Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Anna Sale, It's A Free Country political reporter, offered her quick take on last night's first debate of the 2012 election season. She was joined by Charles (Chuck) Dunn, professor of government at Regent University and Reihan Salam, National Review Online domestic policy reporter.
The debate drew almost as much attention for the no-shows as it did the attendees. What do Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson and Tim Pawlenty have in common? They're not Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump...
But according to Anna Sale, the ones who didn't come were still impossible to ignore, highlighting just how muddled this race has gotten.
They skipped the event in person, but they were certainly there on stage. There was a line of questions where the candidates who were there were asked about the candidates who weren't; it definitely showed me that it felt like this debate was a little early, that the field was still a little too fuzzy and it's not clear what the issues are going to be...Mitt Romney had a presence there, and because he wasn't there it makes him look less desperate for the name recognition, for the camera time, and even more, I think, firms up his position as the forerunner.
One of the most spirited audience responses was to Ron Paul's equally spirited call for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan now that Osama bin Laden is dead. For a party that's usually perceived as hawkish, the rousing applause for that sentiment may have been surprising to some. But Reihan Salan said that this position is actually more a return to form for conservatives than the last decade has suggested.
With regard to the broader Tea Party, what you have to keep in mind is that grassroots conservatives have a nationalist bent and many embrace nation-building primarily because Bush embraced nation-building, and the idea was this is how we defeat our enemies. It wasn't intrinsic support for the idea; the natural impulse is to oppose it and to believe that foreign policy should be about killing our enemies first and foremost, rather than building democracy in other countries.
During the debate, Rick Santorum slammed fellow hopeful Mitch Daniels for suggesting the Republican candidates call a "truce" on social issues during this election. Daniels' argument is that the GOP should let them take a backseat to fiscal matters like deficit reduction, but Santorum scoffed at the notion that one had to be sacrificed for the other.
Salan said that social issues in general will be tricky for Republicans to navigate, as it will be hard for each to distinguish their views—some of which are falling out of line with public opinion.
Abortion is going to be an issue where even the most moderate candidate is pro-life. When you're looking at gay marriage and gay rights, I think you're going to see that fade as an issue markedly, relative to where it had been in 2004 and 2008, in large part because primary voters, like the country as a whole, have moved on those issues to some degree.
That the debate took place in South Carolina was significant, Dunn said, because good answers geared toward local issues will have positive ripple effects for candidates throughout the primaries. Pawlenty gave one such response about the National Labor Relations Board and their "preposterous" complaint about a Boeing plant (and, therefore, jobs) coming to the state. Dunn called that a smart play.
South Carolina is the gateway to the South. It's number three: Iowa, New Hampshire, then South Carolina. It's exceedingly important because of the large share of delegate strength from the South at the Republican National Convention, then because the largest single bloc of electoral college votes is from South, of any region in the country. In the South, where there are so many right-to-work states, Pawlenty scored, and thus I would say that while there wasn't as much discussion of the overall jobs issue, when it did come up, he was the winner.
Chuck Dunn pointed out that whoever did the best job of channeling Ronald Reagan would lead the pack of GOP hopefuls, saying that the "Regan gold standard" is what resonates most with Republican voters and Americans at large. In fact, Dunn's biggest complaint about last night's debate is that no candidate stepped up and claimed the Reagan mantle explicitly.
But one candidate did a mighty fine Gipper last night, even if he didn't say that's what he was doing. Dunn lauded Tim Pawlenty, again, for his measured questioning of President Obama's stance on enhanced interrogation techniques, now that Osama bin Laden has been found and killed.
First, he took the high road with regard to President Obama and the killing of the worst terrorist we've seen in modern history. Then he laid out his differences with President Obama; that's precisely the way Reagan would have gone about it, so I give him high marks for what he did.
Dunn went even further with praise for Pawlenty later in the conversation. The consensus among all three commentators was that the former Minnesota came out looking sharpest of the runners on stage last night, and could be dangerous to the bigger name no-shows.
He's the most important sleeper in the race. He has good ties to all segments of conservatives and in the Republican party. He's bright, he's articulate, he doesn't have foot-in-mouth disease; last night he handled the most difficult questions, and he did it well. Pawlenty, who does have presidential presence, will begin to rise.