The Gang’s All Here: Live Blogging The 11th Republican Debate

Big debate tonight – the first one since Newt reached front-runner status, and the super committee called it quits. Tonight’s topic is national security. So, expect lots of questions regarding whether automatic cuts to defense are acceptable, and whether Obama should veto alternatives plans to minimize those cuts.  It’s also an opportunity to see whether Mitt takes the mitts off and goes after Newt, or continues to play the “I’m the frontrunner and can focus on Obama” strategy.  And how does Rick Perry regain his mojo?

As always, feel free to join in.

Wolf Blitzer is our host.  We love his beard.

They are promising a new, interactive format tonight.  Let’s see if the sparks fly.

Notice the new seating arrangement – Newt now has a coveted middle podium.

The national anthem – look, Rick Perry forgot the third stanza!  (That was a joke!)

Let’s see how many points each candidate can make while introducing themselves.

Perry starts out strong, remembering his wife’s name, and when they had their first date.

Cain’s introduction is rather flat – our national security has been downgraded?  It’s not a credit rating!

Bachmann’s shout out to the soldiers is the best of the bunch so far.

And they are off.

Opening question to Newt  regarding amending the Patriot Act, and he makes the distinction between criminal law and national security “law”.  Wolf gives Paul the opportunity to disagree.

On cue, Paul frames the issue as giving up liberty for security.

Newt slaps him down, with a serious kick to the head, in effect saying Paul would let the Tim McVeigh’s of the world do their dastardly deed.  You go, Newt!

Paul is undeterred.  We can be completely safe -by completely giving up liberty.  And they are off.

Bachmann has a nice applause line “outsourcing interrogation to the ACLU”.  No Republican likes the ACLU.

Huntsman plays the U.S. values card, and emphasizes federalism.

Mitt has an opportunity to knock Newt – but instead he gives Newt his props for recognizing the difference between criminal acts and war.

Perry would outsource pat downs by privatizing the TSA.  He’s critical of the failure to spend on intelligence.

Uh oh. I just heard Santorum say you need to profile younger Muslim males.  and the audience applauds.  This is the way to build bridges to the Muslim community.  cue Cain!

(boy, his stock has fallen – he’s the last guy to get a question!)

Wolf won’t let Cain get off without taking a stand on profiling.  (Did he call Wolf “Blitz”?)  Cain rejects the simplistic choice Wolf lays out.

Kagan is a national security specialist, hence the drone question.

Why does Huntsman always talk like his audience is composed of children?  And has he answered Kagan’s question yet?  Ah, finally:  “We need special forces and drones”.  The cheap man’s way to fight terrorism.  Low cost.

Once again,  Bachmann shows her foreign policy chops.  Remember, she’s on the House Intelligence committee. Her response – to keep up aid to Pakistan – will certainly spark a food fight. How will Perry respond?

He sticks to his cut off aid to Pakistan script.  This sparked a real division among the candidates during the last debate.  Let’s see if Gingrich weighs in – last time he backed Perry on this issue, which I thought was somewhat surprising.

Perry advocates something new – a regional trade agreement involving the Pakistan-India region, but I’m not quite sure where he’s going here, and Wolf doesn’t follow up.

Mitt sides with Bachmann, for the most part, in arguing to use aid to leverage Pakistan into “modernity”.   Not sure why anyone is worried about America’s popularity in Pakistan (we are at 12%!).

Where’s Newt on this issue? Instead we get Huntsman, who gets another chance to push his drawdown in Afghanistan policy and nation building back at home.  Romney is aghast – the commanders on the ground want us to slow down the U.S. withdrawal.  Romney stands with the brass – take that, you peacenik Huntsman!

You know Newt is waiting to jump in with a smart, pithy provocative comment.

Santorum is off camera, ready to explode.  He’s the Incredible Hulk – you don’t want to get him mad!

Ah, Newt steps in and, on cue, blames Wolf for bad questions!  Then – boom – his seven-point plan for restoring sanity to our terrorist policy.  Biggest applause of the night!  Newt sounds so confident that it’s easy to swallow his talking points without scrutinizing them.

