GOP debate: no leader emerges to challenge Mitt

Screenshot – CNN GOP Nov 22 debate

The Republican candidates’ debate hosted by CNN, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday night was all about foreign policy and national security, and what each of the eight GOP nomination candidates would do differently should he/she win the White House. I thought CNN’s anchor Wolf Blitzer did a good job of keeping candidates on topic and of allowing all to have their say.

I noticed three flubs of a minor nature. The only one that seemed to get any notice was Herman Cain calling Wolf Blitzer, “Blitz” instead of “Wolf”. Two others, though, were interesting from a Canadian point of view.

First there was Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator, calling Africa a “country.” A minor slip perhaps, but it speaks volumes about how American politicians see the world. Also seemingly unnoticed was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s reference to the United States achieving “oil independence” if the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline had been allowed to proceed. Keystone XL is being built be a Canadian firm to transport Canadian-sourced oil. How can that contribute to the U.S.’s “oil independence?” But I quibble.

Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and former ambassador to China, seemed in his element in this debate that focused heavily on foreign policy. His performance was the best of the night, followed closely by Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich. By contrast, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain did not impress.

Newt Gingrich showed political courage by sensibly calling for a limited amnesty for long-time illegal immigrants. Amnesty, of course, is not at all popular with many in the Republican base. The former House Speaker said:

I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families which have been here a quarter century. And I am prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but finding a way to give them legality so as not to separate them from their families.

This was one of the few times I have seen glimpses of statesmanship in this crop of presidential hopefuls.

Jon Huntsman also showed us he has the making of a statesman, at least, when it comes to foreign affairs. He’s arguing for drastic cuts in U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, even though it may be contrary to the advice of military advisers. His assessment of the Afghan scene seems the most dogma-free and realistic. He called for “an honest conversation in this [U.S.] country about the sacrifices that have been made over nearly 10 years.” He explained:

We need a presence on the ground that is more akin to 10,000 or 15,000. That will serve our interests in terms of intelligence gathering and special forces response capability. And we need to prepare for a world, not just in South Asia, but, indeed, in every corner of the world in which counter-terrorism is going to be in front of us for as far as the eye can see into the 21st century.

Michele Bachmann was at her best with perhaps the sagest advice of the night when she warned about the instability of Pakistan’s nuclear sites:

They also are one of the most violent, unstable nations that there is. We have to recognize that 15 of the sites, nuclear sites are available or are potentially penetrable by jihadists. Pakistan is a nation, that it’s kind of like ‘too nuclear to fail.’

“Too nuclear to fail,” I like that line a lot. But slogans, regardless of how true they are, are not of themselves, statesmanship. This was probably Bachmann’s best debate in quite awhile, but I’m far from being sold on her ending up in the White House.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did well enough, I guess, but I just can’t see him in the role of the leader of the free world—not sufficient gravitas.

I agree with Michele Bachmann, who said Rick Perry’s position on the more than $1-billion U.S. aid sent to Pakistan is “highly naïve.” She disagrees with the Texas governor who sees aid to Pakistan as a blank cheque without any return on the U.S.’s investment. Perry is far too parochial for my liking. His jingoism—he wants the U.S. to consider unilaterally applying a no-fly zone over Syria (an overt act of war), for example—may excite the very right of the Republican base, but lacks depth and nuance. I like to see a more sophisticated approach to foreign policy from a presidential candidate.

Businessman and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain missed a golden opportunity to show he had the necessary grasp on foreign affairs. He sounded like he was reading from seminar notes when he chose phrases like, “number one, secure the border for real” and “I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success.” His answers sounded pedantic rather than astute.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul has his supporters and likely did not disappoint them. His appeal to a broader segment of the American public probably took a hit, though, when he called humanitarian aid to fight disease in Africa “worthless.” I know his comment was prompted by a belief widely shared that foreign aid money gets syphoned off by foreign despots before it reaches the people who need it. There are countless examples, however, of aid to prevent disease being effective—saving millions of lives. Certainly foreign aid should be more effective—there’s plenty of room for improvement there—but it’s hardly worthless.

So there you have the candidates not named “Mitt.”

As to Mitt Romney himself, I thought he had a mediocre performance. But this man has been running for president for five years and he has learned a great deal. None did a better job of turning questions about foreign policy into answers about domestic issues. And Romney shows best when his positions are matched against those of President Obama. For that reason alone, the former governor of Massachusetts held his own.

So, the GOP race continues to be between Mitt Romney and the best of the rest.



© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
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The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or posi­tions of political parties, institutions or organi­zations with which I am associated.