For the most part, the questions asked of GOP presidential candidates at the CNN/Tea Party debate were standard, predictable fare. How to balance the budget? How to get the economy growing again? How to reduce the cost of health care? A few questions were on subjects near and dear to the Tea Party. Should the Federal Reserve be audited? Do you support the Fair Tax? Very few of the questions required the candidates to do anything but repeat well-rehearsed lines from their stump speech. So much for the value of letting audience members ask the questions.
Still the debate was entertaining and informative because of the interaction among the candidates. The grilling came from the attacks the candidates made on each other. The alternate cheers and boos from the audience added to the bar room brawl atmosphere.
After the jump, my favorite questions and answers.
The first question was on Social Security. The candidates all pretty much trashed the concept of Social Security while simultaneously assuring seniors that their Social Security is safe (Perry "slam dunk guaranteed" it). Young workers are going to be given the right to opt out of the Social Security system. No one was asked where the money is going to come from to keep sending seniors their checks if the current workers' payroll taxes are taken out of the system.
The candidates seemed to agree on how to balance the budget. Cut waste and fraud. And spur growth. Only Ron Paul identified anything specifically to cut -- overseas wars. Like Social Security, no one would cut the Medicare prescription drug benefit, not even Ron Paul. Apparently, it's easy to simultaneously appease both the Tea Party budget cutters and the seniors on Social Security.
After giving only two candidates the chance to give non-illuminating answers to the question of whether it's possible to be both pro-worker and pro-business ("yes"), Wolf Blitzer moved on to the next question. Should the Federal Reserve be audited? The Tea Party audience cheered lustily when Wolf Blitzer said Perry said Fed chairman Ben Bernanke should be tried for treason. Santorum, Cain, Perry and Romney all said the Fed's dual goals of stable prices and maximum employment should be modified to drop the goal of maximum employment. I guess we know what their answer would have been to the pro-worker question.
Perry took the most flak on the question about use of executive orders. Paul said he would not use them "to legislate." Perry vowed to use an executive order on day one to get rid of as much of Obamacare as he could. Given that "Obamacare" is actually the legislation "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act," I guess that means Perry is fine with using executive orders to legislate. Then, one by one, the other candidates lit into Perry for his executive order in Texas to require school girls be vaccinated against human papillomavirus. Perry admitted (again) that he should have worked through the legislature. Bachmann said it shouldn't have been done by any method. She argued that if a girl has a bad reaction to a vaccination, there's no do-over. She didn't say, with her position, what do-over girls who contract cervical cancer will get. Bachmann implied that campaign donations by the drug company that makes the vaccine played a part in Perry's decision. Perry said he was "offended" that she thought he could be bought for $5,000 (how much it would take was left unsaid). Bachmann said she is offended for all the little girls. Santorum said Perry thought only that his use of an executive order was wrong, not his desire to have the government vaccinate young girls against HPV. Perry said he will always err on the side of life. He referenced his pro-life position in his defense. No one brought up his support for the death penalty. I doubt Perry won many votes from the Tea Party on this question.
How will candidates reduce health care costs? Cain will repeal Obamacare. Romney will offer health savings accounts. Thereafter the candidates ignored the question and lit into Romneycare. Bachmann said an individual mandate to buy insurance is unconstitutional at the federal and state level. If Romney allowed that, he's not committed to repealing Obamacare. She's committed. Perry said of the individual mandate, "it's fine" for Massachusetts to do it, but Texas doesn't want it (I wonder if he'll have to walk this back, like he had to walk back his opinion that New York's law legalizing gay marriage was "fine" for them). Paul was asked what would happen if a 30 year old who declined to carry health insurance fell into a coma. Should society just let him die? The audience cheered; someone yelled "Yeah!" Paul said that churches will take care of him.
How would candidates remove illegal immigrants? Santorum said he'd secure the border before having "storm troopers come in and throw people out" or grant amnesty. I guess that means that once the border is secure, he'd be fine with storm troopers. No one ever did answer the question, but to be fair, again moderator Wolf Blitzer moved on to the next question before all candidates could answer.
Santorum also gave the most peculiar answer to the question of what the GOP can do to attract Latino voters. Santorum said make English the country's official language. Bachmann seconded that: "Speak English." Cheers from the Tea Party audience. No word yet from Latino voters.
Perry took more flak on this question, trying to defend signing a Texas law that allowed some illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. Perry inexplicably argued that it's a "states' right issue." Perry also inexplicably said that a 1200 mile border fence is not reality; more boots on the ground are needed. Huntsman made the most serious charge of the night, saying Perry's statement that we can't secure the border is "treasonous."
When asked if they would support cuts to military spending, Gingrich said we underestimate the threats to this country (presumably his answer is "no"). Paul said he'd slash military spending, not defense. Santorum charged Paul with saying the US was responsible for 9/11. Paul said it's "just not true" that the whole Muslim world is attacking us because we're free and prosperous. Muslims don't want American troops occupying their countries or like American support for Israel. The mixed boos and cheers from the audience reveals the deep Tea Party split on national security. Perry tried to have it both ways, saying we ought to bring our troops home from Afghanistan yet continue to have a presence there.
The one surprise question came from an Afghan woman immigrant who asked how we could secure the safety of Afghan women. The two candidates who were asked to answer, Huntsman and Perry, both said bring the troops home. There was no attempt at compassion at all. The Afghan women's vote is pretty small.
As for the "horse race" (who won, who lost), that's hard to predict. Each of the candidates drew cheers when they took extreme positions and some boos when they took moderate positions. (Huntsman drew very few, if any, cheers.) Perry was weak in more answers (illegal immigration and executive orders) than Romney was (Romneycare). Bachmann, Paul, Huntsman and Santorum tried to get into the game by attacking Perry and Romney whenever the opportunity arose. Gingrich and Cain must have been left frustrated by how little attention anyone paid to them. If the race is between Perry and Romney, then each of their weaknesses probably canceled each other out. If voters are willing to give any of the second tier candidates another look, then any of them might inch up in the polls at the expense of Perry and Romney. But any movement is likely to be small. It's still Perry's nomination to lose.
There was a lot of red meat offered to the Tea Party crowd. Candidates fought with each other over who would dismantle more of the 20th century. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will find himself far from the center in the general election. In that sense, Barack Obama probably was a winner tonight as well.