Recapping the GOP Debate with Reihan Salam

Thursday, September 08, 2011

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, Reihan Salam, columnist at The Daily and blogger for National Review Online's "The Agenda," discusses last night's Republican debate. 

The gloves certainly came off at the Republican presidential primary debate last night.  Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas governor Rick Perry were quick to trade insults.

Reihan Salam said the back and forth between candidates is unlikely to win anyone any new votes. 

What really matters is what you convey. Do you convey a sense of command? And Rick Perry did. There is something he did throughout the debate—he was very aggressive. He kept going after not only Romney but also Ron Paul and a host of other candidates, and I think that that’s something that is going to translate.

Perry’s attack on Paul seems less likely to be motivated out of any concern that Paul might win the nomination, and instead more of an attempt to try to win votes from Paul’s supporters. Salam said that though Paul was largely dismissed as a fringe candidate, many of the themes that Paul raised in the past are now central to internal Republican debates.

He’s now ahead of Michele Bachmann in the polls, and that is a sign of that enduring grass roots constituency that he has.

An essential contrast between Perry and other Republican contenders is that Perry said in the debate that Social Security is a “monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme,” that he will work to eliminate. Salam was impressed that Mitt Romney engaged with Perry about it.

Voters care about this. Republican primary voters are actually skewed older than the general electorate.

In 2005 President Bush ran into problems with Republicans over Social Security. Salam thinks that Medicare is more the problem than Social Security, and that Perry, too, will eventually pay for his remarks with the general electorate.

You really need to draw out these contrasts for voters to get a sense of what these candidates really believe.

Salam pointed out that Perry has already back-tracked from claims he made in his book, Fed Up!. Now he says he never claimed he would abolish these programs.

If you’re not going to abolish them, why call them ‘a monstrous lie’? I think that’s all about projecting a certain very tough image, rather than giving specific and detailed proposals about what you want to do.

Perry stuck to his guns regarding his position that human activity does not cause global warming, which led him to a back and forth with John Huntsman. Huntsman referred to politicians making comments “that don’t reflect the reality of the situation and that turn people off."

Salam believes that Huntsman had the shrewder strategy. The former ambassador made the case that whether or not one agrees that global warming exists, the majority of Americans now believe the science, so the smarter step is to focus on the policy response. Perry, on the other hand, seemed unable to move beyond his denial.

I definitely think that he is dismissive not only of scientific consensus, but I think that part of his political brand is the idea that he is dismissive of elite opinion in all kinds of different areas.

Another issue that came up during the debate was Perry’s decision as governor that all twelve year old girls be given a vaccine for the HPV (human papillomavirus). The disease has a high association with cancer later in life, but Perry faced a lot of pressure from social conservatives, opposed both to state mandates and health measures to protect girls of that age from a sexually-transmitted disease; and from public health advocates, who worried that the vaccine is too new and untested.

What he projected in the debate was, I’m against cancer. I’m going to save lives…. And he didn’t shy away from it, and I thought that that… demonstrates something about his mettle that appeals to a lot of voters.

Perry did backtrack enough to include a parental opt-out, but that wasn’t enough for conservative Rick Santorum, who said he’d prefer an opt-in.

Salam said a lot of votes will just come down to personal appeal rather than positions on the issues.

Who does this person remind me of? Does this person look, talk, and sound and have the demeanor of a real conservative? And I think that’s one reason why, when Perry takes a position that doesn’t seem solidly conservative, people don’t really take it in… whereas when Romney takes positions that aren’t,  it fits this broader narrative that he’s a squish – that he’s a moderate.

The other six candidates besides Perry and Romney didn’t make much of a splash. Salam said Newt Gingrich, who didn’t even get a word in until 18 minutes past the hour, seemed to be angling for a media career.

I can imagine a three-hour long program where he just yells at the TV and complains about various other things.

Salam characterized Michele Bachmann as being “in freefall.”

It’s been really amazing to see how quickly she rose and how quickly she’s fallen into second tier and maybe into third tier soon enough.

Herman Cain Salam called “colorful”, while Santorum was “just a hard-edged guy”.

He doesn’t really project a very warm demeanor, and I sense that his days in the race are numbered.


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Comments [16]

Reba Shimansky from Manhattan

Brian is it obvious that you are drinking the GOP kool aid.
The government is not raiding the SSA trust fund. The fund is invested in treasury bonds which are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. However because the money is invested in bonds that is why the trust fund loaning the federal government money when they purchse treasury bonds. SSA is solvent until 2037. All that needs to be done is to remove the wage cap on the FICA tax and SSA would be solvent for the next 75 years.
Also since when is Christie a caring goverment. His massive layoffs of government workers is the reason NJ has the highest unemployment rate in the Northeast. He was also cited by the NJ Supreme Court for not funding poor school districts that is because he does not believe in public education.

Sep. 08 2011 10:56 AM
Steve Kass from Madison, NJ


You have been drinking the Texas Kool-Aid.

The promise of Social Security is not a "crime" against the country's youth. (You said at the end of the show that it was.)

Social Security has similarities and differences when compared with something like private insurance, but both are basically pay-as-you-go systems, with adjustments to premiums (or taxes) and benefits as the actuarial analysis changes. The idea that some dedicated savings account (the badly-named “trust fund”) has been wantonly raided is a myth. (You suggested otherwise.)

