I had the pleasure of attending the South Carolina Presidential forum yesterday and I wanted to pass along a few thoughts on the proceedings. I also wanted to provide you with the details regarding my trip to Southwest Virginia this week.
[Note: Read down below my commentary to get event information for this Thursday, Friday and Saturday – thanks!]
For those of you that did not follow this forum – which is probably most of you given how under-covered it was – it was unique in several respects.
First of all, the questioners were not media personalities, instead, questions were asked by Senator Jim DeMint, Congressman Steve King, and Princeton Professor Robbie George (yes, there are a few conservative professors, even one at Princeton!). A local media personality moderated, but that basically meant that he enforced time limits and that’s it.
Second, the five candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul, and Romney) were taken one at a time, in alphabetical order, with the other four sequestered off-stage. Note that Rick Perry was not present – he headed back to Texas early in order to deal with the major wildfires currently spreading across his state.
Third, each candidate was on stage for 22 straight minutes. Don’t be confused below when I address the first question separately – each candidate came up in turn and stayed for the whole 22 minutes and then they were done.
Fourth, while they all knew the first question – something to the effect of “What are your thoughts on America’s first principles and what do you see as the proper role of the federal government?” – they were then subjected to 6 minutes of inquiry from each panelist in turn.
Finally, there were no stupid or “gotcha” questions from the panelists.
This format allowed for more depth, though not all the candidates always took advantage of it.
So, let’s start from the top: the first question.
Bachmann and Cain answered the best in my view, demonstrating an internalization of first principles that, frankly, I expect from these candidates. And they delivered.
Next came Romney and Paul. Romney was clearer on his points than Paul, while Paul demonstrated a passionate commitment to the importance of first principles in governance.
Video added by Kurt Feigel:
Gingrich didn’t really answer the question, though he touched on the principles in a more historical discussion. He really just used the time as a more traditional introductory statement.
In the questions with the panelists, things ran very smoothly. All the candidates were respectful of time limits and there was no argument with panelists, nor did any of the candidates say anything about any other candidates. A fact that I didn’t notice until later when I was reflecting back on the forum; however, it certainly took some combativeness and negativity out of what one might normally expect in a Presidential primary debate.
Okay, here’s my review of the candidates, and this is attempted to be done objectively, without trying to favor anyone in particular. I will walk through and comment on each, though I’ll immediately address the most controversial question in Bachmann’s section.
Bachmann presents well, though as a lawyer I continue to take exception with her unsupported statement that an individual mandate by a state (e.g., Massachusetts) would be unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. When asked where she drew her support for this proposition, she said it was “inherent” and didn’t explain further.
Mind you, I’m not a fan of mandates (I know that’s a surprise to you), and Bachmann is not alone in her view (Professor Randy Barnett holds the same view, but he has provided an argument for it beyond saying it’s “inherent”); however, I am one of those pesky lawyers that think you should be able to point to some basis in the constitution to say something is or is not constitutional. Absent that, the 10th amendment emphasizes that all other powers are left to the states and the people. Bachmann’s answer here would deny states a power that is not denied to them in the U.S. Constitution.
And yes, I’m at least a little picky about this subject.
A political concern I have here is that her conclusion isn’t so much a legal one, but is an over-the-top play for tea party support. Of course, she’s a natural for tea party support anyway, so I hope this isn’t the case. But if you can’t defend the position …?
Bachmann was quite emphatic about a more limited government, and had several near-term and specific economic proposals that are quite sensible. E.g., zero tax rate on the repatriated profits of U.S. companies that have earned money overseas (on which they already paid taxes overseas, fyi). She noted the $1.2 trillion sitting offshore that could be brought to America for investment very quickly. Remember that number when you’re listening to President Obama’s jobs speech Thursday night (another trillion for stimulus anyone?).
