An evaluation of the Republican presidential debates
By Brendan Raleigh
On May 5, the first of the Republican Presidential Primary Debates was held in Greenville, South Carolina. Candidates participating in the debate included the following: Rep. Ron Paul, from Texas; Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza; Former Pennsylvania Senator, Rick Santorum; Former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson; and Former Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. Fox News sponsored and hosted the event in Greenville’s Peace Center.
The first thing that people will probably notice from the aforementioned lineup is the absence of the more famous Republicans like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Romney justified his decision not to attend by saying that the debates were being held over six months before voting begins; far too early for his tastes. Huckabee, on the other hand, has yet to announce whether or not he will even run in 2012. This is despite his being one of the GOP’s strongest candidates, even beating Obama in a CNN poll from November 2010.
Despite the lack of any prominent contenders for the Republican nomination, I shall, nevertheless, still attempt to judge those present for the debate. My evaluation shall be in regards to how much I agree with the candidate, as well as his (yes, they are all male) likelihood of winning over the electorate.
I shall begin with Ron Paul, the Libertarian representative from Texas. Paul is arguably the most well-known of the candidates, but similarly the most controversial. Liberals are often opposed to him due to his economic plans to eliminate the Federal Reserve and reinstate the gold standard, while conservatives find his social policies to be too liberal.
Even considering his political divisiveness, I found Paul’s positions to be the most appealing of all the candidates. Bringing the gold standard back would help discourage wasteful government spending, since the government could only print money which is backed by gold, and encourage other countries to continue investing in the U.S. dollar (since it would be backed by something that actually exists). Paul’s desire to end the militarism of the United States would save not only a significant amount of money, but also many lives. Whether he has a viable exit strategy, however, is unclear.
Problems for the Texas politician could arise from his social views, as I mentioned before. In the debate, he expressed his belief that issues like gay marriage, drug use, and prostitution should not be up to the federal government to decide. While I agree with him that it isn’t the national government’s job to get involved in most social matters, I’m willing to bet that most conservatives and Republicans disagree.
His position on torture may also prove to alienate some voters. When Chris Wallace, one of the hosts, brought up the issue, Paul argued that torture has yet to yield any valid information. I disagree with him here, as I assume most conservatives do (considering the fact that most polls indicate an even split on the subject, I think it’s safe to say those favoring “enhanced interrogation” are conservative). His assertion that the results are not useful is especially inaccurate considering Leon Panetta, the Democratic Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has confirmed that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
Among other important facts regarding Ron Paul are his age and past profession. Seventy-five-year-old Paul could find his age to be detrimental to his campaign by offending some of the more gerontophobic younger voters. Some may also worry that he may not be able to live through his full term. As for his profession; Paul’s experience as a doctor lends credibility to his criticisms of the harm of Obama’s healthcare bill to physicians. However, this long after the bill has passed; I doubt that anyone is still undecided about it.
Herman Cain’s most obvious flaw is relatively obvious from the moment he is introduced. It doesn’t quite fit having several former governors and congressmen and then the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. I, personally, didn’t mind this too much at first (I’ll explain why “at first” later), as I don’t really know how well experience as a congressman translates to an executive position like the presidency. The problem for Cain is what the voters will think. His former job will be too easily ridiculed and dismissed by any of his opponents.
However, Cain’s lack of political experience could similarly be turned into a positive if voters wish, not to see it as a lack of experience, but a lack of the corruption so prevalent in politicians. Whether or not the other candidates are corrupt is unknown to me, but I doubt Cain has received many bribes to cut the price of the Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza or to look the other way while a chef skims mozzarella from the storeroom.
Regardless of the voters’ thoughts, mine are more important, and while I found Cain’s inexperience to be excusable at first, I later realized it is a serious problem. Often he would answer questions by saying that they would require more clarity. Rather than explaining what he would do in Libya, he explained that, due to his not having a government position, he was short of information, and would decide what he would do based on the information given to him as president.
I think making informed decisions is important (which, I know, is very surprising), but to me it seemed like his answers were unsuitable for a future Commander-in-Chief. Many of his answers indicated a lack of knowledge regarding international affairs. Cain seemed to repeatedly fall back on the idea that it is necessary to define the objectives of whatever policy or situation was being discussed. While the president does have access to information unavailable to most in the pizza industry, Cain could have at least stated his positions with the information at hand. An adequate understanding of international issues is an important attribute for the president and, unfortunately for those sick of “Washington insiders”, may require someone with a political background.
Though Cain may have been weak on Afghanistan and Libya, I believe his strong policy on the border with Mexico would be appealing to many conservatives. He criticized previous administrations for merely pretending to secure the border, while he would do so in actuality. The problem with this is that the border is not going to be on the voters’ minds in 2012, jobs will.
His attack on the National Labor Relations Board for preventing the Boeing Company from relocating to South Carolina and his further assertion that businesses create jobs, not governments, will appeal to both fiscal conservatives and libertarians. Despite this, Cain still suffers from consistently low name recognition in Gallup polls, even though those who have heard of him often express passionate support (at least in comparison to the other candidates). Overall, I have no quarrel with Herman Cain, but I think that his inexperience would make him an impractical candidate for president.
