Some observations and comments on the 10th (or is it the 12th) GOP Presidential Primary debate that took place on November 12th in South Carolina that was moderated by CBS News (Scott Pelley) and National Journal (Major Garrett).
Before I get into the specifics of the debate, the candidates, and the moderators, I'll start with an observation that I've made....but usually at the end of my posts on debates. I continue to be amazed and astounded that the GOP, and the GOP candidates continue to sign onto this style of debate (1 minute primary point, 30 second rebuttal) which is geared for nothing more than a media sound bite, hosted by media organizations that are antagonistic at best to the GOP and the policies of conservatism, and as ineptly moderated and hosted as done by CBS News. I'll touch on Scott Pelley's antics later, but the concept of a Saturday evening debate, with 60 minutes hosted on CBS, the balance of 30 minutes being generally available only online....and the epic fail to deliver that online presence taints the entire premise of this debate.
The other aspect that taints this debate, beyond the moderators, the rules, and the fail to host the debate online, comes from trying to shoe-horn a substantive topic into media friendly sound bite format. One of the lessons that needs to be learned is to move from these media friendly venues to Lincoln Douglas style debates with a far smaller collection of candidates.
Stepping down from the soapbox, let's look at the debate....
Rick Perry, in need of a very good debate performance, and one where he doesn't 'step in it', had just that performance. Not only was he effective in using self-depreciating humor to lessen the impact of the gaffe from the last debate, including some banter with moderator Scott Pelley, but he had some approval from the audience in his proposal to move foreign aid to be based on a 'zero base' budget - where the actions of a potential recipient had a significant effect on if and the size of the level of foreign aid from the US.
Both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney bought into this approach during their answers to questions regarding the use and size of US foreign aid. Surprisingly, the disagreement to Governor Perry's approach didn't come from Ron Paul, but from Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum.
Another area of foreign policy that gained a majority agreement was regarding the policy and approach towards China. In this discussion, looking at China's actions around foreign trade and in particular their disrespect towards intellectual property and saber rattling against Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, in addition to the United States, only Ron Paul and former US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman opposed a strong position. This matched their objections to the US, in the eyes of the other candidates, taking a strong position in opposition to the actions of Iran.
One of the most egregious areas of the debate, an area that raised the hackles on my neck, was not with the answers of the various candidates towards foreign policy decisions and positions. It was regarding not only the moderation of the debate, but in particular the direction of the questions from both Pelley and Garrett. In Quick Hits, I castigated Pelley for doing what Jim Cramer did in the CNBC moderated debate earlier this week - inserting himself into the debate to argue / debate one of the candidates. Well, as bad as I thought CNBC's team was, they were stellar compared to Pelley and Garrett. Who knows, maybe Major Garrett is trying to exorcise the demons from his tenure at Fox News, but as bad as he was, Pelley's antics reminded me of Dan Rather's efforts to derail Bush's 2004 reelection campaign using fake documents.
He was openly antagonistic towards the GOP candidates. The questions by Pelley and Garrett were interestingly focused towards areas designed to foster differentiation with the progressive / Obama policies and viewpoints as opposed to probe how and why the GOP candidates supported their positions. Many of the questions focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and 'torture'. The latter was specifically intended to create reams of reporting about the GOP candidates who endorse and support the use of 'torture' on terrorists.
While some of the discussion regarding China was both relevant and interesting, the format prevented any deep insight beyond a quick sound bite. Missing entirely were questions around one of the biggest foreign policy challenges that the US faces today - the issues of Europe and their financial crisis. I don't think Europe, Greece, Italy, the Euro were mentioned once by the moderators.
I do have to give the candidate kudos - despite the format and the moderators, they made this a far better debate that it should have been. A pseudo Lincoln Douglas debate would have been a huge hit...
With that, let's move onto the review of the candidates....
Ron Paul D
There might be some bias in my grade, as I have little respect for Paul's foreign policy that is a disturbing combination of Isolationism and America First (1940 flavor). For someone who proclaims a historical basis for his domestic and fiscal policies, he seems equally ignorant of using history as a basis for his foreign policies and direction. That said, he was consistent in his previous wrongness...
Michelle Bachmann C
Michelle didn't get many questions and was ignored on several efforts to try to rebut the statements of another candidate by Scott Pelley. After the debate, her camp accused CBS of ignoring her and keeping questions from her. The ones that they ask her, she answered pretty well. One in particular they tried to leverage her position on the House Intelligence Committee to try to get some 'scoop'. She didn't play - and answered well for most of the questions. I remain convinced that Bachmann
Jon Huntsman C+
While I disagree with many of Huntsman's positions (he strikes me as someone who is quite comfortable within the current mindset of State Department bureaucrats), he delivered a functional debate performance while demonstrating his experience within the State Department / Ambassadors. One of the challenges I have with this mindset is that those who are in the State Department or serve as our Ambassadors don't seem to understand that their primary role is to be advocates of the US - not advocates of others towards the US (that is the job of their ambassadors).
Herman Cain C+
One of Cain's weaknesses is in foreign policy. While many, including me, have strong opinions as to how the US should run it's foreign policy, Cain prefaced and used the need to consult with the 'experts' he would surround himself with to make many of the decisions he was being asked to opine on. What flashed to my mind was that Cain answered like a CEO looking for the input and options from his direct reports - but having little direct experience or values to help differentiate the options. I thought of paralysis via analysis taking place in a Cain White House as he tried to balance the interjections of all of the agencies and departments that have a say in defining our policy.
Rick Perry A-
There is quite a gap from the 2nd tier of debate participants to the first tier. Perry was a surprise primarily in the effect that after the CNBC debate, the bar was set very low. But Perry has some good ideas well articulated and reasoned towards foreign policy. Few other than conservatives will likely approve of Perry's answers, but he delivered them very well in his best debate performance thus far.
Mitt Romney A
Mitt, once again, was Presidential and delivered to his audience. No, not the CBS News / National Journal audience, but to the South Carolina / GOP audience that he needs for the primaries coming up in the Winter / Spring of 2012. I personally thought his answers on China were right on the mark...and hope it wasn't a case of telling the audience what they wanted to hear. I suspect the mainstream media would be hyperventilating over a Romney Presidency taking these policies vis a vis China - but delivering some reality to them would be refreshing.
Newt Gingrich A
Newt once again delivered a stellar, in my view, debate even with the limitations of the format and moderators. His 'education' of Scott Pelley regarding international law was as good as anyone could deliver...short of John Yoo or John Bolton on the subject of 'illegal enemy combatants' and what comprises 'torture'. I was hoping someone would bring up that we use waterboarding in our own training of our military forces (in escape and evasion courses). Newt was the college professor who wasn't indoctrinated or indoctrinating in the progressive viewpoint that many of us longed for. He also had the appearance of representing the 'common sense' approach to foreign policy that many conservatives subscribe to. I suspect that he will continue to move into the top tier and be a major 'anyone but Romney' alternative.
CBS News Scott Pelley / National Journal C-
CBS and Scott Pelley earned, in my viewpoint, an D-. You don't take a 90 minute debate and make 60 minutes over the network for most of the country and then 30 minutes streamed...and then fail on the streaming. Your moderator, like a good news reported, does not insert themselves into the story or make themselves the story as Pelley did by arguing with the answers given. CNBC's Jim Cramer did this earlier in the week - but he wasn't the main moderator. Pelley did little to promote his network as anything other than the same failed history of Cronkite, Rather, Couric, and now Pelley. The only thing that kept this from being a D or lower was Major Garrett. He asked some good questions. If nothing else, he proved that FNC didn't always hire just those who embrace conservative politics.