It really seems as if Huntsman and Paul are the outliers on the Afghan/Pakistan nation.

First Break

Some sharp exchanges, no new ground broken, and no mishaps either, unless you count Santorum’s ringing endorsement of profiling Muslims.  It’s really hard, after 11 debates, for the candidates to change the media narrative very much here. So far, I don’t see much change in the national pecking order as result of the first 45 minutes here.  Let’s see if the audience questions stirs the pot.

Part II.

Great opening question –  should we help Israel attack Iran to eliminate nuclear weapons?  Question goes to Cain.  As always, he would consult with his experts.  Surprise – if he thinks the plan would succeed, he’d back it.  Going out on a limb, aren’t you Herman?

Paul says “it’s none of our business” if Israel wants to bomb Iran.  Sometimes you can push this libertarian thing a bit too far.

Not clear to me why Iran’s mountainous terrain mitigates against an Israeli strike, but Herman is on a roll.  He wants to talk Afghanistan, but Wolf is bored. Back to nukes and Iran.

Stop the presses! Newt praises a question from Wolf!  Newt wants to talk strategy, not tactics.  Not quite sure what the difference is, but Newt lays out the hierarchy of policy options.  Both Newt and Bachmann are for oil independence.  Oh, by the way, Obama is an appeaser.

Wow, this is an allstar lineup of neocons asking questions.  Here’s Paul Wolfowitz! He tosses Rick Santorum a softball about aid to Africa, and Rick doesn’t miss.

How about it, Herman – can we afford aid to other nations?  Herman: it depends. (He’s going to consult his experts, I bet).  Aid is good if it works, but if it doesn’t, it is bad.  Foreign policy really isn’t Cain’s strong suit.

Paul is pulling his best cranky uncle impression, railing against foreign  aid.

Romney turns it around to defense cuts – I was wondering when this would come up.  Paul’s not buying it – nothing is going to be cut. (Much applause).

Mitt is passionate about aid to Israel!  If elected, his first foreign trip will be to Israel.

Newt goes on another strategy rant again.  It sounds so easy when Newt spews out his talking points.

Wolf tries to pin him down – will he bomb to prevent Iran going nuclear.  Newt: yes, but only as a last resort, and as a means of changing regimes.

What is it about Huntsman that makes it so hard for Republicans to like him?  Thoughts?

Ok, first question on the supercommittee, and it goes to Perry – this should be fun! It’s of the “when did you stop beating your wife,” variety.   Perry decides to answer a different question – Wolf asks if he would work with Democrats.  Perry instead attacks Obama for….for what, exactly?  Not quite sure – I think he’s referencing Obama’s veto threat.  And he calls out Panetta – the point is so hard to follow that Wolf seems not to get what Perry is saying.  Neither does the audience.

Wolf goes back to the question (working across party lines to reduce the deficit), and Perry uses it to tout his making Congress a part-time body.  Again, no audience response.  Wolf wants someone to step up and say they would make a deal with Democrats for a deficit reduction package.  It’s a silly question because everyone will say “It depends”.

Another supercommittee question, and a good one: what entitlement reform proposal would they make.  Tailor-made for Newt. Let’s see his response.   He touts the Chile privatization program.  Democrat opposition team are taking notes for the general election.  Newt says reform can be done without imposing pain. If only it was that easy.

Bachmann goes back to the debt ceiling debate, and pushes the balanced budget amendment again.  (Hint, Michelle: it just got voted down by your own House).


Lots of well-dressed people in this audience. Good Republicans, no doubt.

(@jahd – tweet!  I barely have time to blog!  If you catch me tweeting, you have permission to shoot me.)

(@Will – Agreed. No More Promises to Lead.  Also, can we stipulate that everyone on the panel agrees that Obama’s been a disaster, and spare the anti-Obama tirades? It would save a lot of time.)

Ok, we are back.  Another well-dressed questioner.  Let’s get a domestic border question.   This is an obvious question for Perry.  He has to have an answer teed up for this.

