Talking Economics in Hanover
Michael Ubaldi, October 12, 2011.
I hadn't tuned into a presidential debate before last night's, and just as well. For the first time this political season, hopefuls would stop burnishing their personal credentials as if through a storm door, and wrestle over a single topic. Maybe sincerely? Even better, the evening progressed as not so much a scrimmage between candidates as it did an ideological siege waged — and, in vain, lifted — by three liberal journalists.
Herman Cain, vanguard, set a good rhythm. Asked by moderator Charlie Rose how he would repair economic distress, he didn't a) thank anybody or b) revert to backstage handling. Cain identified two points in his sketchbook plan, explained them, and finished well before the end of his 60 seconds allotted. The pizza mogul stands apart from the bunch; whereas the waspish Rick Santorum had to remind everyone, including himself, that he grew up in a steel town, Cain sweat blue-collar tenacity all night. There are limitations. In defense of his "9-9-9" tax plan, he showed the pat deference of a board chairman unveiling what the boys in the lab cooked up. But Cain says things like "the capital gains tax is a big wall between people with ideas and people with money" without blinking, and no one else does that.
Karen Tumulty, whose face requires twice the anatomical standard of muscles to smile, turned to Michelle Bachmann and asked the first of half a dozen loaded questions: Congresswoman, after confirming my anthropomorphization of Wall Street as a pinky-ringed, comic-book supervillain, for whom on the trading floor would you issue summary arrests? Bachmann could have satisfied honor simply by noting that punishments need crimes, thank you and good night. But she continued, delivering a confutation on the order of Robert L. Bartley's most indignant editorials from back in the Aughts. Bachmann is widely disparaged in secondhand accounts, but to hear the woman speak you have got to wonder if anyone listens to what she says, instead waiting for whatever is easily construed as kooky.
No other description can be offered for Julianna Goldman but dully tendentious. Before, however, going on to accuse Cain of raising grocery prices, apparently because payroll, property and income taxes are invisible and painless, she drew out the Mitt Romney we all know and dread. What would you do differently than what President Bush, Henry Paulson, and Ben Bernanke did in 2008? Well, you're talking about a scenario that's obviously very difficult to imagine. If we go to the movies on Friday, Mitt, would you like extra butter on your popcorn? I'm afraid it is a hypothetical. Good Lord.
After the first commercial break, Rose and company took a clip of Ronald Reagan's coaxed August 1982 appeal for higher marginal income tax rates, and then wheeled it at Romney like a ballista. And missed. Romney is a nimble polemicist, exhibiting the perfectly adversarial combination of confidence and thin skin. But nothing has changed in three years. The former governor speaks not of methodology. He prefers process: Romney will tell you how he will accomplish what he can't discuss at the present time. The man should be in the running for dean of a school of business management.
What kind of alchemy might marry Rick Perry's directorial acumen to Romney's hardnosed percepts? None in sight, apparently, as Perry began as insistent about, then grew to weirdly preoccupied with, an energy policy or something or other. Now, this Texan isn't George W. Bush. When challenged directly, even unfairly, Perry was commanding and fluent. When David Cote of Honeywell and Simpsons-Bowles appeared in a whirl of self-importance, all present mercifully ignored his question — What would the architecture of your collectivist, "competitive agenda" look like? — before Perry answered it indirectly by calling the states "fifty laboratories of innovation." If only all of his campaign's wires were connected.
And so it continued. The superfluous candidates, this time, contributed mightily — most of all Newt Gingrich, who should be allowed to pretend to run for president every four years. Mostly old and white, the Republicans became energetic when asked how they would welcome back free enterprise; so different from the aging philosophy across the table. Rose and Tumulty remained monophonic, Goldman's youth ironic in her embrace of the démodé. Charlie pronounced "LinkedIn" as "link-uh-din." GOP partisans may have watched a horserace, but as Cain said, "the problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect."
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