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GOP debate: Romney’s bizarre moment, Bachmann mostly invisible

If any persuadable moderate swing voters watched — which is a big “if” — I would guess that Barack Obama was the main beneficiary.

Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry squabbling
REUTERS/Steve Marcus
Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Perry squabbling

I hope you found something better to do with your evening than watch the Repub debate from Vegas. And feel free to stop reading this — walk your dog, talk to your kids (or vice versa) or read some improving book — but I committed to write something about the debate, so here goes.

In general:  I learned nothing substantive and I have no coherent idea who, if anyone, helped or hurt him (or her) self in the quest for the nomination. If any persuadable moderate swing voters watched — which is a big “if” — I would guess that President Barack Obama was the main beneficiary, and surely his team will have gained some material for future TV ads.

I’ve looked around the punditocracy for guidance and find there is little agreement about what happened. For a good sampling of many such reactions, check this compendium by the excellent aggregator Taegan Goddard. In case you don’t click through, here’s a small sample to underscore the original no-agreement point:

Howard Kurtz: “Perhaps such things shouldn’t matter, but by keeping his cool and forcing his rivals to stop interrupting him, Romney projected an image of strength …

Paul Begala: “Romney also displayed a whiny side. He repeatedly squabbled with Rick Perry, but instead of standing his ground or talking over Perry, he often turned to debate moderator Anderson Cooper. I’ve coached more debates than I can count, and you never whine to the moderator that someone broke the rules.”

Is it over for Cain?
In the post-debate coverage on CNN, David Gergen — who generally knows what he’s talking about — declared repeatedly that Herman Cain has peaked and it’s all downhill from here.

Frankly, I doubt it. The first portion of the debate was spent allowing each candidate to denounce Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. (By the way, it was never mentioned that Cain says 9-9-9 is only the first step on the way to replacing the entire federal tax system with a sales tax. See my post of yesterday if you missed it. End of shameless self promotion.)

Cain was unmoved and kept insisting that the others don’t understand some of the subtle magic of his plan. As stupid as this is, I guess we’ll have to watch the polls in the next week or two to see whether Cain’s moment is over. I suspect not.

Rick Santorum seemed to have his best debate, but I don’t know if anyone is listening to him. Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann seemed mostly invisible. Ron Paul suggested allowing people to opt out of Medicare and Medicaid. (I can’t picture how that would work.) Rick Perry wants to “defund” the United Nations. Seriously. Mitt Romney wants “the free market” to solve the problem of disposal of waste from nuclear power plants. Seriously, think about that for a minute. You won’t find a much better recent example of the idiocy of expecting the “free market” to solve every problem in society.

Michele Bachmann said that, by his recent disloyalty to Israel, Obama became “the first president since Israel declared her sovereignty to put daylight between the United States and Israel.” Please don’t tell her about the Suez crisis of 1954, when President Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula.

A big belly laugh
The emotional high-low point of the evening, for me at least, was a bizarre moment when Romney burst out with a big belly laugh in Rick Perry’s face. You have to assume that this was a calculated move, at least calculated in the moment that preceded it as Perry accused Romney of employing illegal aliens to mow his lawn. The laugh was very big and broad and occurred so physically close to Perry that you had to wonder how this could end without blows. Fortunately, thanks to the statesmanship of Perry, it did.

Focus for a moment on the lawn-mowing scandal and ask yourself whether this tale should be important in deciding who should be president:

Romney used to employ a lawn service at his Massachusetts home that included illegal immigrants among the workers. The Boston Globe discovered this and wrote about it. Romney claims he told the lawn service to cut it out. A year later, the Globe checked back and found that Romney still used the service and the service still employed undocumented workers. Then Romney fired the lawn service.

Given these facts, Perry says that it is the “height of hypocrisy” for Romney to claim to be tough on illegal immigration. Romney and Perry then tried to talk at the same time for quite a while, which led to the Begala moment I referenced above when Romney tried to get moderator Anderson Cooper to make Perry stop talking. I’ll append the transcript of this portion at the bottom and refer you to the Lincoln-Douglas debates for contrast.

Romney’s gaffe
During the exchange, Romney committed a gaffe, and I guess it’s time to acknowledge that these silly gaffe moments are one of the main attractions — if “attraction” could possibly be the word I’m seeking — of debate-watching. In explaining his discussions with the lawn-mowing executives, Romney said last night:

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“So we went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. That’s — I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”

Elections can turn on smaller things, I suppose, although it’s hard to imagine. But a) I doubt whether Romney actually discussed the political motivation with the lawn man and b) it is somehow beyond the pale to acknowledge (even though at some level perhaps it makes perfect sense) that Romney feels it’s especially important for people with political ambitions to avoid even the appearance to doing business, however indirectly, with the undocumented.

