” but never actually reduce it much, such that the perceived threat remains and the money keeps flowing. This is precisely what appears to be happening.
  • the argument that the United States tax payer should go to work for some small part of each day for the purpose of having the fruits of his or her labor sent to what is, effectively, a military dictatorship might be a tough sell in the midst of a severe economic downturn.
  •  the argument that possession of nuclear weapons entitles a nation to the economic support and “friendship” of the United States is great motivation for other countries to obtain nuclear weapons – this type of policy is an overt incentive for other countries to pursue nuclear armaments.

Mr Santorum further argued that foreign aid is “all spent in the United States”, “creates jobs” and “creates dependency on our weapons systems”. It is an interesting argument in favor of “sovereign welfare”: the ends justify the means.

One of the most telling remarks from Mr Santorum came when he described how he would build his team: “I’ll get together people that will share my point of view…I didn’t hire people who didn’t share how I approached the problem.” This is a very dangerous approach, because it risks “group think”, and the absence of opposing view points in a discussion of options means important options may go unexplored. Most senior leaders struggle against people simply telling them what they think the leader wants to hear. Surrounding oneself with a team of people who agree is not a mark of effective leadership.

Nation building: Yes.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: Yes: “As more sanctions and, and, and providing, you know, more support for pro-democracy movement isn’t going to be enough in time.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann didn’t mince words: she came out in favor of “waterboarding” and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture), decried the notion that the Central Intelligence Agency is “run by the ACLU” (American Civil Liberties Union) and claimed torture produces results (there is considerable evidence that torture, and specifically “waterboarding”, is not an effective interrogation technique, including a report from the CIA, as well as a book by a former FBI interrogator, Ali H. Soufan, who calls such techniques “unnecessary and counterproductive”).

Representative Bachmann’s answer came in response to this question, from Stephen Schafroth of Oregon:

“I served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. I believe that torture is always wrong in all cases. What is your stance on torture?”

It should seem obvious that the task of peddling notions of freedom and liberty and decency to other nations, or to hold other governmnts accountable for their humanitarian misdeeds, is made the more difficult when one engages in torture or indefinite imprisonment without trial. Thirty years ago it would have been hard to imagine the United States, as a matter of governmental policy, torturing people, or “rendering” people to other nations for torture by proxy, or ordering the assassination of United States citizens absent a trial or declaration of war, all the while trumpeting “American Exceptionalism”.

Mrs Bachmann also came out in favor of foreign aid, with no preconditions, and, like Rick Santorum, particularly favors aid to Pakistan.

At one point, Representative Bachmann stated, “It seems that the table is being set for world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Interestingly, prior to the debate, Mrs Bachmann’s team was inadvertently copied in on an email from CBS Political Director John Dickerson in which Dickerson stated that Representative Bachmann won’t be asked many questions. So much for equal time requirements (see too the limited questions and time allotted Representative Ron Paul).

Nation building: unknown.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: unknown.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes. “I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Herman Cain

Former lobbyist and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain had his weakest outing of all the debates thus far – as we previosly noted, he seems far out of his depth on matters outside the economy, or when retreat to his “nine nine nine” tax plan is impossible.

Mr Cain attempted a cautious approach, exhibiting none of the flair or charisma of prior debates. Instead, he appeared nervous, and glanced frequently at his notes. He made it a point to mention there are nine nuclear nations, presumably to make up for his prior comments whereby he appeared unaware China has a nuclear arsenal.

On the issue of “waterboarding”, Mr Cain stated he does not consider it to be torture. It would have made for an interesting moment had the moderators asked those candidates who do not consider “waterboarding” torture whether they would be willing to put their money where their mouth is and be “waterboarded” live on television.

On the question of Pakistan: friend or foe, Mr Cain replied, “We don’t know” and called for the relationship to be re-evaluated.

On the question of on what basis Mr Cain would decide to over-rule his advising Generals, Herman Cain gave a long, meandering reply which contained no real substance.

Nation building: Yes. Favors “assisting the opposition movement that’s trying to overthrow the regime”.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: “Not at this time”, but would move “ballistic missile defense war ships” to the area.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes. “I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique”.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul showed stark differences with all the other candidates (except former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who had similar positions) on foreign policy, coming out in favor of the rule of law, the requirement of Congressional approval for any acts of war, against torture and opposed to an invasion or sanctions against Iran. In past debates, Dr Paul has been booed for his foreign policy positions; in this debate, he came across as the voice of reason (it’s worth pointing out Mr Paul has received more campaign contributions from members of the military than all the other candidates, plus President Obama, combined).

Nation building: No.

Foreign aid: No aid to any countries.

War with Iran: No.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: No. “Torture is illegal by our laws. It’s illegal by international laws…waterboarding is torture…there is no evidence you really get reliable evidence…it is really un-American to accept on principle that we would torture people we capture”.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: No.

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continued his steady performance in these debates (with the one notable exception of the Las Vegas debate, where he appeared to lose his cool under attack by Mr Perry). Mr Romney came out firmly against negotiating with the Taliban.

Nation building: Yes. “It’s worth working with insurgents in the country to encourage regime change in the country” in Iran.

