On September 7, 2011 the Republican contenders for the presidency gathered in the historic Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to debate, among other things, Job Creation, State Rights, Social Security, Immigration Reform, Welfare, Homeland security and more.
The moderators for the evening, Brian Williams from NBC and John Harris from Politico, as well as the organizers of the debate appeared to be set on crafting the storyline before the first question was asked. The story, as they saw fit, would paint a contentious battle between the top two contenders: Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts and Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. Not surprisingly the national media continued this theme by running similar headlines, Here and Here.
The two were placed side-by-side and front and center on stage, leaving the other candidates on the outside and looking in. Within moments, questions were hurdled back and forth between the two, while the others were made to wait.
Jon Huntsman, chimed in several times and began to draw the audience and moderators attention with strong, well-spoken responses highlighting his experience serving as the Ambassador to China and as Governor of Utah.
Continuing a familiar storyline as well, Ron Paul was tossed loaded questions that must have seemed out of place to the viewers at home. Each question was set up to make him appear radical, crazy, and more than anything – like the kooky old guy at the party. Paul’s belief that Government has so far surpassed its effective role and reach was toyed with as he was asked questions along the line of, “what would happen if the FDA, TSA, and FEMA were all abolished and nothing was put in place to fill their void”. Unfortunately, Ron Paul took the bait and responded with in-depth and scholarly answers that did not explain in a way the masses could comprehend. Paul continues to run as a candidate with strong convictions and thought-provoking economic policies, yet comes across as a radical libertarian.
Romney and Perry both appeared like the strong front-runner candidates they are, sticking to their rehearsed answers and hammering home their conservative positions and opposition to Obama. At one point Romney hit a home run, declaring, “I think the president’s a nice guy, I just don’t think he has a clue how to fix this country” and the crowds roared in approval.
An interesting moment and perhaps the highlight of the debate occurred when Governor Perry reiterated his claim that the Social Security system as it currently stands is a, “Ponzi scheme”. Romney, sensing an opening and political opportunity, was quick to argue that he thinks the Social Security system has problems, but that it is successfully serving its purpose and millions of American rely on those Social Security checks. In the coming weeks and months, this argument could become one of the most prominent points of contention between the two candidates.
While Perry holds conservative views on many issues, he has taken a decidedly unconventional and authentic position in telling the American people and young Americans in particular: “It’s a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there”. It’s a strong position to stake out and it now puts other Republican candidates and President Obama in a bind – argue against this and in many ways twist words and lie, or shift stance and agree with Perry, which makes his position seem gutsy and even Presidential.
Michelle Bachman was another candidate who came into the debate looking to prove something. When the subject of Health Care came up, she was quick to jump into the fray, immediately claiming that “Obamacare” was a job-killing piece of legislation. She went on to tell a story of how a 17 girl was told “we’re not hiring this summer” at a local restaurant and Bachman blamed Obama’s Health Care legislation for this occurrence.
Later, when the discussion turned to Homeland security, Rick Santorum claimed that Homeland security was doing a fine job and serving its role. Huntsman took another path, arguing that at present Homeland security made Americans feel like criminals and that going through the airport was a painful experience, all of which sounded a lot like what others, myself included have argued in the past.
Newt Gingrich seems to have embraced his new role for the Republican candidates, serving as the wise elder who sees all. When the moderators served up several questions aimed at stirring up an argument between the candidates on stage, he was quick to interject and silence the moderator John Harris, urging all candidates to remember that while there are some minor differences between them, they all stand strong and unified in opposition to Obama and his re-election possibility. All candidates clapped and nodded thanks for saying what they couldn’t.
At the end of the debate several important takeaways stood out: 1) Jon Huntsman needed a strong performance to stay in the game and garner more media attention and he did this well, arguably winning the debate. 2) Mitt Romney needed to stay above the pettiness and appear like the untouchable front-runner and he did for the most part. 3) Rick Perry needed to stand out in his first national debate appearance, he needed to speak well and appear as a real, viable candidate to challenge Romney. Perry succeeded in doing this and the ensuing battle between the two will be interesting to watch.
As the campaign heats up this fall, the major issue will be Job Creation and both the candidates and the American people can expect an ugly battle for the nomination.