Hard Truths

In Tampa, Mitt Romney won the debate, and Rick Perry stumbled.

Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry at Monday’s GOP presidential debate in Tampa

TAMPA, Fla.—Rick Perry served five years in the Air Force, and at his second presidential debate, he must have had flashbacks. He stalled, climbed, and clattered into a few hard landings. He was under fire from the left, right, and above. Ron Paul said Perry had raised taxes as governor of Texas. Mitt Romney said Perry wanted to end Social Security. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum repeatedly criticized Perry’s decision to vaccinate young girls against HPV. After Perry peeled off into the clouds during an answer to a question on Afghanistan, GOP strategist Mike Murphy wrote on Twitter: “Listening to Perry try to a put a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp play with a locked suitcase.”

Mayday, Wolf Blitzer, Mayday!

Perry took the attacks like a veteran, but it was not a good night for him. Romney was polished, he had his answers prepared, and his attack lines honed. If you were scoring this as an academic exercise, Romney would be the clear winner. But the audience of Tea Party activists in the hall for the debate co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express and CNN weren’t  grading on that scale. They appeared to like Perry much more than Romney. That’s the broader split that exists in the larger Republican electorate: Do GOP voters want the ragged, forceful, conservative Perry—or do they want the measured, methodical, and less ideological Romney?

The early heat and pushing started over Social Security. It was a bit of a jumble as Romney and Perry rolled around on the ground. There’s a really good chance it’s going to get confused (Perry got cheers when he shouldn’t have), so let me try to pull the two men of good hair apart and assign points.

The two governors traded barbs about  who has minted the more baroque criticism of Social Security. Perry has called it a “Ponzi scheme.” Romney has compared it to a criminal enterprise. This is boring and inconsequential. They can both claim they’re talking about aspects of the current system.  Romney has a more pointed critique, though. He points to comments in Perry’s book Fed Up! where Perry argues that Social Security is a 70-year fraud forced on the American people. He argues that it should have been a private or state-run system and should be again. Romney asked Perry if that’s what he still believes. Perry dipped, dived, and dodged, reasserting that he was the truth teller in the race.

Here’s his problem: If Perry is asking for truth-telling credit for diagnosing Social Security’s  problems (which everyone diagnoses), then he should also accept the deduction for not honestly embracing his position in his book. He’s ducking while simultaneously asking that he be given points for standing tall.

Why does this matter? First, the politics. In 2008, 44 percent of the GOP primary voters in Florida were over 50. That number is slightly higher in Iowa. Right now Perry leads with those voters. According to the latest CNN/ORC International poll, Perry currently has an 18 –percentage point advantage among Republicans aged 50 and over, leading Romney 38 percent to 20 percent.

This debate is part of a larger one, which can essentially be reduced to a single question: How big a sandwich do you want to eat with this new president? Social Security is going to get reformed. What do you want to have happen in that instance? Do you want to change the retirement age, index benefit increases to prices and not wages, maybe flirt with some private accounts? That’s what you’ll get with Romney. Or do you want the whole program to be under the purview of the states? Tea Party activists I talked to earlier in the day wanted to scrap it and move it to the states. I’m not sure general election voters want that. Do House and Senate Republicans want to run on that platform? They’re already running on the Ryan plan, which offers a fundamental change in Medicare, turning it into a voucher-like program. That’s a lot of change the 2012 GOP will be promising a country already fatigued with change.

Perry hasn’t actually put forward a Social Security plan that sends the program to the states, but that’s the scope of his ambitions on a whole host of things. By contrast, Romney gave his sharpest and most effective argument for his candidacy: “The country needs a turnaround, that’s what I do.”

Romney deflected attacks on the health care plan he implemented in Massachusetts and pressed his case again for why Perry’s record in Texas owed more to the state than Perry’s magic. Asked if Perry deserved any credit, Romney said that being dealt four aces “doesn’t make you, necessarily, a great poker player.” Ron Paul came to Romney’s aid, saying that Perry had raised taxes in Texas and joking that he didn’t want to be too critical because, as Perry’s constituent, he worried Perry “might raise taxes on me again.”

The toughest moment for Perry came during a few rounds of abuse over his executive order to mandate the HPV vaccine for young girls. Perry reiterated that he had only put the policy in place because he was trying to save lives. He said he’d never do such a thing as president because governors are allowed some leeway to experiment whereas presidents are not. The argument matched the one that Romney makes in defense of his health care experiment in Massachusetts.

Michele Bachmann went after Perry not only on mandating treatment for little girls—she also suggested Perry had put the policy in place in exchange for a campaign donation. A release from Bachmann’s campaign accused Perry of “Crony capitalism.” Perry said he was offended. Bachmann wouldn’t let it go, saying she was offended for the girls who were forced into treatment. Both Bachmann and Santorum had better performances in this debate than in previous ones. It’s just Perry’s misfortune that some of their best dance moves were on his head.

Even when Perry was taking a principled stand of the kind voters say they want, he ran into trouble. Defending his decision to allow the children of illegal immigrants to attend college—”It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way”—he was booed. Romney said the plan created an incentive for lawbreakers, scoring points (for the moment) with the Tea Party crowd.

The political question is that if Perry is taking criticism from the right, who will benefit? Romney is not a conservative darling, and conservatives don’t appear to think that Bachmann can actually win. 

If this all feels a little inside, that’s because at times the debate was. The HPV issue touches on whether Perry lives up to the principles he espouses. But it’s a little much to hang a man’s entire commitment to limited government on one decision. A round of questions that allowed candidates to offer their Fed-bashing talking points also ate up some time on the clock. I’d have much preferred to learn what the participants thought about the collapse of the European banking system. Or perhaps they could have weighed in on the collapse of the Middle East. Israel is being kicked out of Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is pressing the United States to allow Palestinian statehood.  These probably would have elicited sound bites, too, but perhaps we might have learned something about the world view on these issue sets where the new president will have actual control.

Only Newt Gingrich seemed to have his eye on the ball when pitched questions of national security. Ron Paul made the case he did last election about why Bin Laden attacked the United States, and he was booed for it. He was simply quoting Bin Laden, but his opponents attacked him as if he shared those views, a fundamental attribution error. The moments of comic relief came from Jon Huntsman. They were not intentional. A reference to the band Nirvana fell flat. Later he made a joke about treason that also thundered against the backboard. He mumbled an aside about Romney’s changing positions. He was like a garden hose turned on full, flopping around the front yard.

Huntsman wasn’t the oddest contribution to the night, however. Discussing the individual mandate, CNN’s Blitzer asked Paul a hypothetical question about a young man without insurance who is severely injured and requires hospitalization for six months. Who would pay for his care? Should society “just let him die?” “Yes,” came a few calls from the crowd. It was chilling. Paul said charities would pick up the tab as they did when he was first practiced medicine, in the pre-Medicare era. The macabre audience response wasn’t the first. At the last GOP debate, the mention of Texas’ more than 200 executions drew cheers. There are five more debates scheduled for this year. At this rate, they should schedule one for Halloween.