Who Won the Republican YouTube Debate?
Sat December 1, 2007 12:55 pm

Everybody in the serious news business wrings their hands over the blurring of the line between news and entertainment--I've been known to do it myself--but I loved the Republican YouTube Debate for exactly that reason. Blurring the line? Obliterated was more like it. For better or worse, that was America on display. The song, the questions, the wacky questioners, the videos, the gun nuts, the gay general, the boos, the cheers, the Yankees and the Red Sox -- that was democracy at its finest. It was a perfect blend of entertainment and serious politics. I don't see how the traditional debates with members of the media asking sober questions can compete. (For a transcript of the debate, click here).

Most accounts of the debate declared Huckabee the winner. I'm going to put off my assessments of the candidates for now, but I do want to deal with Huckabee first. I agree that he was the winner, but I think his victory was greatly aided and abetted by Anderson Cooper. He let Huckabee off easy. Cooper gave the most air time to Giuliani and Romney, the two presumed frontrunners. Next came McCain and Huckabee. Thompson and the three congressman brought up the rear. Maybe the frontrunners deserve the extra time; it drives me crazy to hear Dennis Kucinich spout his irrelevancies in the Democratic debates. Ron Paul, at least, serves as a one-man Greek chorus issuing nostrums about the Republican orthodoxy. Tancredo and Hunter, at this point in the race, ought to pay rent for the space they are taking up.

But Cooper's emphasis on Giuliani and Romney meant that Huckabee did not have to answer some tough questions, or was brought into the discussion late. Here's my analysis of what questions Cooper did and did not address to Huckabee.

On immigration, Giuliani and Romney slugged it out and not until the third question on the subject did Huckabee participate. He had to defend a proposal that would have allowed Arkansas to award college academic scholarships to illegal aliens who met the specified level of performance in high school. (The bill died without becoming law.) Romney said, "It reminds me of what it's like talking to liberals in Massachusetts .... They have great reasons for taking taxpayer money and using it for things they think are the right thing to do. Mike, that's not your money. That's the taxpayers' money." Huckabee, as he did throughout the debate, fended off and attack by Romney with a timely homily: "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

On a question about how he would control spending and the national debt, McCain, Romney, and Giuliani were called upon to answer. Huckabee wasn't.

The next questions asked for three spending cuts a candidate would support. Cooper called on Thompson first, then Ron Paul, then Huckabee. Once again, Huckabee had the perfect down-home response: "The first thing that I would get rid of would be the Internal Revenue Service." Perfect! And, after a little more discussion and a plug for a national retail sales tax, he added, "Most people in this country are more afraid of an audit than they are of a mugging...."

On support of the so-called Fair Tax (the national sales tax), a question directed at McCain, Cooper said, "Governor Huckabee supports it. Do you?" After McCain said no, Cooper called on Ron Paul. Huckabee did not get a chance to challenge McCain. And that was the end of the discussion.

Then Grover Norquist asked if the candidates would oppose and veto any tax increase. "Very short answers," Cooper said. All seven candidates got to answer. Huckabee, speaking second after Tancredo, said he had signed a pledge. McCain, Thompson, and Hunter explained why they would not make such a pledge.

The next question was on farm subsidies -- a huge issue in Iowa. Only Romney and Giuliani were given a chance to answer. This was a toughie, and Huckabee, shown in some polls as the leader in Iowa, didn't have to take a position.

Then, a question on lead toys, which was essentially about trade policy with China. Only Tancredo and Hunter were called upon to answer. It would have been interesting to hear what Huckabee had to say about a sensitive foreign policy issue.

After a commercial break, the first question was on gun control. Hunter gave the sole answer. A follow-up question asked if Giuliani stuck by a statement he made several years ago that everyone who wanted to have a gun should have to pass a written exam. Giuliani gave a lengthy answer and Thompson accused him of being a strong supporter of gun control. Texas requires a training course before someone can carry a handgun. It would have been interesting to hear Huckabee's position, but no one else spoke. A third question on the subject asked candidates about their gun collections. Cooper called upon Thompson, McCain, Hunter, and Romney. So we had three questions about guns, and a discussion (involving the second question) that touched on the Second Amendment case that the Supreme Court accepted, and Huckabee did not participate in any of them.