Bachmann, like Cain and Gingrich after her, agreed with Professor Robbie George’s controversial approach to getting by Roe v. Wade by supporting legislation under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment to provide equal protection to unborn persons. The bad part of his question was that he explicitly inquired whether each candidate was prepared for a showdown with the Supreme Court by using his proposed approach. I think these were unwise answers by these three candidates – even with what I think of the Roe v. Wade decision and judicial rewriting of the constitution in general – as it is an answer that can be easily characterized as irresponsible and disrespectful of another branch of government.
To be fair to all three candidates, I think they were trusting in Prof. George’s expertise to some degree (I seem to recall Bachmann making a statement that directly implied such reliance) and so they may have been suckered in a bit. So, okay, one “gotcha” question, but it was clearly not intended by the panelist as a “gotcha.”
Paul demonstrated his constitutional fluency in responding to Prof. George’s 14th amendment proposal, as he smoothly proposed an alternative that would achieve the same goal, that is to allow each state to address abortion without federal interference. Paul’s solution was to deny jurisdiction to the courts over the subject of abortion, thereby leaving each state to set its own laws on the subject. This approach got to the same place as the other candidates, but unquestionably within the existing constitutional framework and without provoking a constitutional confrontation with the Supreme Court.
Romney also declined to precipitate such a constitutional confrontation, turning instead to the notion that he would appoint judges that would be true to the constitution as it was written, not rewrite it himself.
As the questioning went on for Bachmann, she was less specific with her answers, but she continued to connect well with her audience. She had a very positive presence the whole time she was on stage.
Cain was his usual great speaker, and he laid out a specific and easy to remember tax program: “9-9-9″. 9% personal income tax rate. 9% corporate income tax rate. And a 9% national sales tax. Sort of a combination of the flat tax and the fair tax. Cain also said that the Fed should be reduced to one mission from two, implicitly though not explicitly saying the “full employment” mission of the Fed should be discarded and the Fed should only focus on fighting inflation. [Mark my words, by mid-March 2012, every GOP candidate will have stated that same position. Several of the others have already taken that position.]
Recall that Cain was one of the private sector “Governors” of the Fed at one time. I would note that Cain’s remarks struck me as being ‘protective’ of the Fed rather than aggressive with it, in stark contrast to Ron Paul.
Cain spoke confidently on economic matters and had a command of his subject, but was not too detailed once he got past 9-9-9 and reducing the Fed to a single mission.
Cain also injected humor into his remarks, which I and others around me appreciated, and he otherwise had a very commanding presence.
Gingrich was his usual idea machine, demonstrating (or at least giving the impression of) a command of a wide array of subjects. However, I couldn’t help noticing that from the moment he was walking out, he was very lackadaisical in his personal presentation. He was intellectually engaging but did not have the presence of either Bachmann or Cain before him, nor Romney after him.
Like Cain, Gingrich injected humor into his remarks, including self-deprecating humor, which I think is very good for someone running for President. He worked in Georgia and South Carolina football from this past weekend and tied it to his humor (reference to recovering from early fumbles…), and all of those were winners.
I was surrounded by folks who had the same impression I did, and that is that I’d like Gingrich to be a senior advisor, but not necessarily the President.
Ron Paul suffered from a similarly non-Presidential presentation as Gingrich, but he spoke knowledgeably about not only the Fed but the concept of “hard money.” I.e., hard money retains its value, soft money does not, and when the Fed prints money like crazy (QE1, QE2, and now perhaps QE3?), our money loses its value.
Paul put the Fed and hard money effectively into a broader context, almost pleading with the audience to ratchet up their opposition to what the Fed has been doing for years. He was very effective here. However, at other times he seemed almost frustrated as he spoke, again detracting from his presentation.
Paul was also specific about foreign policy, i.e., he’d bring all our troops home. Period. Beyond the policy aspect of this proposal, he noted the massive cost savings and cessation of subsidizing other countries (Germany was his example). This elicited the only “whoop” from the audience all day… seemed out of place in an otherwise genteel setting, but that’s a reminder of the enthusiasm of his supporters.