Rick Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, represented a more traditional Republican candidate than the previous two. Santorum seemed more eloquent in his speech and more professional than Paul or Cain. This may be enough to convince the more superficial voters, but it will not win the Republican nomination or the presidency.
His economic positions were standard for conservatives, nowhere near as extreme as Paul’s, while his social positions may be a source of support from many Republican voters. Though he may not win over left-leaning moderates to his side being ardently against gay marriage and abortion, it’s unlikely that he would have them anyway.
The (miniature) speech he gave in response to Shannon Bream’s question as to whether he was willing to compromise his social views to focus on economics seemed quite presidential. I don’t think it really meant very much, but saying things like “if we abandon [our values] we have given up on America” can reach supporters in ways that discussing actual policies can’t. Not necessarily in a way that would help the country much, but in a way that would help when voting comes around. I found Santorum to be an average candidate.
Santorum’s economic positions were solid and, while I disagree with his belief that the federal government should be involved in certain moral issues, I doubt any Republican victor would focus on them during his presidency, anyway. He may not be my favorite of the choices, but I think he would fare slightly better in the presidential election than Cain or Paul.
Gary Johnson was the governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, and as far as I could tell, that’s the highest position he’s going to hold. Regardless of how great a politician Johnson will ever be, he seems to have a serious problem with his mannerisms. While I would say that I don’t really care about how a candidate looks, I think that, subconsciously, we all do. Example: Would Ronald Reagan still have won the 1984 election if he looked like Clint Howard? The answer is most likely “Yes”, due to Mr. Howard’s dashing leading man looks and tousled hair. Gary Johnson’s voice and appearance, however, make him seem unconfident and, frankly, a bit whiny. I can’t imagine him delivering a crowd-inspiring speech. Obviously that doesn’t mean that he can’t, but it would take a very good speech writer…and probably a better candidate. Acclaimed orators like Presidents Reagan and Obama are able to bring about increases in economic confidence and consumer spending in ways economic policies can’t. It may be unfair to Johnson, but it’s reality.
Aside from his outward appearance, Johnson’s economic policies are almost identical to the other candidates. The exceptions to this statement, however, are quite significant. He has a much more lenient border policy than the other candidates, backing the idea of a completely open border. Former Governor Johnson neglects to consider the drug cartels and security risks associated with such an approach, as well as the billions of dollars taken back to illegal immigrants’ home countries each year.
His explanation for his opposition to tariffs on products made in China will be enormously problematic. Johnson justified his objection to tariffs by saying that he believes in a 100% free market. This is a bit ridiculous. That’s like allowing counterfeiters to use fake money as legal tender. As long as China is going to artificially inflate its currency, tariffs on its products should not be out of the question. Johnson’s opposition to any interference from the government economically is ideological at best and dangerous at worst.
Among other problems with the former governor is his belief that abortion should be allowed before a fetus becomes viable. This will lead to hostility from social conservatives, many of whom are very passionate about the abortion issue in particular.
He is most likely to find support from the intellectuals among us whose primary concern is the legalization of marijuana. Unlike Ron Paul, who favors legalizing marijuana out of principle, Johnson admits to actually using the drug in recent years. This fact alone is enough to deter many Republicans from supporting him.
Johnson has also come up extremely weak in poll numbers, both in name recognition and favorability, as you can see from the Gallup polls. Of all likely Republican contenders, he only managed to beat Donald Trump’s “Positive Intensity Score” by 3%…with 3%.
Last on the list of Candidates is Tim Pawlenty, the Former Governor of Minnesota. What stood out to me about Pawlenty was that he didn’t stand out. I believe that is his biggest weakness. Voters won’t be attracted to someone who doesn’t have a magnetic personality like Barack Obama or a well-defined set of beliefs like Ron Paul. I don’t have much to say about him, based on what I saw in the debate.
One thing, however, which I took note of was Pawlenty’s changing his stance on the cap and trade bill. In 2007, as governor, he signed and endorsed a cap and trade bill similar to the one passed by the federal government in 2009. This is certainly bad for his chances at receiving the Republican nomination. It made him appear to be disingenuous in his conservative beliefs, and will likely haunt him like the Massachusetts healthcare bill did Mitt Romney. Pawlenty could have justified his changing point of view by saying that he believed the issue should be left for states to decide, justifying his passing the law in Minnesota. This was not the case, apparently.
I found Tim Pawlenty to be somewhat of a generic candidate who is unlikely to win an election against Barack Obama, similar to Rick Santorum. Though Pawlenty shows high favorable ratings among Republicans, his lacking in any fervent support make him a weak choice for the nomination.
By the end of the debate, I still found myself supporting Ron Paul the most, followed by Rick Santorum, and then Herman Cain. Honestly, though, I’d only really consider voting for Ron Paul, and even with that I’m doubtful that he could win in the general election. Santorum’s positions on social issues and Cain’s lack of experience make them unlikely to emerge victorious against President Obama.
I would like to end my novel by writing something inconclusive that would lead you to believe an extremely strong candidate will come forth soon, like Mike Huckabee (who I’d more describe as pretty strong, but nevertheless), but he is far too soft-spoken to ever be epic or looming in any way. It would be like ending The Godfather with the silhouette of Andy Griffith. While Andy Griffith may be a nice guy, he doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the movie. Instead, I shall merely attempt to complete my goal of being inconclusive with my closing.