Recapping the GOP Debate with Reihan Salam

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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.