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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Base Debate

The signature moment of last night’s CNN/Tea Party Express Republican presidential candidates’ debate was the response to Wolf Blitzer’s hypothetical question about health coverage for a 30-year-old man needing life-saving surgery: would you just let him die? Before any candidate could answer, quite a few voices in the audience shouted “Yes!” None of the candidates bothered to rebuke them. The John Galt faction of the Tea Party Movement was in the house.
The most remarkable thing about the content of the debate was the complete absence of a single suggestion of anything positive government could do to improve the lives of Americans. Tax cuts and deregulation, general or specific, were the answer to every conceivable problem. At one point, Herman Cain seemed to be saying that energy company executives should control a commission to oversee EPA. Rick Perry avidly agreed, and that was the “centrist” position, since the crowd was far more pleased with Ron Paul’s call for abolition of the agency (along with several Cabinet departments) altogether.
As you know if you watched the debate or read about it, the main dynamic of candidate interaction last night was the pounding Rick Perry took on Social Security, immigration, and his abortive effort to mandate a HPV vaccination for Texas school girls. He did not, in my judgment, handle any of it particularly well, and was especially hesitant and unconvincingly repetitive in his defense of the Texas version of the DREAM Act, to the great annoyance of the Tea Party audience. If the idea was to speak past the live audience to Latinos or to the general electorate, he failed to pull it off, instead looking like a chastened little boy stubbornly sticking to a lie. As Paul Begala noted on CNN, Michele Bachmann crossed an important line in suggesting corporate cronyism in Perry’s HPV initiative (his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company manufacturing the vaccine); it’s one thing to accuse a fellow-Republican of heresy, and another altogether to call him corrupt.
There was brief coverage by CNN of Perry after the debate addressing supporters from the audience, and he was back in the groove, swaggering around and shouting denunciations of Obama and bureaucrats. Given the utter predictability of the attacks he sustained, and the likelihood he was rehearsed on all of them, you have to say he’s not off to a good start as a presidential debater. If there was any surprise from Perry, it was probably his categorical statement that it was time to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan (a position hard to imagine given the obsession with support for the “Iraq surge” among Republicans during the last presidential cycle). Romney was not asked about Afghanistan, but this could emerge as a point of contrast down the road.
All in all, the debate provided a stark contrast of the primary and general electorates. Every time these candidates spend time on national television competing to appeal to the former, their freedom to maneuver once it’s time to focus on the latter is gradually constricted. Democrats should hope for as many of these events as the calendar will allow.

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