Foreign aid: unknown.

War with Iran: Yes. Claims President should have “built credible threat of military action”. “Of course you take military action”.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: unknown.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: Yes. “Absolutely.”

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman had, by far, his best debate performance to date (that is, admittedly, rather a low bar).

Mr Huntsman came out strongly against a trade war with China, made an impassioned case against torture, and generally came across as well-versed in matters foreign.

Nation building: No. Specifically came out against “nation building” and claimed those resources could be better used domestically.

Foreign aid: unknown.

War with Iran: No.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: No. “We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture. We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries and we lose that ability to project values that a lot of countries in corners of the world rely upon us to stand up for.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was in his usual sardonic form, starting his first answer with, “There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the administration skipped all the smart ones.” He also came out in favor of “maximum covert operations, all of them deniable”, which elicited laughs from the audience.

Mr Gingrich expressed his concerns that the “Arab Spring may become an anti-Christian Spring” and called for the State Department to intervene on behalf of Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Asked to evaluate Mitt Romney’s abilities to “think outside the box and change United States’ national security or foreign policy perspectives”, Mr Gingrich flatly refused, and when pressed on why he brought the matter up on a radio show the prior day but refused to address it during the debate, he said, “I brought it up yesterday because I was on a national radio show”.

Nation building: Yes.

Foreign aid: Appears to be in favor of foreign aid, but agreed with Rick Perry that foreign aid should be “rethought”.

War with Iran: Yes.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: Yes. Mr Gingrich argued that it is permitted if a secret “panel” finds the person guilty.

Michigan GOP Debate: Atrocious Moderators and Perry Implosion…

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The Michigan debate between the GOP Presidential nominee hopefuls, Wednesday, November 9th, was notable first and foremost for Rick Perry’s implosion (which we’ll get to later), but also for the behaviour of the moderators: CNBC inexplicably decided to include Jim Cramer among the rotating panel of moderators (yes, it apparently takes at least six CNBC people to moderate a debate, because it is important for a no-name network to get as much exposure as possible for its “talent”). Mr Cramer, he of the “I’ve had too much coffee and must yell in all instances” schtick, annoyed immediately and repeatedly, starting off by insisting that the Italian economy is “too big to fail” in making his own case for a US bailout while attempting to bait candidate Representative Ron Paul. Each time Mr Cramer opened his mouth, the credibility of CNBC took a hit. Mr Cramer is, quite simply, rather too buffoonish and far too much the cartoon character to ever be permitted a role (much less a speaking role) in an important thing such as a debate.

Moderator Maria Bartiromo rolls her eyes as Newt Gingrich responds.

The next low point arose almost immediately: in a debate ostensibly focussed solely on the economy, moderator Maria Bartiromo instead asked Mr Cain about the various allegations recently leveled against him. The audience, rightly, booed. The next question remained on the topic, when moderator John Harwood followed up by asking Mr Romney if he would fire Mr Cain, were Herman Cain the CEO of a company Mr Romney had acquired. The audience booed more loudly, candidate Romney shook his head in disbelief and responded by saying that Mr Cain was the one to answer that question and that he just had. The moderator then announced the focus would return to the economy, and the crowd erupted into applause. This, it seems, is the level to which CNBC has sunk in attempting to grab headlines in lieu of taking their debate responsibilities seriously. This was, by far, the most poorly produced debate to date, and two of the many moderators (Mr Cramer and Ms Bartiromo) seemed far, far out of their depth. Rick Santelli, meanwhile, with his extremely long-winded questions and pedantic delivery proved himself well suited for work outside the realm of television.

Here, then, is a summary of how the candidates performed:

Herman Cain

Mr Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and former lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, focused heavily on his now famous “nine nine nine” plan whenever possible (to the point that Mr Cramer asked him not to include “nine nine nine” or any other numbers in one of his final responses).

When asked about the recent allegation against him, Mr Cain made a forceful case against having one’s character put on trial in the court of public opinion via unproven allegations from, in at least three cases, anonymous sources. Shortly thereafter, Mr Cain made the perhaps imprudent decision to refer to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” – something which will no doubt be analyzed in the context of the allegations he has been facing.

On topics outside of taxation and the economy in a general sense, Mr Cain (as we noted previously) seems far less certain of himself, and occasionally struggles to answer. But when he gets into territory he is more comfortable with, he is routinely able to hit it out of the park with his delivery. The “nine nine nine” refrain is wearing awfully thin, however, and he’ll need to get some new material to keep things fresh.

Overall score: B

Ron Paul

Representative Ron Paul of Texas had a reasonably good showing. Asked about his plan to eliminate student loans (which currently total an astonishing $1 trillion), and how students would pay for their tuition, Dr Paul answered, “the same way they pay for their cell phones and computers.” He went on to point out that every sector of the economy the government gets involved in faces substantially higher rates of inflation, and gave as examples housing, health care, education and stocks.

Representative Paul continued his common themes of the need to audit the Federal Reserve, and then abolish it, made the distinction between “crony capitalism” (current GOP buzzword) and plain old “capitalism” (while avoiding an attack on Governor Perry, which is what the moderator seemed to set up the question for) and emphasized his plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget in his first term in office.

