Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Newton Bomb Hits the Campaign

Everybody loves a winner.  Except when they really really hate him.

The latest poll out of Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucus  in a bit more than 40 days, has Newt Gingrich up by an astounding 13% , 32%-19% over his closest rival Mitt Romney. (The Rasmussen poll was in the field Nov. 15 and has a 3.5% margin of error.) This comes on the heels of the second most recent Iowa poll, in the field Nov. 11-13, that showed Gingrich in a dead heat for the lead in Iowa with Herman Cain.  Both polls are of likely voters.  Now, the usual caveats should be noted: the race is still very fluid, polling a caucus state is notoriously difficult, and the Rasmussen poll is based on an automated survey.  My guess is Newt’s lead in Iowa isn’t that big – if he has a lead at all. Note that in the RealClear Politics composite polling, Gingrich is now tied with Romney for second in Iowa, behind Cain. Both Cain and Romney, however, are seeing their polling number dropping fast. (Newt is green in the chart below, Cain red and Romney purple.)

The Iowa results reaffirm what recent national polls have indicated: Newt’s back in the race, and in a big way.  And, with that resurgence, Newt has, apparently, begun raising money and, in a little noted news story, some of the campaign staff that deserted him early in the year are now rejoining his crusade.   At this rate, I expect his ex-wives to publicly endorse his candidacy at any moment.  Everybody loves a winner!

Except when they don’t. Newt’s revival has caused no little consternation among pundits, particularly on the Left who had already written the Newtster off months ago. Make no bones about it, they are not happy that Newt has resurrected his campaign and the barrage of criticism they have leveled at him is greater than anything any of the other Republican frontrunners have received. (For the latest broadsides, see here and here).

In their defense, Newt’s record provides plenty of ammunition for his critics. I’ve reviewed some of the more damning incidents in my previous post, but it’s all fair game, as Gingrich himself has acknowledged, and it will all be revisited ad nauseam during the next few weeks.  Nonetheless, I can’t help but think that something else is driving the intensity of these attacks.  It may be that, compared to Bachmann, Cain and Perry, Gingrich actually seems qualified to be president.

In any case, the question remains: will this renewed scrutiny damage Newt the way it did previous frontrunners?  Gingrich seems to understand that the answer to this question depends heavily on how he responds to the rehashing of all these events.   He has already formulated his response to revelations that his lobbying – er, consulting firm – earned millions of dollars from the government-back mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even though Gingrich has spent much of his current campaign criticizing their role in the housing crisis.  Gingrich argues that he gave them advice, which they didn’t take, and that he didn’t lobby members of Congress directly (hence he wasn’t a lobbyist). Indeed, he has tried to convert this political lemon into lemonade by arguing it is a reminder that he understands how Washington works!  That answer is not going to sit well with everyone, and already his rivals for the Republican nomination, like Michelle Bachmann, are now pushing back against his candidacy by citing his consulting work for the mortgage firms.

Most of the criticism from the Left, I think, misses what for me is one of the most interesting aspects of Newt’s resurgence.  He is attracting support from the Tea Party conservatives who were previously courted by Bachmann, Perry and Cain.  Their support comes despite clear evidence that on many issues, Gingrich – like Perry – is not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  Remember, he initially jumped on portions of the Ryan budget plan as “right-wing social engineering” before backing down, and he seemed to acknowledge the need to address global warming.  These are not positions that will sit well with the Tea Party faction and I expect they will be revisited in coming debates.  And I haven’t even begun discussing his personal life.

To be sure, for many Republicans, Gingrich’s stock will rise in direct proportion to the attacks on him from the Liberal side of the punditocracy; after all, they will reason, if the Left fears him that much, maybe he is qualified to be president!  But at some point they are going to have to look at his record, and decide whether he is a true conservative or not.  If he passes muster with the conservative wing of the party, however, Newt just might find that his more moderate record appeals to the independents who promise to be a crucial voting bloc come next November.

Newt Gingrich – the next President of the United States?  Three weeks ago I would have been horse-whipped for even mentioning Gingrich and President in the same sentence.  Now it suddenly doesn’t seem completely implausible.

