The three liberal “journalists” who ran last night’s Republican debate ran it badly. But some candidates stood out in spite of them.
The Republican debate moderators
No one should expect liberals to moderate a debate among conservatives properly. (See the rest of the debate here, here, and here.) But the three moderators last night did not even act like professionals. For the record, they were:
- Brian Williams, NBC-TV
- John Harris, Politico.com
- Jose Diaz-Balart, Telemundo
The three tried several times to provoke the candidates to ad hominem sniping, of the kind that Tim Pawlenty tried at Ames before he lost badly and dropped out. Harris especially tried to start a fight over the “individual mandate” in the health care reform bill. But Newt Gingrich was having none of that:
Well, I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.
The applause that broke out so flustered Harris that he misidentified Speaker Gingrich as Speaker Boehner. Gingrich, for his part, went on to heap praise on all his opponents. In so doing, he threw Harris’ attempt at provokatsiya right back in his face.
Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry how he could “sleep at night” after signing death warrants. Perry shot back with a principled defense of the death penalty for first-degree murder. Applause broke out again—and then Williams asked Perry to judge the crowd for applauding his line! Your editor has seen this kind of thing before—in the Yale Political Union, in 1978. In a debate on the death penalty, a liberal student said,
I have just seen a group of reasonable people turn into a cabal.
Brian Williams, last night, came close to saying the same thing.
And yes, John Harris did ask Jon Huntsman whether he thought any of his opponents was crazy.
What they did not ask
- The hard times in Western States and the Rocky Mountains, hard times traceable to Obama’s policies.
- Public-employee union pensions and benefits (which some governors, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, are trying to rein in).
- Operation Fast and Furious
- The very uncivil rhetoric by labor leaders and some Members of Congress.
In addition, your editor cites something else. Foreign policy got almost no attention in the Republican debate. John Harris grilled Perry twice about something he had written in his book, Fed Up, about “military adventurism.” (Perry clarified that he would not send anyone to fight and die without setting forth clearly what he was to fight and die for.) Brian Williams did ask Ron Paul who would handle security if he abolished the Transportation Security Administration. Paul gave a good answer: let the airlines handle it. (The security staff of El Al Israel Airlines will gladly show any airline how to handle it.) But no one asked the candidates about the most critical foreign-affairs issues of the day. No one said a word about:
- Whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons—or whether the West should allow it.
- The relationship between America and Israel.
- Whether another 1967-scale war might break out at any moment—and how America should react.
The candidates definitely do not all agree on these points. Ron Paul said at Ames that whether Iran develops nuclear weapons is none of America’s business. The moderators could have helped by asking him to clarify that remark, and his opponents to answer it. But they did not.
The moderators also shortchanged several candidates. They barely noticed Rick Santorum. John Harris obviously tried to start a bloodlust brawl—and Rick Perry and Mitt Romney needed no help to start sparring. But Ron Paul and Rick Santorum sparred repeatedly at Ames over foreign policy. Not tonight—because the moderators didn’t allow it.
Michele Bachmann fared better, but not by much. And Jon Huntsman got far more attention than he deserves.
The good points
The Republican debate did have its good moments. The best was Newt Gingrich telling John Harris off about his let’s-you-and-him-fight games. A close second was Rick Perry refusing to take back earlier remarks that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. (Shikha Dalmia at Reason says that Social Security is worse than that.) For honorable mention: Brian Williams parodied himself without meaning to, when he resented the crowd for applauding Perry’s defense of the death penalty.
Better than this: the entire Republican debate showed that Republicans are at last willing to talk about forbidden subjects. These subject vary from the fundamental soundness of Social Security to the very role of government itself. Some candidates had laundry lists of agencies that they would abolish. That is progress.
But Fox News and Google.com will certainly run a better Republican debate two weeks from today. They will have a better set of moderators, and they have a better system for asking the public to suggest things to ask the candidates.
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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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