Overall, Ron Paul fared well, but will be lost in the attention Mr Perry is going to receive, which is going to be overwhelming, given his massive gaffe (see below).

Overall score: B+

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave a middling performance, and clearly has an ongoing and serious problem with the health care issue and his imposition of a personal mandate in the state he previously governed. It is a problem that both won’t go away (and will only get worse if he ever goes up against President Obama) and can’t be solved, because Mr Romney’s arguments are logically inconsistent and there is no possible answer that logically reconciles his insistence on repealing “Obamacare” with his actions while Governor in instituting a materially similar plan. Mr Romney looks rightfully pained when the topic comes up, but he can’t possibly believe it isn’t going to come up in every single debate and many interviews too.

The moderators pointed out inconsistencies in Mr Romney’s position on bailouts (he was against them before he was for them before he was against them again) to question his consistency, which Mr Romney rebutted unconvincingly.

Not the best performance for Mr Romney, but with Mr Cain dogged by scandal and Mr Perry accelerating his implosion, Mitt Romney gains simply by running in place.

Overall score: C+

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was in a testy mood, and took the moderators to task repeatedly. The first instance came when he scolded the media for their poor job of educating the public on matters economic. Moderator Bartiromo seemed to take that remark personally, and was clearly irritated by it.

Later, the moderators asked each candidate in turn to spend thirty seconds explaining their plan for health care once “Obamacare” is repealed. Mr Gingrich was the sixth candidate to respond, and he started with, “My colleagues have all done a fine job answering an absurd question”, before pointing out that a topic which consistutes eighteen percent of the economy and affects every person in America requires a more elaborate answer (and plugged one of his books in the process). Moderator Bartiromo told the former Speaker to take all the time he needs, to which Mr Gingrich clumsily demurred, claiming the other candidates would object.

Overall, though, Newt Gingrich had a fairly strong performance, and once again came across as the most intelligent (and most belligerent) of the people on the stage.

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum continued to push his plan to eliminate the corporate tax for the manufacturing sector. While this may play well in his home state of Pennsylvania, and perhaps Michigan too, the moderators (in one of their few redeeming moments) pointed out the logical inconsistency of being opposed to the government picking and choosing individual companies as winners and losers in the economy while being in favor of the government picking and choosing individual sectors of the economy as winners and losers. The point seemed lost on Mr Santorum, but it is an important one, because he seems to be arguing not that government should not pick winners, but rather that the government should pick winners in a different way: “the federal government should indeed meddle in the economy, and here’s how I would do it” is what his position amounts to. That’s a strange position to take while strongly arguing the federal government has no busines in mandated health care.

Mr Santorum, like Mr Huntsman, is seriously short of money and typically polling in the bottom single digits, and is unlikely to be in the running much longer.

Overall score: C-

Rick Perry

Another horrible performance from Perry – it is becoming physically painful to watch Governor Perry attempt to keep up with the grown ups in the room. Mr Perry’s worst moment of all the debates so far came when he announced his plan to shut down three Departments, and began to list them off. “Commerce”, he said. “Education. And…um…ah…” One of the other candidates finally threw out the EPA as a helpful suggestion, and Mr Perry said, “Ya!”. The moderator then asked if the EPA was indeed one of the departments Mr Perry would eliminate: “No.” The moderator then followed up by asking if Mr Perry really couldn’t remember the third Department he would shut down. Mr Perry couldn’t.

The only reason Mr Perry is taken even remotely seriously as a contender is because he has raised an awful lot of money. He is not a serious contender, and never was (as we previously noted, “…it’s hard to imagine a scenrio whereby he recaptures the lead in the polls, or comes anywhere close to the Republican nomination”) – he is of the school of politician which believes policy positions are incidental to obtaining power: pick whatever positions your crack support team thinks will get you in office, then you can do what you want. In a more intelligent politician, this can work (see Obama; Bush). Not so Mr Perry.

Rick Perry’s run is done, and no amount of money can help now – that clip is going to be viral on Youtube by the time this article is posted. And so the political system shows its strengths: given enough exposure and opportunities to hang themselves, many frauds inevitably reveal themselves. Mr Perry is one such fraud: the former chair of Al Gore’s Presidential campaign in Texas; the Governor who increased spending over 80% during his time in office but campaigned as the “true conservative”; he of the tongue tied moments, repeatedly, and cursed with an inability to clearly articulate the time of day has been exposed as little more than a political opportunist.

Overall score: F (is there a lower score available?)

Jon Huntsman

Back on stage after boycotting the Las Vegas debate, former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman didn’t have any notable moments, but thankfully didn’t try too many of his usual poorly delivered jokes.

Mr Huntsman has all his marbles on New Hampshire, and doesn’t have much cash on hand. Not a signficant contender, and did nothing to persuade viewers otherwise.

Overall score: C-

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, normally one of the stronger debaters, didn’t have a particularly strong showing by her standards, nor was her performance particuarly poor. Her explanation of her opposition to cuts in the payroll tax wasn’t fully formed, and much of her answers were recycled in whole from prior debates.

Overall score: C