And next week?  Maybe Sarah Palin will announce her third-party bid!

You can’t make this stuff up.

1:52 PM Breaking News (I’ve always wanted to write that!)

A just-released Magellan poll has Gingrich in a dead-heat with Romney in New Hampshire.   As you know, Romney has been so far ahead in New Hampshire that most Republicans aren’t bothering to compete there.   Again, it bears repeating: it is far too early to declare anyone the real frontrunner in the Republican race, but who would have predicted any poll showing Gingrich even in shouting distance of Romney in New Hampshire?  (Full disclosure: I haven’t looked at the poll’s internals so buyer beware…)

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.


Addendum Two:

Here’s the link to the actual survey.  Note that because it is of New Hampshire voters, it includes a healthy does of independents.  Note that Gingrich’s support comes predominantly from conservatives.  All this deserves a separate post, and I’ll put one up as soon as I can. Meanwhile, go to the following link and make your own judgments:

Newton’s (R)evolution?

Are we seeing the New Newt?

Longtime readers of this blog will likely not be surprised by Newt Gingrich’s rise to the top of the Republican leaderboard, at least in national polls; I have been touting his debate performance for some time now.  Of greater interest, I think, is how the punditocracy, particularly those on the Left, have reacted to Newt’s ascendancy.  They have been unusually quick to dismiss Gingrich’s “surge” (it hasn’t been a surge, but never mind) as a temporary phenomenon, similar to what we saw with Bachmann, Perry, and then Cain.  Gingrich, they would have us believe, is simply the latest candidate to audition for the “I’m not Mitt” role, and he too will flunk this casting call. Thus, the American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie flatly states that Gingrich is not going to be the Republican nominee, a sentiment shared by many others. Michael Tomasky, in dismissing Gingrich’s latest polling results, claims ”This Gingrich boomlet is the same thing as the Michele Bachmann boomlet and the Rick Perry boomlet. It’s just people not wanting to say yes to Romney.”

In my view, these analyses that place Gingrich in the Bachmann-Perry-Cain box are wrong.  While it is true that his support in polls has gone up in part because of the current vacuum within the anti-Mitt category, Newt’s candidacy differs in significant ways from the previous Tea Party favorites.  To begin, Gingrich’s rise in the polls is no “surge”.  In contrast to the previous “anti-Mitts”, Newt has gained his front-runner status the old-fashioned way:  he’s earned grudging support from conservatives through a series of stellar debate performances, rather than through the overhyped-straw poll results that a news-starved media used to create the Bachmann and Cain boomlets.  Anyone who has closely watched these debates (and I have) knows that in a side-by-side comparison with the other 7 candidates, Newt consistently wins on both substance and style points.  Republican activists who are paying attention to the debates understand that no one else has performed at his level.  And we should not be surprised by this.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:  Newt, as a former 20-year congressman including four as Speaker (arguably the most powerful domestic post in the nation), has more experience on the national stage than any politician – in both parties – running for president today and he has honed his media skills as a political commentator during his years roaming the political wilderness after leaving office in relative disgrace.  So he brings both a deep knowledge of national issues and politics, and a flair for presenting it.  Marry that with a crowd-pleasing applause line based on attacking the media, and we have the makings of an effective candidacy.

So, will Newt win the nomination?  I have consistently described him as a longshot – but a longshot whose chances are as good as any of the other candidates not named Mitt.  Nonetheless, while I think efforts to paint Gingrich as the next Bachmann or Cain are driven more by ideology and a deep-seated dislike of Gingrich than by reasoned analysis (but then, that’s why you come here), there are still significant reasons why Newt remains a long shot. First, we need to remind ourselves that Newt is not alone atop the leaderboard. Nationally, the latest polls (see here and here), have him running in a statistical tie with Romney. The aggregate polling chart, which is designed not to overreact to the latest poll results, has Newt climbing, but at this point he still lags behind Cain and Romney.

