by Joe Shea
September 7, 2011
THE NEW HAND
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 7, 2011, 10:38pm ET -- Americans watching the MSNBC GOP presidential candidate debate tonight could not have been very encouraged about their future under any of the seven men and one woman seeking election to the White House in 2012. They left it largely to the White House to come up with a specific plan for American jobs.
What might have been encouraging was that with few exceptions - an exchange between Ron Paul and Rick Perry on letters each had written, or between Perry and Mitt Romney over achievements in the states they served as governor - the candidates didn't spend a lot of time attacking each other.
There was certainly no clear winner, but there did seem to be come "gainers" - John Huntsman seemed much stronger and more appealing, Mitt Romney was completely unruffled, and Newt Gingrich's bombast more often than not hit the mark - and it appeared that Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Godfather Pizza entrepreneur Herman Cain either did not change their status or lost a little ground.
Cain's 9-9-9 plan for a flat 9 percent tax on individuals and corporations and a nine percent national sales tax gained no traction among other candidates Wednesday night, although the idea of a flat tax has had low but consistent support for years.
"If God gets 10 percent," said Cain, referring to a 10 percent tithe many Christians offer on Sundays, "nine percent ought to be good enough for the federal government," he quipped.
Probably the most important thing about the debate was that Romney was boosted by intemperate comments about Social Security by Perry, who said "It is a monstrous lie; it is a Ponzi scheme" and against Americans under 30.
The two also wrangled over jobs and job claims. Perry claimed Texas had created a million jobs during his terms while the nation lost 2.5 million. Critics have said that many were low-paying jobs.
Romney tried to top that.
"At the end of four years, we had our unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent. That's a record I think the President would like to see. As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in Massachusetts than this President has created in the entire country," Romney said.
But Perry noted, "As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts." In another jab jat Romney, Perry said jobs grew three times faster under Romney's predecessor in Massachusetts, Gov. Michael Dukakis.
"Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor," Romney shot back.
"That's not correct," Perry snapped back.
"Yeah, that is correct," said Romney, grinning.
"That's not correct," said Perry, getting the last word in the exchange.
Political fact-checkers at the Associated Press said the record shows Romney was correct about Bush and former Gov. Ann Richards, and that Perry was correct about Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988.
Romney released a comprehensive jobs plan on Tuesday, but it's unclear if anyone's read it. He said the plan would cut corporate taxes by 30 percent, reduce unemployment to 4 percent and create 11 million jobs.
The closest to a vital wound was delivered by Rep. Ron Paul against his fellow Texan, Gov. Perry, with a scathing indictment of his executive order to require all 12-year-old girls to get vaccinated against human papilloma virus (unless parents objected). Paul seemed more concerned over the fact that it was not a measure ever considered by the legislature, which revolted once it was signed and voted by a very large majority to stop it.
"Should we have talked to the legislature first?" he asked rhetorically. "Probably so," he answered.
Paul had also pointed out that Perry had "written a rerally fancy letter" during the Clinton Administration endorsing "Hillarycare," the national health care plan proposed by Hillary Clinton and Democrats.
Perry shot back as soon as he got the chance that Rep. Paul had written to President Ronald Regan, in whose hushed library the debate was held, threatening to quit the party. Paul defended himself by noting that while Reagan had done some some wonderful things the nation also suffered huge deficits under him. "It wasn't all that great," he said as Reagan's elderly wife, Nancy, listened in the audience.
"Funny thing about the mail," Brian Williams said. "It tends to live on forever." The profoundly endangered U.S. Postal Service, which was in the news this week after it said it may have to shut down by next August if it doesn't receive help, was otherwise unmentioned during the debate.
"It is a Ponzi scheme," Perry said in the most-quoted remark, and added that "it is a monstrous lie" that young people between 25 and 30 now paying into it will get their money back when they retire.
"Our nominee has to be not someone who is committed to abolishing Social Security, but someone who is committed to saving it," said Romney.
Perry has jumped to the front of the pack with a healthy lead in polls since entering the race just after the Iowa straw poll, and Romney tonight - with a measure of success - and other candidates sought to block his rise.
But Perry won strong applause with his defense of killing 234 people in Texas following death penalty convictions. Asked if he ever lost sleep over whether he might have sent an innocent man to die, he replied to moderator Brian Williams of NBC, "No, sir. I never struggled with that."
Newt Gingrich remained a potent dark horse, at least on the debate stage. While Perry largely relied on strong rhetoric, Gingrich once again proved that he could be incisive and analytical in basic terms and won heavy applause at least twice. He may also have scored point with Republican voters when he shot back at Williams, who had asked him to contrast certain positions of his with those of the other candidates and, turning apparent anger on the media, said, "I'm frankly not interested in your getting Republicans to fight one another."
Gingrich certainly made the best claims to job creation and budget-cutting, saying "When I was Speaker [of the House of Representatives, from 1994 to 1998], we created 11 million jobs … We balanced the budget for four straight years."
Answering another question from Brian Williams, he explained that when he wrote in an introduction to Gov. Perry's autobiography that said Perry was "uniquely qualified" to make opine about the economy, he was speaking of Perry as someone writing a book, not a "presidential manifesto."
"If he wants to write another book, I'll write another foreword," Gingrich deadpanned, bringing the house down.
On health care, the target was Romney, who defended his record on creating a universal health care system for Massachusetts. Perry, a moderator pointed out, is governor of a state that leaves a quarter of its legal residents uninsured.
"They don't want a health care plan like Gov. Romney put in place in Massachusetts," Perry said. "… They want to get the federal government out of their [health care] business."
Huntsman, who has not stood out at other debates, seemed more aggressive and upbeat tonight. His face appeared to be more filled out, where it had recently seemed narrow and somewhat drawn. Tonight, well-tanned, with silvery hair, he looked like some familiar movie star, not unlike some in the audience who had come to the debate from nearby Hollywood.
Huntsman, asked to point out those candidates who had embarrassed the Republican party with outré comments, reluctantly scored against Rick Santorum when he suggested that a nation where creationism was taught in the schools could not succeed in a world where science and technology are paramount. Santorum later defended his moderately pro-creationism views in an after-debate with MSNBC's "Hardball" host, Chris Matthews.
Tonight's debate was not the most quarrelsome nor the most spirited of the GOP race thus far, and did not greatly deepen the cracks between camps in the race. It did add another upraised hand to the seven that lifted in Iowa during a CNN debate to say they would reject a debt-ceiling plan that cut $10 for every dollar it raised through new taxes.
The new hand, of course, belonged to Rick Perry, proving that the entire field has little taste for deals - even good ones. Like a wrangler on an old-fashioned ranch, he spoke plainly, particularly about Social Security, but he may have scared away the herd. The great cowboy whose spirit suffuses the Reagan library would have warned the new hand against that.
AR Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea has covered many presidential debates, most recently in Las Vegas, South Carolina and St. Petersburg.