The latest Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Library has helped focus the race on three people. As predicted, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney tore chunks out of each other in their bitter battle for first place. Less predictable was the strong performance by Ron Paul. The other candidates faded into the background. Michele Bachmann was strangely silent and a couple of nobodies might bail after failing to get noticed. Now they’re just taking time away from what is shaping up to be an interesting battle of ideas.
The debate opened with fireworks as Romney and Perry laid into each other’s records. On the economy, Perry said, “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” – comparing Romney with the liberal former governor of Massachusetts (famous for not giving a damn about whether or not his wife was murdered). Romney shot back, “George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did.” The audience gasped and laughed and lapped it up. The Yankee gentility of past debates is gone now. Perry has injected some much needed Southern-style populism.
But the evening wasn’t all about bitchy ripostes. Perry worked hard to establish himself as the Tea Party maverick – and largely succeeded. When asked about his famous remark that Social Security was nothing but a “Ponzi scheme”, he not only stood by the metaphor but repeated it twice. Romney was rightly outraged. “You can’t say Social Security is a failure,” he insisted, because so many voters rely on it. Rather than scrapping the program altogether, Romney promised to fix it. When the debate moved to healthcare coverage, Romney stressed that his liberal Massachusetts experiment in mandated insurance was the product of political circumstance, but that he stood by the humane principle of trying to cover everyone. In contrast, when Perry was asked if he was ashamed that a quarter of all Texans have no healthcare, he implied that he most certainly was not. “I’ll tell you what the people in the state of Texas don’t want,” he said. “They don’t want a health care plan like what Governor Romney put in place in Massachusetts. What they would like to see is the federal government get out of their business.” He then launched an attack upon Medicaid. Perry clearly wants conservative votes, and he doesn’t care how many independents he has to offend to get them.
The difference in philosophy between the two men was reflected in their personalities. Romney stood erect and turned to listen to other candidates’ answers with a patrician grin. Perry smirked like George Bush. And when he ain’t talking, Rick Perry ain’t listening. Rick Santorum answered a question about healthcare and when Perry was asked to respond to him, Perry couldn’t recall his name (he called Santorum, “the last individual”). Perry constantly dropped his “g”s, to remind us that he’s from Texas. The budget would be brought under control by “cuttin’ and cappin’”, he said. His folksy brutality went down well. Perry got the applause of the night for a question on the death penalty. The anchor pointed out that Texas executes more people than any other US state – and before he could finish the question the audience started clapping. So that’s Texas for you: lowest in the nation for healthcare coverage, highest in the nation for executions. But it’s got jobs coming out of its ears, says Perry! And right now, that’s all that matters to most voters.