Second, Newt carries significant personal baggage which, now that he is one of the frontrunners, is soon to be revisited by the media.  This includes a messy personal life, in which he allegedly informed his first wife that he was divorcing her while she was in the hospital receiving cancer treatments, and who has confessed to having an affair with his soon-to-be-third wife while simultaneously spearheading impeachment charges against Bill Clinton.  Gingrich has admitted to his personal shortcomings (while defending the impeachment) but for many people this is hypocrisy at its worst.   The key question here is whether Gingrich’s personal life has been so thoroughly vetted that he is, in a sense, already inoculated against further damage.  At the very least, one expects him to have a better answer than did Cain, when the inevitable character questions arise at the next debate (which they will.  By the way, the debate is next Tuesday, and yes, I’ll be live blogging it as always.) He will also undoubtedly face media criticism for his role as a lobbyist – er, consultant – for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the two government-backed mortgage companies that reportedly paid Gingrich significant dollars for his advice.  And the stories regarding his charge account at Tiffany’s, his lack of organizational discipline and the other usual suspects will likely be resurrected as well.

The key difference between Gingrich and the previous “I’m not Mitt” candidates, then, is that Gingrich is already a known quantity, with very high name recognition.  As a result, it is likely that his currently “high intensity” score (the percent who have strongly favorable opinions of him minus those with strongly unfavorable opinions), now the best in the Republican field, is likely to be more resilient to the type of negative news coverage he is about to receive.

So, while Newt’s candidacy carries extensive baggage, by itself the recycling of stories about Newt’s personal life is unlikely to have nearly the impact it would on a relative unknown, like Cain, Perry or Bachmann.   The bigger worry for Newt’s supporters, I think, is that Newt at this point does not have the money nor campaign infrastructure to turn polling support into delegates.  So, while I expect him to remain atop the leader board based on polls through the invisible primary season, it is an open question whether that support will translate into votes in the Iowa caucuses come Jan. 3.  Traditionally, caucuses require boots on the ground, which in turn cost money, and lots of it.  Although Newt is undoubtedly seeing an influx of cash in recent months, it remains to be seen how quickly it can be used to put a campaign in place in Iowa.  I think Newt needs to do well there – at least a top three finish within shouting distance of the leader – in order to remain competitive when the race moves South to South Carolina and Florida.  (I’m guessing New Hampshire’s outcome won’t have much impact on Newt’s standing).

In the long run, however, Newt has a potential Achilles heel that I view as the more serious threat to his candidacy: he’s the smartest guy in the race, and he knows it.  At this stage, it’s not clear to me whether Newt’s years in the political wilderness after stepping down as House Speaker in 1998 have matured him.  To his credit, so far he has positioned himself as the Republican’s elder statesmen, someone who obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment not to criticize fellow Republicans and who has consistently resisted taking the media bait to get down into the campaign mud.  But can he continue to take the high road when he finds the target on his back?   Or will he revert to being the Newt of old: petulant, with an ego that is easily bruised and who is prone to overestimate his own capabilities and dismiss his opponents’?   I can say this – he certainly hasn’t lost his confidence, or his swagger.  And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Media Bias, the Debates, and Why Jon Huntsman Is In Siberia

The recent controversy regarding whether CBS deliberately limited Michelle Bachmann’s participation in Saturday’s Republican debate once again highlights the crucial role the media plays in winnowing the candidate field during the months prior to the actual start of voting for candidate delegates.  As proof of CBS’ “liberal bias”, Bachmann’s camp pounced on the advertent release of an email sent by CBS news director John Dickerson  to his colleagues suggesting they get someone else to interview after the debate since Bachmann was not a front-runner in the race for the nomination. Dickerson noted that Bachmann was “not going to get many questions” in the debate and that “she’s nearly off the charts” in polling, trailing the frontrunners.