Social Security is a commitment of Americans to take care of Americans. Unfortunately, Americans in general, egged on by the GOP and an uncritical press, are becoming more and more selfish and less and less caring of others, like the [sarcasm on] lower-class folk who aren't paying their share of taxes.

It's very sad to hear you caught up in this, Brian.

Sep. 08 2011 10:50 AM
Joe from Forest Hills

I am so sick of Ron Paul being ignored. I'm not even a Republican but I do have respect for him because he is the only consistent, honest politician on that stage. The rest of the candidates have completely co-opted the positions he has been fighting for the last 30 years, yet he is barely mentioned. When before did anyone talk about the role of the Fed in Presidential debates? This is entirely Paul's influence. He is not a very articulate speaker, which may be part of the reason people ignore him. This media blackout needs to end so people can get a fair idea of who Paul is and make an informed decision.

Sep. 08 2011 10:34 AM
Sandra Pearson

The callers who talk about a take charge president forget that POTUS has to work with Congress. The Republican-controlled Congress has shown nothing but disrespect for POTUS and caused gridlock for the people of this country. The GOP candidates are a bunch financially reckless, anti-intellectuals who will not answer the questions posed by the moderator. As non-Republicans, we must focus on rebalancing Congress towards a more progressive, pro-labor mindset in order to save the middle class.

Sep. 08 2011 10:30 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

We're doomed because one of these proto-fascist nutjobs will become President and finally steer us right off the cliff because the Repiglicans will control all three branches of government in essence and their anti-science, religious extremist, intolerant, immigrant hating agenda will deal the final death-blow to the things that once made this country great.

Sep. 08 2011 10:30 AM

The guest is just dead wrong when he says that it would be very difficult to fix problems in Social Security. Very very modest changes now -- increasing the cap on taxed income, for example -- would solve the problem.

The real problem is that Republicans and Clinton-Obama Democrats _both_ want to privatize Social Security, so a huge contingent of politicians are opposed to really fixing Social Security.

Despite that, Social Security is solvent for the next 25 years. . . . How is that an imminent problem?!

Sep. 08 2011 10:30 AM
Dror Kahn from Brooklyn

Ponzie schemes work as long as the people on the bottom keep on putting money in. It can go on infinitely. Social Security can keep working even if it is "Ponzie Scheme" like as long as workers don't stop contributing and believing in its future.

Sep. 08 2011 10:25 AM
V from Bronx

The highlight of the debate came from Brian Williams when he noted the crowd's chilling reaction to questioning of Texas' record on the death penalty under Perry and asked for Perry's reaction.

Sep. 08 2011 10:23 AM
Jim from Pittsburgh

Can you ask your commentator why Buddy Roemer was banned from the debate even though he is polling close to the level of John Huntsman? Does it have anything to do with him championing campaign finance reform?

Sep. 08 2011 10:22 AM
Ann from Forest Hills, NY

the simple way to secure Social Security for generations is to raise the salary level at which S.S. taxes stop - If you earn over $106,000 or thereabouts, there is no S.S. tax coming out of your $150,000, $200,000, or $1,000,000.00 salary! But Republicans continue to block that one simple yet sure way of securing this paid-by-the-worker benefit.

Sep. 08 2011 10:20 AM
FranklinDelano from CAN-a-BAD-DA

Social Security is NOT the problem with federal fisc. Almost 100% of the yawning gap is due to HEALTH Care. Medicare is in serious fiscal gap. Therefore, payment to doctors, hospitals and drug companies must be reformed downward and only pay for outcomes.

Likewsie the private sector, if there would remain porvae HC need to adopt the same payment reform downward. The reasopn our UC spending is twice 17% of GDP that of all other RICH countries is that doctors are paid on average MORE than twice doctors elsewhere in the RICH world, i.e. France and Germany,

Minor changes to the benefit levels or removing the cap would close the Social Security gap. If no changes are made to tax receipts to Soc Sec, the continuing revenues can pay from 70% to 80% of the promised benefits. Thus if we place a maxmium SS benefit, it's all fixed


Sep. 08 2011 10:20 AM
Matt from Great Neck

I always feel bad for Brian, as the host, who has to talk about these Republican nutjobs as if they have legitimate views and "rational" ideas.

Sep. 08 2011 10:20 AM
Sandy from LES

It is terrifying these people are "in the running" for president. As a Republican myself I could not believe my ears. These people preach one thing and do another. The blatant hypocrisy concerning social security support boggles my mind. Do they support it or don't they? It doesn't add up to support one social program and not another without a clear reason.

Sep. 08 2011 10:20 AM
VLB in Manhattan from Manhattan

One of the reasons I left Texas to get away from blowhards like Perry. He's Yosemite Sam in a monogrammed shirt and khakis.

Sep. 08 2011 10:16 AM

Not to be outdone, Ron Paul's assertion that 9/11 was caused by overregulation of the airline industry was pretty vile as well.

Sep. 08 2011 10:09 AM
MFan from Staten Island, NY

As if I was not pessimistic enough about the future of this country, I turned on the debate last night only to hear a crowd applaud Rick Perry for boasting about executing more people than any other governor in state history. We are truly headed for dark days. The sickness that must be inside someone's heart to brag about that is unfathomable. No one on that stage has ANY right to call themselves a follower of the teachings of Christ.

Sep. 08 2011 10:06 AM

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