Paul had an interesting response regarding a balanced budget amendment. He said he wanted lots of other protections in a balanced budget amendment before he would support it. His main worry was that the budget would be balanced by raising taxes. Additionally, he said that spending limitations based on GDP weren’t particularly helpful as the government’s spending itself is part of the GDP and can be artificially inflated.
While I think he gave an extremely thoughtful answer, I personally think he’s putting too many conditions on the passage of a balanced budget amendment. But again, his answer was quite good, and if anything, I suspect on the whole more Republicans would be more supportive of him because of his thoughtful answer than would be turned off by his high standard to support of a balanced budget amendment.
Last of the evening was Romney, and after much reflection, I think he clearly outshined the other candidates, though not in all respects.
Romney was presidential as usual without being haughty, and he clearly explained in the most detail the rationale for repealing most but not all of Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley (a GOP creation), the federal health care bill (more on this in a moment), and moving toward privatization of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. He put his explanations in the context of the broader economy and demonstrated his understanding of just what each of these laws and institutions was doing to our economy.
He made statements of reserve that were quite appropriate, though rare and therefore somewhat courageous. An example would be that there were actually a few elements of Dodd-Frank that were needed, and Republicans shouldn’t give the impression that we’re against all regulations.
Any candidate should be able to make the point about some regulation, but Romney was the only one who did. My “courageous” comment comes from the fact that the GOP presidential primary electorate is solidly conservative and such comments tack away from the usual hyperbole we’re all used to hearing. It was part of the modestly higher level of discussion that took place throughout this unique forum.
All the candidates were asked “would your V.P. pick share your pro-life and traditional marriage views?” All but Romney did not hesitate to say “yes.” Romney moved in that direction, though he left himself some wiggle room and stumbled a bit as he was pushed on this question.
Romney dealt with the Massachusetts health care issue by emphasizing that what they were dealing with in Massachusetts was only the 8% of residents of that Commonwealth that were uninsured (they’re below 3% now). He contrasted that with the President’s attempt to address 100% of Americans and thereby effectively take over the whole health care market. This was a novel explanation, but for those of us that are concerned by his reluctance to admit ‘the error of his ways’ on this issue, it’s thin gruel. However, I can see how this approach may make it modestly more palatable for some Republicans.
All in all, Senator DeMint is to be commended for leading the effort to bring the Labor Day forum together. Congressman King did a great job as well, and Professor Robbie George did well too.
This was an opportunity for the candidates to shine and provide more depth than the media-run gotcha-debates, and to varying degrees they each took advantage of it. The quality of debate would be dramatically raised if such a long-form approach by fair-minded panelists was more widespread. Hopefully we’ll see more of such forums in the future.
This week’s trip to Southwest Virginia, I hope you can make one of these events!
Tomorrow I’m leaving on a swing through Central, Southside and Southwest Virginia. On this trip I’ll be attending a few events for local candidates, which I have listed below. I hope to see you there!
1. Dutch Treat Event with AG Cuccinelli
Thursday September 8th, 11:30am-1:00pm
The Sunnybrook Inn 7342 Plantation Road Roanoke VA, 24019
For details contact: Noah Wall at Noah@Cuccinelli.com
2. Event with Del. Bill Carrico, Candidate for Senate
Friday September 9th, 5:30-7:30PM
516 Republican Road, Jonesville, VA
For details contact: Stuart Higley at firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Event with Senator Bill Stanley
Saturday, September 10th, 9:00am
HOLI DAY INN EXPRESS JEFFERSON ROOM 2121 Riverside Drive, Danville, Va 24540
For details contact: Carli M. Nelson at email@example.com
4. Event with Del. Charles Poindexter
Saturday, September 10th, 1-3PM
W&W Produce, Inc. 16112 Jeb Stuart Hwy. Stuart VA 24171
For details contact: Noah Wall at Noah@Cuccinelli.com