The Presidential Debate
December 26, 2011
Dear Fellow Virginians and Friends,
While I’m taking a break for Christmas, given that the Iowa caucuses are so close, I thought it would be a good time to jot down some reflections on the Presidential debate I had the privilege to be part of earlier this month.
Also, you’ve probably heard by now that only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul qualified to be on Virginia’s Presidential primary ballot on March 6th. I’ll address this very unfortunate circumstance toward the end of this Compass.
Three weeks ago, while many of you were at the Republican Advance, I was in New York participating in a Presidential debate on FOX as one of the three questioners with Mike Huckabee as moderator. While I was very sorry not to be able to attend the Advance, the presidential debate was a spectacular experience, and a successful one.
When even the New York Times writes that our debate was the most substantive debate so far, you know you’ve achieved something, given how much they like us Republicans!
The format was not really a debate, it was more of a forum. The candidates were up one at a time for 11 straight minutes with no other candidates on stage with them.
Each of them could watch the show live, so they each saw one another on stage. That meant we had to come up with different questions for each candidate. Those of you who watched would have noticed very little overlap in questions. The only exception to this rule was our ‘quickie’ questions sometimes used at the end of a candidate’s time slot.
For example, if they still had 20 seconds of their 11 minutes, we might ask them who their favorite founding father was (no coke vs. pepsi questions). Gingrich said George Washington, Perry said Madison. Two good Virginia answers.
Giving all the candidates the same amount of time had only been done once before that I know of, and that was during the South Carolina forum I attended on Labor Day. Senator DeMint, Congressman King, and Professor George were the questioners at that event where each candidate had 22 minutes. That forum was my own model during our discussions about how to structure our debate. I hope this type of forum will be used more frequently in the future as it is an excellent way to give voters a great deal of information about candidates in a short amount of time. It’s also a way that our candidates can shine, rather than be torn down by questioners from MSNBC, The Washington Post, etc., all of whom want the GOP candidate to lose anyway.
The debate prior to ours was a foreign policy debate on CBS, and Congressman Paul got a grand total of 89 seconds. Why should he have even bothered to show up? And how rude is it of CBS to invite him to come and then ask him almost nothing?
I understand the logic of spending more time with frontrunners, however, I found that the time with non-frontrunners provided a helpful perspective when thinking about whether I wanted either of the frontrunners as my nominee. In other words, there was great value to equal time… not to mention it was fair, which doesn’t hurt either!
The order of candidates was drawn at 4 p.m. for the 8 p.m. debate, and it went Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, Bachmann, Paul, then Romney. Afterwards, they each had one minute for a closing statement.
As I mentioned, Governor Huckabee was the moderator and he’s such a nice, down to earth person, he did a great job making all participants comfortable while still moving things along.
The two other questioners were the Attorneys General of Oklahoma and Florida, Scott Pruitt and Pam Bondi respectively.
The entire debate can be seen without commercials by clicking here.
We focused on federalism, the Constitution and executive power. As Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in the wrap-up comments at the close of the show, we talked more about the Constitution in that one debate than all the previous debates combined! I think she was quite right.
So, if you are one of those that lament the lack of constitutional discussion, this was the debate for you!
I found it interesting that in all the post-debate punditry, no one asked me who did the best. The answer might surprise you.
I thought that Rick Santorum did the best, and he came across as friendly and nice while doing it (he’s been dinged for appearing sour in other debates).
Separately, Rick Perry had his best performance so far. And while even he would acknowledge he’s not a champion debater, it was good to see him do well.
I thought both frontrunners – Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney – underperformed, at least relative to the high expectations people have developed of both of them.
For my own questions, I pressed Gingrich on how he would filter out his many big-government ideas. He basically responded that he wouldn’t filter them out. I got the sense that he thinks every idea he has is a great one, yet his history makes clear that such is not the case. For example, did you know he wanted to get rid of the work requirement in welfare reform in the 90’s?
He referred to the work requirement in welfare reform as, are you ready for this? “Right wing social engineering.” Sound familiar?
During our debate, I was trying to get some confidence that a President Gingrich wouldn’t use government to pursue every idea he had. I got no such confidence. Actually, quite the opposite. He came across as another big-government conservative… whatever that is.