As it turned out, in Saturday’s debate, Bachmann did not get her first question until 15 minutes into the event, and she did not get any follow-up questions, which was in marked contrast to how frontrunners Cain, Gingrich, Romney and Perry were treated.  For Bachmann and her supporters – who have clashed with the media before – this is simply additional evidence of CBS’ liberal slant showing; the news organization is trying to limit coverage of the more conservative Republican candidates. Nor is Bachmann  the only candidate to make this charge – the Paul camp has consistently complained that despite Paul’s fundraising prowess and early victories in straw polls, the media refuses to grant him top-tier status.  And anyone who watches these debates knows that Rick Santorum almost always complains that he isn’t getting enough questions.  Each of these candidates understands that, in this period of the invisible primary, media expectations can become self-fulfilling.  If you get fewer questions, you get less exposure, and are deemed less viable, which affects your polling, which in turn hurts fundraising, which further depresses media coverage.  And at some point you are permanently relegated to second-tier purgatory. .

So, are these candidates right?  Is a liberal media trying to winnow them from the field?  I’ve addressed issues of media bias many times before.  There’s no doubt that the majority of journalists, print and electronic, working in the national press have political views that lean left.  Occasionally their personal views spill over into the news coverage, although I think a bigger bias is what I call the structural bias exhibited by news organizations that are, in the end, profit-making enterprises that must attract a viewing audience.

But I don’t think Bachmann is correct in asserting that CBS’ liberal bias is driving their decision to focus on the frontrunners.  As evidence, note that the most liberal Republican, Jon Huntsman, also received second-class treatment in Saturday’s debate.  At one point in the debate Huntsman – echoing sentiments undoubtedly felt by Paul, Bachmann and Santorum – complained that “It gets a little lonely over here in Siberia from time to time.”

Rather than liberal bias, what is driving the media coverage is the difficulty in covering 8 candidates in equal depth.  Faced with a nearly impossible task, journalists need to make choices, and their decisions are driven by the dictates governing the news business more generally: where’s the news?  If all indications are that Bachmann is polling in single-digits, then she’s not likely to win the nomination, and thus her remarks are deemed less newsworthy.  One need not resort to charges of political bias to understand why the media wants to see this field winnowed down to two-to-three candidates.  And I can understand the sentiment.  As one who has watched almost every Republican debate this campaign season, I can tell you that the logistics of making sure all eight candidates have their say creates problems, not least of which is that none of the candidates can say very much in any single answer.

 So, how does a second-tier candidate get out of Siberia?  By emulating Newt Gingrich’s strategy.  It is easy to forget that not too long ago Gingrich was also languishing in loserville, all but written off by the national press.  But he used the debates to resurrect his candidacy.  He did so by understanding how to make his points using succinct catch phrases or referencing iconic symbols that resonated with Republican voters’ views, and by sprinkling in a steady barrage of barbs aimed at every Republicans’ favorite whipping boy: the liberal media.  As an example, here’s how he responds to a question during Saturday’s debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:

“GINGRICH:  First of all, abs — maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum…


GINGRICH:  — maximum coordination with the Israelis in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran.

GINGRICH:  Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher did to the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down. And I agree entirely with Governor Romney.  If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”

Note what he’s done here.  The answer is short, and entertaining, and it includes references indicating he supports Israel, and implies that his policy would have the support of those Republican icons Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher who, by following a similar strategy, brought down the Soviet Union!  (See, it works!)  As icing on the cake, he obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment by praising the answer by his chief rival Mitt Romney.  This is vintage Gingrich, and by dint of repeated answers like this, he has charted a slow but steady rise in the polls.  (I need not take the time here to remind you that I cautioned long ago not to write Gingrich off, so don’t say you weren’t warned!)

Look, I understand Bachmann’s frustration, and that of Santorum, Huntsman and Paul.  Media coverage is biased against them.   The bias reflects the difficulty of covering eight candidates in the depth they deserve.  So the media makes choices that inevitably favor some candidates over others.  If I want to get out of Siberia, however, it is not going to help much by complaining that it’s too cold there. Instead, Bachmann needs to strap on her skis, harness the sled dogs, and start moving to warmer climes, either by charting her own trail or following Gingrich’s path.  And she’d better hurry.


Live Blogging the South Carolina Republican Debate

Opening question to Cain, and I have to say his answer on how to handle a nuclear Iran seems a bit less surefooted than what Newt and Mitt followed with…of course, both Mitt and Newt opened by taking shots at Obama.

