Last night’s Tea Party Debate in Florida unfolded largely as a fight to strip Texas Governor Rick Perry of his frontrunner status, and almost everyone – from Romney and Bachmann to Huntsman and Santorum – jumped into the ring.
The issues on which the candidates agreed were basic, party-line talking points (namely that social security and medicare are broken, that the federal reserve needs to be audited and have its scope narrowed, and that Obama’s healthcare reform law needs to be repealed), and thus rather uninteresting. Their disagreements, however, were another story.
The very first question of the night was on Social Security – the big ticket issue on which Romney planned to pummel Perry (who has called the program a “Ponzi scheme,”) and the one everyone expected to be the big question of the evening. Instead of fireworks between the two frontrunners, however, the question left all of the candidates trying to appease the senior voters, who are afraid of losing their benefits, without losing their credentials as hard-line Social Security reformers.
Basically, there was a lot of party-line kowtowing about how seniors already on Social Security would get to keep their benefits, and assurances that everyone else would “have another option” as quickly as possible. The “other option” will likely be privatization, which bombed when George W. Bush proposed it in 2005 and isn’t likely to fare much better now.
With the uncertainty of the current markets still causing unease among investors, it’d be mind boggling for the country to decide to entrust its future to the ups and downs of the volatile stock market. Romney hasn’t said so yet in this campaign, but when he ran for President in 2007 he was a vocal proponent of privatization.
With just a few jabs thrown by Romney at Perry, and one thrown by Huntsman at Romney and Perry, the debate quickly moved to the topic on everyone’s mind: the economy.
While Bachmann continued to assert that fixing the economy would be “easy” (a stance that highlights rather than minimizes her lack of experience and inability to fully comprehend the huge economic problems facing the country), she seemed to have little in the way of actual ideas besides telling people to take “individual responsibility” and quit asking the federal government to supply them with stuff. Such “stuff” could be taken to include the $260,000 in federal farm subsidies that Bachmann’s family farm, in which she retains a partnership, received, but Bachmann must not see it that way. (Apparently, she only has a problem with the federal government giving out money to poor people.)
Romney showed he had some understanding of the country’s economic difficulties (“We’re not going to balance the budget by pretending we can just cut waste,”) but offered only general solutions to big problems that have plagued two presidents. Herman Cain spoke repeatedly about his 9-9-9 plan, a plan that seems rather arbitrarily chosen simply for the way it sounds.
Perry’s role in Texas’ growth – one of his major selling points – was called into question when the moderator asked Romney whether Perry deserved credit for the jobs created in his state. “Yes. But if you’re dealt four aces you’re not necessarily a good poker player,” Romney replied. A reply, it should be noted, that still gives Perry more credit than he actually deserves.
Other than her mindless remarks on the economy, Bachmann spent the majority of the debate avoiding questions and staying out of the limelight, until she again went after Governor Perry’s use of an executive order to require Texas girls to be vaccinated with Gardasil, an HPV vaccine touted as a way to prevent cervical cancer. Bachmann said Perry’s order was a “violation of liberty,” and attempted to tie his action to a $5,000 campaign contribution he received from Gardasil’s manufacturer.
Perry was appalled at the suggestion. “It was a $5,000 contribution from Merck” he said. “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.” Quick question, Governor: Just how much would it take?
Perry, as he did in last week’s debate, quickly admitted he made a mistake by not going through the legislature. Still, his comments showed internal consistency with a value system that means he is “always going to err on the side of life” – a stance that may help salvage his “mistake” with his anti-abortion base.
Interestingly, Perry found himself attacked the most on an issue that even some Texas liberals approve of: in-state tuition for students who have lived in Texas for three years and either are or plan to become citizens (no matter their immigration status), a practice Perry said he’s “proud” to enforce. As Perry rightly noted, Texas has a very long relationship with Mexico and helping students become contributing members of society “no matter the sound of [their] last name[s]” benefits the people of Texas by keeping kids on track and out of trouble.
Still, the other candidates saw an opportunity to attack, and they took it.
Unlike Huntsman, who called Perry’s comments against using a fence to secure the border “treasonous,” Romney attacked Perry’s in-state tuition program in the guise of common sense. “Of course we don’t give in-state tuition credits to people who come here illegally,” said Romney.
While it’s easy for the former governor of Utah and the former governor of Massachusetts to say what can and cannot be done to secure the border, it is worth noting that none of the other candidates on last night’s stage have been responsible for maintaining a 1,254-mile border with another country. In this case, while all of the other candidates continue to parrot party dogma, Perry is correct – “The idea that you’re going to build a wall is just not reality.”
Kind-hearted people everywhere were dismayed by the debate’s nasty turn when the candidates began talking about a hypothetical 30-year-old man who declined to buy health insurance and then suffered a catastrophic accident. “Should society just let him die?” the candidates were asked and the question was appallingly met with whoops, cheers and applause from the audience. The candidates neither acknowledged nor rebuked the offensive Tea Party crowd’s response but instead offered weak answers cloaked in the language of “individual responsibility.” (A lack of a definite answer is likely tied to the fact that the candidates’ “priority” of repealing healthcare reform would leave tens of millions of U.S. citizens without insurance and could cause nearly 50,000 unnecessary deaths each year.)
In a twilight-zone-worthy switch of policy, the Republicans are now almost unanimously advocating for the removal of our troops in Afghanistan. When asked what the U.S. would do to protect the women and children in Afghanistan, the candidates all said it was time to get out and/or transfer security to the Afghanis. Because the vast majority of Republican politicians supported the war in Afghanistan up until President Obama took office, it’s worth asking how much of their rhetoric comes from seeing the nation’s needs clearly and how much is simply designed to oppose the President, whose plan for withdrawal has been called too slow by many Americans.
Overall, despite Romney’s unexciting performance and the heated attacks on Perry, the perceived frontrunners remain the same. Romney held his own throughout the debate, and managed to address Republican concerns about his stance on healthcare by differentiating his Massachusetts healthcare plan from Obama’s plan by saying he didn’t raise taxes to fund his plan and that what worked for his state wouldn’t work for the country at large.
Of course, in the debate last week, Romney explained that his program was uniquely needed in Massachusetts and not other states because uninsured residents were getting free care in hospital emergency rooms while state taxpayers were footing the bill; a lame explanation because that’s exactly what’s happening all over the country.
Perry’s comment that “People are tired of spending money we don’t have on programs we don’t want,” was well received by the audience, and he remained stronger than the other candidates on economic issues despite some inaccurate comments (Obama’s original stimulus plan created or saved between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs – far from Perry’s claim of “zero”), and a history of hypocrisy when it comes to the federal stimulus (a stimulus that he has repeatedly labeled a failure despite taking $17 billion for his state over the past two years). Bachmann, Huntsman, and Santorum all managed to land some heavy blows, though, and it will be some time before we can see just how big of an issue Perry’s stance on illegal immigration is going to be for his campaign. Until then, the Republican landscape continues to look much the same.
Sarah Hackley is a full-time professional writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. Learn more at www.sarahhackley.com.