He does – a 21st century “Monroe Doctrine”.  Had Perry come prepared with these talking points when he first launched his candidacy, he’d be leading.  More than any other candidate, he proposed the most far-reaching policy proposals in the last few weeks: an amateur Congress, a Monroe doctrine, zeroing out foreign aid, even debating Nancy Pelosi.  All easily grasped, crowd-pleasing, media attractive talking points.  He just keeps rolling them out.  But so far, not much to show for them.

(@Conrad – It’s not clear to me that Huntsman’s nuanced talking points are gaining him traction with voters.  He’s basically trailing the pack, although he has shown signs of life in New Hampshire.  But if you are right, why does he not pick up support among the voters?)

Here’s a question – is Wolf really that short, or is it all the camera angle?

And how do they decide who to isolate on when they go to a split picture view?

Ok, here’s Newt on immigration.  Remember, he backed an early immigration bill that included a version of amnesty, which will almost certainly will come up.   The fact is, Newt has a very moderate views on immigration – this is his potential achilles heel.  He’s really very moderate on lots of issues and it is only a matter of time before the second-tier Republicans like Bachmann begin calling him on this.

And she  does – and Newt actually criticizes another Republican!  He embraces elements of the Dream act, and chastises  Bachmann for draconian views on the topic.  She turns the table well here by essentially saying Newt’s immigration policy attracts illegal immigrants.  Let’s be clear here, Newt’s moderate views on immigration do not sit well with the Republican base.  Mitt piles on here.

The first open attack on Newt.  Let’s see how he responds. And Newt doubles down on allowing illegal immigrants with strong community ties to stay in this country.   This is a courageous – or foohardy (or both) position to take in a Republican nominating fight.

Newt is standing alone here – Perry sides with Mitt against “amnesty”.  It is going to be really interesting to see whether the media, in their desire to create controversy, fastens on this difference as the takeaway point of this debate.  Fact is, Newt’s stance, while “humane” is also one easy to characterize as “amnesty” which sends up huge red flags for Republican voters.  Trying to finesse this issue, as George Bush discovered, is a bit like claiming to be a little bit pregnant.  No one buys it.

part IV.

Another well-dressed neocon questioner.  How to handle Syria?  Cain – please don’t tell me you’ll consult with your experts!   He doesn’t, to his credit.  Instead, he turns  to discuss economic growth, and says he will reject Perry’s idea for a no fly zone – but doesn’t say why not.

The “no fly” zone Perry is proposing is another of his recent policy proposals that are both catchy and crowd friendly ideas.

(The problem with Huntsman, I think, is that he has asymmetric eyebrows. No one likes asymmetric facial features.  Unless it’s on John Belushi).

How will Paul deal with an Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.  Paul uses the question to attack Perry’s no fly zone (it’s an act of war).   Paul’s foreign policy is really stolen from Dear Abby: MYOB!

(Does anyone remember Dear Abby?)

Mitt continues to focus on attacking President Obama – not his fellow Republicans. Wolf tries to pin him down – does he support Perry’s no fly zone?  Romney says no – he wants a “no drive” zone.  Syria is using tanks on citizens, not planes.

Perry – let’s get Serious about Syria. Say that three times fast.

Great final question: future hotspots?

Santorum: spread of socialism in Central America.  Shades of Reagan! Before you know it, those socialists will be crossing the Rio Grande.

Paul: Avoid overreaction.  (translation: Mind Your Own Business!)  The Taliban are just like us!

Perry: How to deal with Communist China?  They are destined for the ash heap of history.

Romney:  Long-term China, short term Iran, but don’t forget our borders.

Cain:  did you know he was a ballistics analyst? He’s worried about cyber terrorism.

Gingrich: nukes in cities, electromagnetic pulse, cyber attack.

Bachmann: losing the peace in Iraq. And the threat of terrorism in the U.S.

Huntsman:  Joblessness.   It’s called….etc…….

And that’s it!  Two hours and I can say there were no clear winners or losers. Let’s see what the spinmeisters declare.

Good performances by all.  Maybe Huntsman did particularly well, while Cain was not so impressive.  But the immigration issue will probably lead the news, with Newt getting singled out.  Otherwise Gingrich was strong, as always.  Perry also did well.   Santorum and Bachmann also impressed.  Really, this was a good debate with no obvious gaffes. But the media has to have a talking point, and that is likely to be the Gingrich “amnesty” proposal.