An African-American resident of Atlanta, shown with his son, asked what the candidates would do about the war in the inner-city, black-on-black crime. Romney gave a lame answer. (He gives a lot of lame answers.) Giuliani questioned Romney's credentials as a crime-fighter and spoke to his own record: "The reality is, I had a very strong record in doing precisely what the young man was asking about. And that is reducing crime in specifically neighborhoods that would be regarded as poor neighborhoods, the neighborhoods that had the most crime. For example, in Harlem, we reduced crime by about 80 percent. We reduced shootings, overall in the city, by 74 percent."

The next question was on abortion. Should the woman who obtains one be charged with a crime? Should the doctor? I would really like to know just how hard-core Huckabee is on abortion. He didn't have to answer. Only Paul and Thompson were called upon. The next question was whether the candidates would sign a federal ban on abortion if Congress passed it. Cooper called upon Thompson, Giuliani, and Romney. Huckabee didn't get to speak.

A question on the death penalty for "Christian conservatives": What would Jesus do? Cooper called on Huckabee. He gave a long answer about carrying out the death penalty being one of his toughest challenges. Finally, Cooper reminded him of the question: What would Jesus do. And Huckabee was spot on perfect: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do."

The next questioner held up the Bible to the camera and asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?" Cooper called on Giuliani, but before the mayor could answer, Huckabee, who, of course, is an evangelical minister, said, "Do I need to help you out, Mayor, on this one?" Giuliani didn't get the joke. Still, he gave a good answer. "I think there are parts of the Bible that are interpretive. I think there are parts of the Bible that are allegorical. I think there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be interpreted in a modern context." RedState.com criticized his answer, but never gave a reason. Romney said he believed it was the word of God. Again, Huckabee knocked it out of the park. "I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical. But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself." And as much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me. Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated." This was a great answer, a nonpolitical, nonlitmus-test response.

A Muslim woman asked, "What would you do as president to repair the image of America in the eyes of the Muslim world?" Giuliani, McCain, and Hunter responded. Huckabee was not called upon. I've probably made my point by now, probably ad nauseam, but Huckabee didn't have to deal with a lot of questions that don't have easy, pat responses.

The next question was about whether waterboarding was torture. Romney ducked and dodged and said it was unwise to say what he would or wouldn't do. This led to a long exchange with McCain, in which Romney got substantially the worst of it, when McCain said, "My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America." Huckabee was not called upon.

Then the discussion shifted to Iraq. Should we make a long-term commitment to stay there? Cooper called on Thompson, Paul, McCain, and Tancredo. Not Huckabee. I can't imagine any issue more basic to the next presidency, and we heard nothing from Huckabee.

After a couple of tepid questions, retired general Keith Kerr, who is openly gay, asked why candidates thought that American soldiers were not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians. Huckabee was second to speak, after Hunter, and his answer wasn't very good: "The Uniform Code of Military Justice is probably the best rule, and it has to do with conduct. People have a right to have whatever feelings, whatever attitudes they wish, but when their conduct could put at risk the morale, or put at risk even the cohesion that Duncan Hunter spoke of, I think that's what is at issue. And that's why our policy is what it is." So is he in favor of don't ask, don't tell, or is he against it? But Romney was worse; he got caught flip-flopping. The next questioner asked whether the candidates would accept support from the Log Cabin (gay and lesbian) Republicans. Huckabee was the only candidate Cooper called on. He said, "You know, in my position in this entire election, I need the support of anybody and everybody I can get .... I disagree with them, strongly disagree with them on the idea of same-sex marriage, but in a democracy we can have disagreements over some policies and still agree on the greater things that make us Republicans."

After a question on Social Security--which Thompson, McCain, and Romney were called upon to answer but not Huckabee--a questioner asked if there was a candidate who would pledge to send a man to Mars by 2020. So who does Cooper call upon? Huckabee. He stated his support for the space program and concluded with, "Whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don't know. But I'll tell you what: If we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars."

The next questioner, an African American from LA, said that many African-Americans held conservative views on views like gay marriage and immigration and school prayer, so why don't African-Americans vote Republican? Cooper called on Huckabee first. He said, "Well, according to your network's exit polls, some 48 percent of the African-Americans in my state did, in fact, vote for me, which is unusually high for African-Americans voting for a Republican. Here's the reason why: because I asked for their vote, and I didn't wait until October of the election year to do it. And, while I was governor, I tried to make sure that we included people not only in appointments and employment, but also in the programs that would truly make a difference, like putting disproportionate amounts of help for health problems specifically targeted to African-Americans like hypertension and AIDS and diabetes." His was the only response.