By the way, this is a potentially crucial debate for several reasons. First, it gives Perry a chance to prove he can remember his talking points.  Second, it promises to test Cain’s knowledge base.  Third, it provides perhaps a final opportunity for the second tier candidates to gain some traction in a new issue area.

Santorum is in good form: angry at the outset.  Everyone wants a crack at the Iran with nukes question. Rick is staking out by the most hawkish position, practically pledging to back an Israeli preemptive strike.

Bachmann’s critique of Afghan surge and withdrawal is nicely done – too bad Pelley is moderating with an exceedingly tight clock.  It’s hard to give detailed answers under the 1-minute deadline.

There’s some clear distinctions between drawn here between the candidates, which is a welcome change from their “debates” on econ policy.   Paul and Huntsman are adopting the more dovish approach to Afghanistan by advocating bringing the troops home.  No mention of Pakistan as yet.

Never mind. Leave it to Newt to broach the crucial topic.  Let’s see how Cain handles the Pakistan issue.

Perry takes up the foreign aid cudgel.  He promises to use it leverage with our potential allies. This is a crowd pleaser, but it is substantively useless. Foreign aid is a minuscule part of our budget. This is one of the talking points he came with and, in typical Perry fashion, he inserted it at the first possible moment, rather than answer the question.

As befitting someone on the intelligence committee, Bachmann knows her foreign policy sh-t.

Gingrich jumps on the foreign aid bandwagon.  He knows better.

Ah, the missing nuclear weapon question!  Go Rick!  (I’d bring in James Bond to find it, or maybe Jack Bauer!)  Instead, Rick wants to answer the previous question, and he actually gives one of the more nuanced responses regarding how to deal with Pakistan, noting at the outset that it is a nuclear power, so we can’t simply zero out the foreign aid.  The crowd says nothing, but Rick is right – the answer is more difficult than simply ending assistance.

Since we are on commercial broadcast station, there will be plenty of commercial breaks.  Which reminds me: the last half hour of the debate is not going to be televised, so that we can see something more important, like Mike and Molly.  Sigh.

Part II.

Opening question to Newt designed to get him to follow up on critical comments he made yesterday regarding Mitt Romney as competent but not an innovator. Newt doesn’t take the bait, much to the crowd’s pleasure.  Reagan’s 11th commandment holds strong with Newt. Major Garrett is not happy.

Cain – how does he know when to overrule his generals? Bad question – bad answer – too general on both counts to really shed any light on their role as commander in chief.  Pelley needs to give a specific case.

(Is Huntsman still on the stage?)

Santorum is hopeful the U.S. has been using covert action to stymie Iran’s nuclear program.  He’s not shy.

Ah Perry – eliminating the Department of Energy.  Nicely done!!  Big round of applause for his ability to laugh at his gaffe. Interesting twist here by Perry – equating his governorship as a form of commander in chief experience.  To this point, he’s holding his own.

Let’s see how the email questions go…these are almost always potential landmines…

First question to Cain – what is his approach to torture?  Is it ever admissible?  Waterboarding?  Cain will waterboard.   Bachmann will too.  We don’t want the ACLU running our military.  How about Paul?  Waterboarding is torture.  It is illegal, immoral and not effective.  Bachmann is not going to take this – but Pelley cuts her off to acknowledge that Huntsman is running for president and might want to talk.  He does.  (From Siberia).  He joins Paul in rejecting waterboarding as unAmerican.  We haven’t heard the end of this – Bachmann will surely come back to it.

It’s interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that the Republicans seem united in criticizing Obama for his foreign policy, when that’s arguably the strongest part of his record to date, and is largely an extension of a Republican president’s policies.

Perry gets the first China question. let’s see if he actually answers it or instead injects a pre-baked talking point.  He does both – not terribly detailed, but clear enough.

Let’s see if Newt says “Ask Huntsman – he’s a China expert!”

Did you ever notice how Romney is big at arguing everyone should play by the rules?  I bet he was pain in the arse on the playground.