This is one of those issues that will play well for Gingrich in the general election, especially among Latinos, but it may cost him support in the Republican nominating fight.

Summary:  I don’t think anything happened here tonight that will change the current pecking order, unless there’s an unusually heavy backlash against Gingrich for his amnesty policy. But this doesn’t mean the debate wasn’t informative – it was.  Clear differences emerged among the candidate, although they have much in common as well.  In the end, however, this isn’t a foreign policy election, so I tend to think debates that focus on national security issues tend to have less impact on the race than do debates on domestic economic issues.  At best, these debates are useful for helping voters assess whether they can envision these individuals as commander in chief. With the possible exception of Cain and perhaps Paul, I think all of candidates pass the smell test in this regard.  In this regard, Gingrich has already passed the first test that previous co-leaders Bachmann, Cain and Perry failed – he didn’t immediately fumble his lead away in the first debate after achieving front-runner status.  (I’m assuming there’s not a wholesale backlash against him for the amnesty comment.)

Six weeks and counting to Iowa.

Ok, I’ll be on tomorrow – there’s lots of other issues to talk about, and I’ll try to get to them as well.









  1. Can we institute a new rule during these debates (and also for Tom Friedman in his columns) that forbids talking about the generic importance of “leading”?

  2. Re Huntsman, I think this is one of his best performances so far, which isn’t too surprising given his foreign policy experience. In general, I think Huntsman is going to benefit from Gingrich’s increase in popularity. I say that because I think as the campaign continues, the more wonkish types (Gingrich and Huntsman, and also Romney, to an extent) begin to seem more appealing as voters become disenchanted with more flash-in-the-pan, one-liner candidates. I could be wrong about this (I am just speculating), but it does seem like the more nuanced responses are getting a better reception as time goes on.

  3. Point taken. I supposed I’m more wondering whether Newt’s recent rise is reflective of a trend where certain types of candidates (I called them wonkish) slowly become more popular. Or perhaps Newt is just the new, new thing.

  4. Huntsman was strong, but doesn’t have the flash or pizazz (for lack of a better word) than a Gingrich. Romney didn’t hurt himself. Perry, again, lost himself in tangents (make your point, already! ANY POINT!). Bachman was fine, but not enough to revive her campaign. Paul sounded angry as did Santorum … who actually sounded more desperate than angry. Or a combo of both. Gingrich was impressive and even more so in defending what is, for most Republicans, an unpopular stance on Immigration.

    And Cain? He needed a home run here and he bunted and then kinda jogged to First Base only to find he was Out half-way there. With his numbers sinking fast and the He’s Out of His League/Doesn’t Know What He’s Doing narrative taking hold, his performance was not the Game Changer it needed to be.

    Just my quick two cents.

  5. That’s some easy grading.

    Cain was dreadful. Perry literally seems to be up past his bedtime.

    Paul was great for a while then

    I agree with you about Huntsman’s tone. Reminds me of that terrible Jindal response.

  6. In re Newt is “really very moderate on lots of issues” – true, but only in the context of today’s contemporary political spectrum. When he had the same views 15 years ago, he was a right-wing nut job. Now he’s a moderate.

  7. Papi,

    You may be right about your characterization of Newt, but it also may be the case that his views have evolved. After all, 15 years ago you weren’t an overweight, overpaid DH who went 0-for-September either. Still, I can hope that next year you’ll hit in the clutch, can’t I?

  8. Why would it be a mystery that Huntsman isn’t getting traction? AFAIK Republican moderates aren’t clamoring for an alternative to Romney. There may just be no market for a candidate to Romney’s left.

    In 2008 no Democrat closer to the center than Clinton and Obama got any traction, and no one seemed to think that was strange.

  9. David,

    I don’t think it is a mystery, and for the reasons you suggest. My debate observation had more to do with why Republicans don’t even seem to like him. So, while Obama’s approval ratings are low, people still like the guy. I don’t think Republicans even like Huntsman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *