Monday, September 12, 2011

Style and strategy in tonight's Republican debate

I thought I'd share a few thoughts on tonight's Republican debate while it's fresh in my mind. Since I am not a Republican myself, I figured I'd focus on their style and strategy rather than on the issues. (This post came out way longer than I meant it to... sorry about that.)

Rick Perry was doing a decent job trading blows with Romney at first, but he seemed to flounder a bit as the debate went on. It's clear that he's much more comfortable being on the offensive (e.g. attacking Romney on his jobs record) than when he is placed on the defensive, as he was in this debate with the HPV vaccination he mandated as well as his views on immigration. He performed much better in the last debate because it focused much more on jobs and it was easier for him to go on the offensive; the one really uncomfortable moment for him in that debate was when Huntsman attacked him on climate science (during which he delivered his bizarre Galileo metaphor). The other candidates seem to have picked up on this and I'd expect them to continue to hammer him on immigration and other issues in the future.

Romney has, I think, come up with a passable narrative to explain away Perry's job-creation record. For those who didn't watch, he argued that Perry's success comes from being the governor of a right-to-work state with a Republican legislature, abundant oil reserves, and other resources; Romney, on the other hand, is from a blue state that lacks these economic advantages. In the best (i.e. only) memorable metaphor of the night, he pointed out that being dealt four aces doesn't make you a good poker player. Whether you think this narrative is true is up to you, of course, but it feels like a decent story, and Romney came out of his exchanges with Perry looking quite good. However, his performance in the rest of the debate was less memorable.

Bachmann was served a total softball question on Social Security as the debate opener, and frankly I was quite surprised that she didn't use it as a platform to attack Perry. The position of the firebrand is one that clearly comes naturally to her, and it was strange to see her being so passive. However, as the debate wore on, the Bachmann we all know and love did eventually build up some steam, and she started going after the other candidates more aggressively. This is good for her; she needs to take some big risks and really put herself out there, particularly against Perry, in order to have any hope of getting back the voters that Perry's entrance stole from her. (She also managed to shoehorn repealing Obamacare into nearly every answer she made, which I thought was impressive.)

Huntsman is always well-spoken and articulate, and I thought he did a good job of putting out his views in terms of style and rhetoric, but the audience just didn't seem to be buying what he had to sell. In a night where the audience was very generous with its applause, Huntsman got virtually none of it and was even booed at one point. This might have something to do with the fact that this debate was sponsored by the Tea Party Express; Huntsman's views are well to the left of that group. But if he can't appeal to the Tea Party at all, does he really have any hope of winning this primary?

I'm still a bit confused as to what Newt Gingrich's game is; in both this debate and the previous one, he positioned himself as a peacemaker, but I don't see how he expects to gain support if he doesn't differentiate himself from the pack somehow. Santorum is always eager to attack the other candidates, but he doesn't have Perry's charisma or Bachmann's sheer fire, and so he always seems to fall a bit flat. He also gets baited rather easily and doesn't pick his battles very well; what on earth is the point of getting drawn into an extended argument with a relatively fringe candidate like Ron Paul?

As for Paul, he always comes off as a bit clumsy with his words and has a tendency to go off on strange tangents. In what universe does it seem like a good idea to go into al-Qaeda's motives for the 9/11 attacks during a 30-second rebuttal? His anti-big government rallying might be hugely popular in this political climate, but his other positions are what get him into trouble; in this debate, the audience clearly took issue with his isolationist positions (and this was a debate in which urging a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan drew cheers!)

Finally, Herman Cain has a nice voice but completely failed to make any lasting impression on me, just as in the last debate.

So: did anyone else watch? What did you guys think?

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