Foreign-policy debate gives GOP voters a tough choice

CNN hosted another Republican debate last night, partnering this time with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute to focus almost exclusively on foreign policy.  Unlike a few past forums, the candidates all did a credible job in presenting their ideas; no one had a campaign-killing gaffe or got knocked visibly off their stride.  The two-hour discussion reflected well on all participants, including Wolf Blitzer, who did well in allowing the candidates to give their answers and draw out specifics rather than lecture them.

For myself, I actually watched the debate on tape delay, as I had to be out of the house when the debate started, but I was able to follow the Twitter feed while it unfolded in real time.  That gave me an idea of the answers to to watch carefully, and some of the interplay between the candidates, but I found myself thinking that even the responses that drew harsh criticism from Twitter followers were not all that bad.  I’ll run down how I believe each candidate did, trying to stay more or less in polling order:

  • Newt Gingrich — As usual, he had a masterful debate — but he opened a can of worms with his immigration answer, and deliberately, it seems.  His answer, which argued for a nuanced approach to normalization, won’t win him kudos from conservatives, but appears more like Gingrich lining up his general-election pitch.  He has to get there first before he needs to polish that pitch, although he may get some credit from voters for not pandering on the topic.  On other topics, though, Gingrich shined, especially when he schooled Ron Paul on the difference between crime and war.  The line “Timothy McVeigh succeeded” may look odd out of context, but when viewed in the context of the debate was devastating to Paul’s standing on national security.
  • Mitt Romney — Romney never has a bad debate, and once again he was very good.  He and Jon Huntsman went toe to toe on Afghanistan, and Romney made Huntsman look peevish while making himself look more hawkish than usual.  His best moment probably came when defending the notion of American exceptionalism, a topic which oddly didn’t come up much in a Republican debate on foreign policy.
  • Herman Cain — Other than mistakenly calling Wolf Blitzer “Blitz” in an early response, for which he apologized (Blitzer called him “Cain” as a good-natured riposte), Cain didn’t make any gaffes.  He didn’t allow the foreign-policy issues to faze him, and even got specific in a couple of his responses.  Overall, though, Cain offered too many vague references to “options” and didn’t demonstrate that he had a convincing grasp of the issues.  I don’t think this performance hurts Cain, but it’s unlikely to help him, either.
  • Ron Paul — It’s easy to poke fun at Paul’s foreign-policy approach, but you know what you get with Paul on foreign policy.  Unlike other debates, Paul mostly avoided sounding like a crank, but he started off badly in that exchange with Gingrich.   Paul did better when he tied American foreign policy to the budget crisis.  He made a very good point about foreign aid being a transfer from “poor Americans” to wealthy dictators in most cases, rather than actually helping alleviate poverty and suffering.
  • Rick Perry — This was his best debate in the cycle. He stayed calm, focused, energetic, and mostly articulate throughout the evening.  His best moment came in the follow-up to Gingrich on immigration when he refocused the debate back to border control, and he had another good response when contrasting his hands-on efforts in Texas budgets to Obama’s absentee stewardship in the supercommittee failure.  Dana Loesch tweeted afterward that if this Rick Perry had shown up and stayed from the first debate forward, he’d be walking away with the nomination.  She’s probably right, but even though this was a pretty good debate for Perry, I don’t see it as a game changer.  A few more and a stumble by Gingrich, and Perry could get an opening.
  • Michele Bachmann — This was probably her best debate of the cycle as well.  Bachmann gave a tremendously nuanced and expert answer on aid to Pakistan, including the line that Pakistan is “too nuclear to fail.”  She demonstrated that she has paid attention during her time on the House Intelligence Committee.  Bachmann avoided the hyperbole (although she indulged it a bit in the post-debate spin in attacking Gingrich on immigration), and she looked, well, statesmanlike.  Imagine where she might have been had it not been for the Government Needle That Violates Our Daughters debacle of the late summer.
  • Rick Santorum — This debate also gave Santorum a chance to demonstrate his own foreign-policy and national-security chops, and he tried to make the most of it.  His statement, “I agree with Ron Paul,” will be memorable, as will what followed when he unequivocally stated that we are not at war with terrorism but with radical Islamist extremists.  Santorum avoided the complaining tone he has taken with other moderators and came across substantially better for it.
  • Jon Huntsman — We saw a lot of Jon Hunstman last night, but will we recall anything other than his crabby rejoinder to Romney on Afghanistan, “Did you listen to what I just said?”  Thankfully, Huntsman quit trying to offer one-liners, but otherwise had nothing terribly interesting or novel to say, other than his plan to draw US forces in Afghanistan down to 10-15,000 troops.  I’m not sure what mission that force level would accomplish, and Huntsman didn’t explain it well, either.

Who won?  I don’t think this debate had a clear winner.  I believe that Gingrich and Romney did particularly well, and as the frontrunners (for the moment), that strengthens their grip on the polls.  Gingrich may have left his competitors an opening for an attack, but I don’t think Gingrich will get outscored by Romney on the topic of immigration, and I doubt Bachmann has enough pull left in this race to win over any new converts.

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