The Confederate flag question came next. Enough said.

We're getting toward the end now. There were three more questions: about rebuilding America's infrastructure, about whether Ron Paul would run as an independent, and about why Giuliani rooted for the Red Sox in the World Series. Huckabee was not called on at all.

If I can make my point again: Anderson Cooper basically gave Huckabee a free pass. He didn't have to state his views on immigration; how he would control spending (although he did get in a crack about abolishing the IRS on a subsequent question);
what he would do about farm subsidies; his views on trade with China; whether he believed in any degree of gun control; whether he would sign a federal ban on abortion or criminalize abortion; whether he thought it was important to repair America's image in the Muslim world; and whether he supported waterboarding as an interrogation technique. We do know how he feels about sending a man to Mars.

Huckabee is the rising star of the Republican field right now, and, for those who haven't seen much except the YouTube debate, we know virtually nothing about what is views are on the most important issues.

Now, here is my assessment of the debate:

I may be the only person in America who thinks Giuliani "won." I haven't seen anybody else say that. Yes, he got hammered on a lot of questions. That's to be expected; he's the frontrunner. But he and McCain are the only candidates who seem presidential. Giuliani is very forceful. He has the demeanor of a leader. He answers questions straight up, he relates his record as mayor to his responses, and he attacks the weak points of his rivals effectively. He's easy to hit, because of his pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-immigration record, but he can take a punch, certainly better than Romney can. The personality we see during debates is not particularly likeable, but it's dogged and tenacious. McCain has a lot of statesman in him; he actually talks about living up to our values on issues like torture and anti-tax pledges and pork barrel spending. But he doesn't have the energy he used to. When an issue is one that he cares about, he can summon the passion within him, and he is breaktakingly good. When it's not, he tends to lose focus and slip back into ordinariness. The endorsement by the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader, a conservative paper that has always been coveted by Republican presidential hopefuls, may breathe some life back into his candidacy; if he can beat Rudy for second place -- they are currently tied at 15%, well behind Romney's 34% -- he's got a shot.

I don't get Romney. What is the basis of his appeal? I can't articulate an answer. The sole rationale for his candidacy has been that he is a social conservative who can win Iowa and New Hampshire. Now Huckabee has overtaken him in Iowa. Romney always seems a little off his game in these debates, as if he is trying not to make a mistake (his answer to the torture question is a good example) and winds up sounding wishy-washy. He's got a lot of Dewhurst in him; he spent so much time in the business world that he doesn't have a political personality. He could use a charisma transplant. He seemed uncomfortable with the format the other night, having to deal with the great unwashed. I thought he was the big loser.

Huckabee is quite a phenomenon. In Rasmussen's daily presidential tracking poll, he is currently running second, with 17% to Giuliani's 22% (and slipping). Thompson and McCain follow at 14%, and Romney lags at 11%. Huckabee is great on TV, super-cool and low-pressure and SO comfortable in his own skin. But I don't see how he can win the nomination. He has been living off free media (the debates), but eventually he is going to have to spend money to get his message out to voters, especially if he is going to try to compete in the multitude of states that will hold their primaries on February 5. And money is something he doesn't have. The third quarter (9/30)fundraising totals show just how far Huckabee has to go:

Romney: Raised $62.8M, Cash on hand $9.2M
Giuliani: Raised $47.2M, Cash on hand $16.6M
McCain: Raised $32.1M, Cash on hand $3.4M
Thompson: Raised #12.8M, Cash on hand $7.1M
Paul: Raised $8.2M, Cash on hand $5.4M
Huckabee: Raised $2.3M, Cash on hand $651K

I haven't changed my mind about Thompson since the day he made his candidacy official: Nothing to say, nowhere to go.

It's conventional wisdom now that the main beneficiary of Huckabee's rise has been Giuliani. Huckabee has kept Thompson and Romney, his competitors for the conservative vote, from gaining ground. Romney is stuck at 11% nationally.

Next big moment: December 12, the Des Moines Register Republican debate.

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