Here’s Huntsman – let’s hope he says it takes more than hard work to deal with China.  Get specific Jon.  He’s banking on the internet to break the party hold on China, but Pelley cuts him off for a commercial before Huntsman gets a chance to develop his point.  I want to see Huntsman be a bit more like Santorum – throw a fit, Jon!  Get mad as hell, and don’t take this anymore!

So far, I’d say Cain – although he hasn’t screwed the pooch – still seems a bit unsteady in his answers.  He relies a bit too much on the idea that he’d consult his generals on everything.

Great email question to Perry – will he zero out aid to Israel.  A potentially tricky answer, but to his credit Rick comes through with a nice response, and manages to bring in another self-deprecating reference to his debate gaffe. Perry’s having a strong debate so far.

And that’s it for the live television broadcast!  We have to switch over to the computer to get the feed.

What weapon system would Bachmann cut?  (She’s also having a good debate, btw). She never answers – choosing  instead to focus on military care.

Cain on the Arab Spring:  again, he starts slowly, as if gathering his mental talking points.  It doesn’t give one a sense of confidence.

Let’s see if Gingrich can do better with a question about Syria.  He ought to go to town on this.

Meanwhile, Paul wouldn’t intervene in Syria at all, and his shocktroops are jubilant.

Here’s an interesting twist – both South Carolinian Senators – Lindsey Graham and Jim Demint – get an opportunity to ask questions.  Graham launches a question regarding killing terrorists who are U.S. citizens and trying them in civil courts. Cain and Santorum give the expected answers – as does Paul.  You have to admire Paul’s principled consistency, but after a while you understand why he can’t get more than 10% support in any poll.

Perry, touting his military service, gives maybe his best answer of the night.  Bachmann takes on Paul, and he doesn’t back down.

Now it’s DeMint’s turn. And he asks the question I raised in my post earlier today: what programs – not departments – would you cut to reduce spending, or would return to the states?

Note that Romney doesn’t give a money value to the programs he is proposing to cut.  The ones he cites as needing to be cut don’t add up collectively to more than a drop in the budget bucket.

I’m waiting for someone to mention entitlements.  Gingrich, meanwhile, uses the question as an opportunity to attack the Supercommittee again.  Don’t forget that South Carolina is a key state for Newt’s campaign – hence his shout out to rehabbing the Charleston harbor.

Hmmm- Bachmann touts China as the model for the U.S.?  No foodstamps, no social welfare state there!  (no freedoms either, but….)   Let’s cut the Great Society- all of it!

The reason Herman Cain is so slow to answer is that he has to consult with his commanders on the ground before he can fashion a response.  Let’s face it – he’s not helping himself tonight.  Pelley is skeptical, and rightly so, that Cain even has formulated a response to clearing out safehavens in Pakistan.  I fear this may be the end of the Cain bubble.

Why is it that Romney seems to start every answer by laying out the context of the question?

Once again, the loose nuke question, this time to Santorum.  Not sure this is a useful hypothetical, but Santorum is so much more knowledgeable than Cain in explaining why this is a dangerous event, and he avoids the jingoistic simplistic response.

Gingrich brings it back to the Church Committee – does his audience even know what that is?

Huntsman is ready for this one, already dialing Seal Force six before Pelley even finishes asking the question.  You go Jon!

Perry on ending the Euro-crisis – and Pelley ends the debate. Just like that.  Very unsatisfying format tonight – not nearly as well done as the previous one on the economy, mostly because Pelley didn’t let the candidates engage.

Still, I think there were a couple of obvious takeaways.  First, reports of Perry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  He came out, used humor to minimize the debate gaffe, and then proceeded to give some strong, if somewhat superficial answers to questions dealing with a range of issues.  The biggest loser, I thought, was Cain, who just seemed a bit out of his depth. He relied too often on the “I’ll ask my generals first.” He didn’t make any mistakes, but he did nothing to convince voters he was a guy who could be relied upon in a national security crisis.