Anyway, as stupid as all this is, my gaffe-meter went off.

The full text of the debate is here. Seriously.

And, on the assumption that you won’t click through, here, for your dining and dancing pleasure, is the colloquy — if “colloquy” could possibly be the word I’m seeking here — between Perry and Romney about lawn care (and by the way, speaking of non-sequiturism — and yes, I know that’s not a word — please note that Perry’s discussion of Romney’s lawn occurs in response to a question about the number of children in Texas who are not covered by health insurance.


MR. COOPER: Governor Perry, in the last debate, Governor Romney pointed out that Texas has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country, over 1 million kids. You were — you did not get an opportunity to respond to that. What do you say to — how do you explain that?

GOV. PERRY: Well, we’ve got one of the finest health care systems in the — in the world in — in — in Texas. As a matter of fact, the Houston — the Texas Medical Center, there’s more doctors, nurses go to work there every morning than anyplace else in America, for the idea that you can have access to health care, some of the finest health care in the world.

But we have a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. And the fact is we have a huge number of illegals that are coming into this country. And they’re coming into this country because the federal government has failed to secure that border. But they’re coming here because there is a magnet. And the magnet is called jobs. And those people that hire illegals ought to be penalized.

And Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew for — about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy. (Boos, applause.)

MR. COOPER: Governor Romney.

MR. ROMNEY: (Chuckles.) Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I’m — I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that because that just doesn’t — just —

GOV. PERRY: I’ll tell you what the facts are. You had the — you — your newspaper — the newspaper –

MR. ROMNEY: Rick, again — Rick, I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking.

GOV. PERRY: And it’s time for you to tell the truth.

MR. ROMNEY: You get — you get 30 seconds —

GOV. PERRY: It’s time for you to tell the —

MR. ROMNEY: The way — the way the rules work here is that I get 60 seconds.

MR. PERRY: But no, but the American people want the truth.

MR. ROMNEY: And you get — and then you get 30 seconds to respond, right? Anderson  —

GOV. PERRY: And they want to hear you say that you knew you had illlegals working at your — (boos).

MR. ROMNEY: Will you please — would you please wait? Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish with my — what I have to say?

Look, Rick —

(Cross talk.)

MR. ROMNEY: This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you’re going to get — (cheers, applause) — you’re going to get testy. But let’s let — I’ll tell you what: Let me take my time, and then you can take your time.

GOV. PERRY: Great, have at it.

MR. ROMNEY: All right, my time is this, which is I have in my state, when I was governor, I took the action of empowering our state police to enforce immigration laws. When you were governor, you said: I don’t want to build a fence. You put in place a magnet — you talk about magnets — you put in place a magnet to draw illlegals into the state, which is giving a hundred thousand dollars of tuition credit to illlegals that come into this country. (Cheers, applause.)

And then you have states — you have states — the big states of illegal immigrants are California and Florida. Over the last 10 years they’ve had no increase in illegal immigration. Texas has had 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants, in Texas. If there’s someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn’t stand up to muster, it’s you, not me.

MR. COOPER: Governor Perry, you have 30 seconds. (Cheers, applause.)

GOV. PERRY: You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth, that you had illlegals working on your property. And the newspaper came to you and brought it to your attention, and you still, a year later, had those individuals working for you. The idea that you can sit here and talk about any of us having an immigration issue is beyond me. I’ve got a strong policy — I’ve always been against amnesty. You, on the other hand, were for amnesty.

MR. COOPER: Thirty seconds, then we’ve got to move on to another — (inaudible).

MR. ROMNEY: OK. You had an op-ed in the newspaper saying you were open to amnesty. That’s number one.

Number two, we hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants who were working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go. And we went to them and said —

GOV. PERRY: A year later?

MR. ROMNEY: You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. (Laughter.) And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you got to let both people speak. So first, let me speak. (Cheers, applause.)

So we went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. That’s –I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.

It turns out that once again they hired someone who had falsified their documents, had — documents, and therefore we fired them.

And let me tell you, it is hard in this country, as an individual homeowner, to know if people who are contractors working at your home — if they’ve hired people that are illegal. If I’m president, we will put in place an eVerify (sp) system —

MR. COOPER: (Out of time?).

MR. ROMNEY:  — which you’ve opposed — to make sure that we can find out who’s here legally and not — (cheers, applause) — and crack down on people who come here illegally. (Cheers, applause.)