It will probably shock all of you to know that I asked Mitt Romney about his 2006 Massachusetts health care bill. (That’s a joke for our newer subscribers)
Romney conceded that it had driven costs up in Massachusetts and that he had not foreseen what the Massachusetts legislature would do with the law later (Really? Is it really hard to foresee the Massachusetts legislature running hog wild with a new entitlement/mandate?).
However, a more subtle aspect of my back-and-forth with Governor Romney related to comparisons between the 2006 Massachusetts health care law and the 2010 federal health care law. Most people did not pick up on the significance of how Romney positioned his 2006 health care law vis-à-vis the 2010 federal health care law.
Romney basically took the position that the Massachusetts law was good, but the federal law was bad. His rationale was very surprising, it was that President Obama ‘went too far’ with the federal law.
Think about that.
Let’s retain the logic, but restate it.
The 2010 federal health care law was a bad law, but the 2006 Massachusetts law did less of the same thing, so it was a good law.
When he made his statements, I was struck by what a proudly ‘democrat light’ position it was.
As someone who tries very hard to campaign and govern as consistently as possible with a constitutional conservative philosophy, the philosophical argument Romney made is a non sequitur. It doesn’t make sense to me to say pursuing a state takeover of health insurance is a good thing, but pursuing a national takeover of health insurance with a few more bells and whistles is a bad thing.
As you can tell, I didn’t think that either Gingrich or Romney did particularly well. Mind you, they both come across well, neither did badly, but neither of them met expectations.
Another interesting element was Congressman Paul’s discussion of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. He takes the position that these programs are unconstitutional, and that the Supreme Court has been wrong in concluding otherwise. So I asked him if he’d sign a budget that provided funding for these programs that he believes are unconstitutional.
Somewhat to my surprise he said “yes.” To clarify, I restated part of my question to get more explanation from him. Interestingly, he basically said, ‘look, these things have been around a long time, and even though they’re unconstitutional, we’d have to work our way out of them, as cutting them off cold turkey would be too disruptive to too many people.’
Given the fact that Ron Paul is the standard for consistency in the race, one expects to hear him say ‘it’s unconstitutional, so we need to end it tomorrow.’ But he took a very practical approach, something that I don’t think some Republicans want to credit him with being able (willing?) to do.
Given his view of the constitutionality of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, his forward-looking explanation seemed very reasonable in accounting for all of the impacts that governance consistent with his views would entail.
Participating in the debate was a great experience. I got to know Scott Pruitt, Pam Bondi and their staffs better as we worked together to prepare. I also got to spend some more time with Gov. Huckabee, who is just such a pleasure to work with. And I also got to work with a bunch of the folks at FOX, producers, the “brain room,” etc. who were just great to work with and from whom I learned a lot. Finally, I came away with positive impressions of all of our candidates.
There are definitely some good people in this race, but I can’t help hoping that a new conservative candidate gets in the race. Given the schedule, it’s entirely plausible. For a good article on this possibility, check out Virginia’s own Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
A Note On The Virginia Ballot
As I noted above, it now appears that the only two candidates that will be on Virginia’s ballot on March 6th: Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Ron Paul. While I’m glad for them, it screams out for making our ballot more accessible.
I have had the opportunity to talk to a number of the candidates and their campaigns in the last month or so, and the Bachmann folks tell me that Virginia is the third hardest ballot access state in the country. I personally don’t think that’s a good thing.
To get on the ballot, a presidential candidate has to collect 10,000 legitimate signatures across Virginia – county by county and city by city – with at least 400 legitimate signatures in each congressional district. Virginia’s State Board of Elections recommends that campaigns come in with over 15,000 signatures, including over 700 from each congressional district given what a high proportion of signatures typically fail some requirement or another.
I would throw out for consideration that we should lower our requirements to 100 legitimate signatures per congressional district.
Let’s face it, absent a serious write-in challenge from some other candidate, Virginia won’t be nearly as ‘fought over’ as it should be in the midst of such a wide open nomination contest. Our own laws have reduced our relevance. Sad.
I hope our new GOP majorities will fix this problem so that neither party confronts it again. I for one would like Virginia to be heard from in our nomination process, and I’m sure you would too.
Hanukkah began last Tuesday at sundown, so Happy Hanukkah to all of our Jewish readers, and I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas yesterday!
Ken Cuccinelli, II
Attorney General of Virginia