Gingrich was solid, as always, and once again impressed with his detailed policy knowledge (sometime too detailed), and also once again playing senior statesman, refusing to take the bait to attack Romney when both were on stage.  I think voters like this.  Romney also did well, as he always does, in giving the “correct” answers, but once again he often seemed to respond with answers that seemed poll-tested, rather than rooted in any deep convictions.  Bachmann also was strong – until that last answer in which she suggested we ought to jettison the Great Society and instead adopt China’s approach to helping the poor.  Where did that come from?

Santorum and Huntsman have to decide how long they want to keep up this charade.  Barring a minor miracle, they are going to get winnowed in Iowa, unless Huntsman decides to hang on for New Hampshire. They were both good tonight,particular Santorum in how to deal with Pakistan, but does it matter?  At this point, it is still a very fluid race.  I guess the one thing to look for in the next several days is whether Perry has righted the ship, and whether Cain continues to slip in the polls.  If so, we may head into December with a top three of  Gingrich, Romney and Perry.  Keep in mind that Gingrich, by virtue of moving into the top tier, is now fair game for media attacks.  I expect they will now train their guns on him – let’s see how his record holds up to the scrutiny.

More tomorrow…. .







Here’s Rick! The Axe Man Cometh (Not!)

In his New York Times column last Thursday (hat tip to Simon Gerlin for bringing it to my attention)  Matt Bai implicitly agrees with the somewhat unconventional argument that I’ve been making regarding Rick Perry’s debate gaffe , namely, that the mere fact of forgetting the third of the three cabinet departments he would eliminate if elected president will, by itself, have almost no impact on his chances of winning the Republican nomination. Instead, what is hurting Perry is that a sizeable number of Tea Party-sympathizing likely Republican voters who were initially inclined to support Perry now believe, largely on the basis of his debate performances, that he isn’t a genuine conservative. But their disappointment is not rooted in his apparent lack of debating skills – it is based on the unmistakable evidence that Perry, as Governor, embraced decidedly un-conservative policies. In his column, Bai drives home my point by suggesting that Perry’s failure to remember all three departments indicates that he didn’t really have a principled reason for cutting the Department of Energy in the first place.  Instead, it was just one item among a number of conventional Republican-pleasing acts on Perry’s to-do list (tax cuts? Check; eliminate cabinet departments? Check) motivated more by political posturing than conservative principles.

Lacking an underlying rationale for deciding which cabinet departments to cut, Perry had no reason to remember their specific names. (Heck, he’s lucky to have recalled two of them!) To be sure, the ostensible reason for eliminating cabinet departments is to cut government spending and reduce its size.  But that can be accomplished by cutting any number of departments and agencies.  Why not start with the biggest budget busters, and eliminate the Health and Human Services or Defense departments? How about the Department of Homeland Security? In Perry’s defense, he’s not the only Republican candidate who has failed to articulate a cogent reason for determining which government departments to axe, and why; Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann have all promised to chop down specific parts of the cabinet but except for Paul, it’s hard to remember exactly why they have targeted specific departments, beyond a vague promise to cut spending.

This failure to articulate a rationale for deciding which cabinets to cut raises questions, as Mark Schmitt points out in the New Republic, about just how much money this axe-wielding exercise would actually save.  For example, if Commerce is eliminated, who will carry out the census, which is mandated by the Constitution?  Similarly, it is all well and good to dismantle the Education department, but does that mean the end of all student loan programs too?  In short, which current government programs are these candidates willing to cut, and which do they expect to see transferred to other existing government agencies?  Without specifying the details, it’s not clear whether any money will be saved at all.

My point is not that there is no good reason to cut cabinet departments, or any other government agency, for that matter.  Perry’s problem is that he didn’t explain why he targeted these three departments and, as Bai suggests, his failure to do so is simply additional evidence that he hasn’t developed a cogent set of conservative principles on which to base such decisions.  At least we know that in Ron Paul’s libertarian world view, government ought not to be making student loans, so his promise to eliminate the Department of Education seems genuine.  In contrast, Perry has yet to convince anyone that his candidacy is motivated by more than the opportunity to grab the “I’m not Mitt” mantle.

In this regard, he has much to learn from this man, who at least had a reason for taking an axe to his problems: too much work, not enough play, and a history of “cost-cutting measures” to live up to.