Thursday, November 29, 2007


Be Like Mike

I agree with Ed Morrissey that, overall, this was a pretty good broad debate. The questions CNN selected from YouTubers seemed far more substantial than the Democratic version.

My views on the various winners and losers pretty much parallel Ryan Sager. I'm not a Giuliani fan, but I thought he did quite well for himself. As Morrissey said, the "sanctuary mansion" line was a personal cheap-shot at Mitt Romney -- but it was damn effective. Rudy's greatest skill is knowing his audience and how to play/demagogue to it. Romney's explanation on why illegal immigrants were working on his house (they were subcontractors hired by the company Romney hired) makes perfect sense.

However, there is an adage in politics -- "If you're explaining, you're losing." Rudy trapped Romney into "explaining" the issue and thus pushed him into a defensive situation. Good move by CNN of putting Romney and Giuliani side-by-side. You kinda got the feeling that they would have started whaling on each other if the cameras weren't on. Anyway, that opening exchange kind of set the tone: Romney was unable to truly help himself in any major way. He had a good line at the end gibing Giuliani for his Red Sox moment in the World Series, but that was about it.

Giuliani, on the other hand, of course, did quite well while discussing his New York crime reduction record. He also did well in reminding the audience of his record in reducing welfare as well. However, tellingly, one of his few stumbles of the night came in an area where conservatives don't trust him -- guns. He stumbled over the name of a judge who made a decision on the regulation of guns. Notably, his answer on guns was the only time Giuliani received clearly-heard boos. Giuliani, by the way, does deserve credit for candidly saying that he wouldn't sign a federal law banning abortion. He correctly said that, were Roe v. Wade overturned, the states would make their own decisions on the practice.

As if to demonstrate that that certain political adages don't always hold, Mike Huckabee -- the real winner, in my view, "explained" his policy of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to go to college in Arkansas. But, as much as Romney tried to pin him, Huckabee didn't seem defensive in stating his case. His describing those immigrant offspring as "God's children" struck the perfect note; it must have gone over well with his social conservative base, regardless of how they thought about illegal immigration.

His best moment came while responding to the question of what government agencies would he cut. He was into the answer when Cooper told him he had just thirty seconds left. Huckabee didn't hear it at first, so Cooper repeated it. Huckabee just smiled, said "Oh, OK" -- reiterated a comment about shutting down the IRS and just stopped. Huckabee also had a good moment after a YouTube question on whether the candidates believed "every word" in the Bible was true. The question went first to Giuliani who paused before responding. Huckabee piped up and asked Rudy if he needed help answering the question. Rudy chuckled along and invited Huckabee to "help."

[I can't be the only person, however, who cringed a little bit when Rudy said of the Holy Book, "The reality is, I believe it, but I don't believe it's necessarily literally true in every single respect." Given Rudy's interesting marital history, that statement makes an awkward moment. Related to that, given how he responded to Anderson Cooper when the Politico story came up, it looks like Giuliani will deal with it by saying that he had no say in how security costs were billed in his administration. This was the one moment where one wished this was a normal, reporter-driven debate, because Cooper was clearly either unprepared or uncomfortable going to the logical follow-up, "Mr. Mayor, so you are saying that these costs weren't hidden to hide the fact that you were making visits to your now-wife while you were still married to your previous wife?"

Without that context, the issue loses much of its salience -- as Ryan Sager admitted in his take. However, it will be interesting to see what happens as the New York media explores the scandal in days ahead.]

Anyway, not surprisingly, Huckabee hit Bible question out of the park -- but not in just the obvious way. Yes, he spoke of it as the "word of revelation" from God. But he didn't come across as a scary religious freak. He said that certain things can't be taken literally -- such as plucking out one's eye. He then added that "there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small." He immediately came across simultaneously as devout (good for the religious conservatives), reasonable (good for the secular types) and humble (good for just about anyone wary of politicians). This man is damn good.

Political analysts need to head to Arkansas sometime soon. The water there must be tested -- to find out how one state could produce two natural master politicians like Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee in one generation. Over the course of several months of campaigning, Huckabee has transformed himself from just being the guy who "gives good debate" -- into the a real force to be reckoned withr. He didn't get the most questions or get the most time, but every time the camera and the microphone were on him, he was on. Flawless. He came across as relaxed, human and engaging. To my fellow economic and libertarian conservatives, I can only say, beware. If he is as good as the previous Man from Hope, he will confound and frustrate you -- even as he bounds past you, keeping his eye fixed on the finish line.

In the miscellaneous category: McCain had an "OK" night. He was at his best defending his support of the Iraq War -- and taking down Romney on the is-waterboarding-torture issue. However, there was no breakout moment for him.

Similarly, Fred Thompson showed that he knew his policy positions; he got in some good digs at both Giuliani and Romney. Ultimately, however, he often sounded like the cranky grandfather. I just don't see him gaining any traction from his debate tonight.

Ron Paul should have learned by now that there is no way to "win" in answering a question about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission. You'll end up sounding nutty. Paul is far more cerebral than the other candidates and he obviously doesn't have Huckabee's political gifts. Thus, it was obvious that he was frustrated in not getting enough time as the top four/five candidates. As a result, he would tend to rush and stammer through many points -- even if his view was technically right. He was fortunate though that CNN gave him a gift at the end of the night with a clip from a supporter who was encouraging him to run as a third party candidate in the general election. That gave Paul the opportunity to share with the audience his Republican bona fides, including that he had been elected 10 times as a Republican. That may not have won back any fans turned off by his demand to "bring the troops home" (though that statement did get some scattered applause and cheers).

If there is one question I would have liked asked, it's this one: "Name three good decisions George W. Bush has made that you agree with -- and two that you don't." It is amazing that seven years into a Republican administration, the name of the incumbent president was not uttered once. Indeed, only John McCain even mentioned a Bush appointee, albeit disparagingly -- former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Final comment: I watched the debate in a room of politically-active liberals in Tribeca. They "voted" at the end on "If Fred Thompson's shotgun was pointed at your head, which Republican would you 'vote' for based on this debate?" Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain and Paul made it on the first round (measured by applause). The liberal audience then judged Huckabee the "winner."

I asked the room which Republican "scared" them the most. I was surprised to find that Romney was the runaway "winner" in that category.

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