There was a lot of agreement in Wednesday evening’s Republican debate hosted by MSNBC and Politico at the Reagan Presidential Library: Ronald Reagan is awesome and would have agreed with everything Republicans say today, there is something wrong with Barack Obama’s foreign policy even if we’re not sure what it is, the Affordable Care Act is a massive imposition by government on the will of the people who elected it well aware that they were running on a promise to enact health care reform.
The only major back and forth occurred around a curiously meaningless debate: which governor on stage presided over the most job growth and who would create the most jobs as president. For a party that claims government does nothing as well as the private sector and that efforts to improve society are a fools errand, it’s an odd obsession. If you believe, as Mitt Romney has repeatedly asserted, that it is business rather than government that creates jobs then how can you argue that you will do so as president?
In fact, Romney went so far as to say, “If I’d spent my career in government I wouldn’t be running for president,” because then he wouldn’t know how to create jobs. It was an apparent jab at Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has been in politics for nearly three decades and has no major private sector experience. Romney walked the claim back when moderator Brian Wiliams asked if he was saying a career politician is unqualified for the White House. Thankfully pundits seem disinclined to claim Romney showed weakness, as they bizarrely insisted Tim Pawlenty did in his confrontation with Romney at the first Republican debate.
Perry, a career politician if ever there was one, responded by noting that Massachusetts had the 47th best job growth rate among the states while Romney was governor, a fact that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman also gleefully cited. Huntsman was even more smug when boasting that Utah ranked first among the states in job creation during his tenure. Perry, who has made the illusory “Texas miracle” of job creation his claim to fame, bragged in turn about the jobs created in Texas since he took office.
The governors all came prepared with job-related factoids to hurl at each other. “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” said Perry, while Huntsman told Perry that 47th best “just won’t cut it.” Romney countered that Texas created more jobs under Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, than under Perry. He also defended his record and minimized Perry’s by noting that Massachusetts and Texas have different political and economic conditions.
“States are different,” said Romney. “Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things.”
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It’s a fair rejoinder, but one that undermines the whole premise of their argument. Job creation in a state is not actually primarily under control of the governor. Aside from the other political bodies there are macro-economic conditions, the uneven distribution of natural resources, and political, social structural constraints. If a governor did totally control his state’s economy then the current state of affairs would be the fault of our mostly Republican batch of governors, not President Obama. If, on the other hand, the whole nation’s economy is entirely within the president’s control, as Romney, Perry and Huntsman’s constant attacks on Obama would imply, then governors don’t deserve credit or blame for their state’s economy during their tenure. By claiming that a governor controls his state’s job growth and the president controls the whole nation’s, they are making somewhat contradictory arguments. And, as Romney points out, legislatures have power too. But you don’t see Romney making that argument when it comes to the Republicans currently in control of the House of Representatives. The whole discussion also runs counter to Republicans’ simultaneous claims that the government is not a force for job creation.
Romney’s two chief competitors, Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), fully demonstrated their weaknesses. In Perry’s case that is his unyielding extremism and underwhelming intellect. He stood staunchly behind his previous statements opposing the existence of the Social Security program and reiterated his demonstrably false belief that it is “a Ponzi scheme.” Perry also defended his rejection of climate science with the incorrect non-sequiter that “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” Galileo, of course, was suppressed by religious extremists who did not like his findings. The obvious analogy to climate science today is that religious extremists such as Rick Perry ignorantly reject scientific findings as their predecessors in Rome did Galileo’s astronomy.
Bachmann’s apparent weakness is, aside from her extremism, her lack of experience, knowledge or gravitas. She did nothing to correct that by dodging questions and offering only canned irrelevant answers. John Harris of Politico asked her what she would do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently within our borders even after the border is adequately secured. She answered with a fear-mongering invocation of “narco-terrorists” coming in from Mexico to illustrate the importance of securing the border. That was, of course, no answer at all. Harris took the rare measure of pressing with a follow up since she had so blatantly ignored his question. Bachmann responded with no concrete or meaningful answer, saying, “It is sequential, and it depends upon where they live, how long they have been here, if they have a criminal record. All of those things have to be taken into place.” In other words, she knows she strongly dislikes undocumented immigrants but she has no actual idea what to do about the ones who are here.
Bachmann’s unimpressive analytical rigor was apparent in her next statement as well. She perversely claimed that Reagan would have agreed with all the Republican candidates that they should not accept any increase in tax revenues as part of a deficit reduction package because Reagan himself had in fact done just that.
Harris, noting that Bachmann had opposed President Obama’s intervention in Libya and that if Obama had agreed with Bachmann Muammar Qaddafi would still be in power, asked “Are you advocating a shift away from the George W. Bush freedom agenda with its emphasis on removing dictators from power and promoting human rights?” It was a good question -- a rare opportunity to get a candidate off her canned talking point and probe her larger worldview. Bachmann, alas, was having none of it. She answered by claiming that Obama “has actually weakened us militarily and with the United States presence globally.” Her evidence? That the debt ceiling agreement created cuts to Defense spending that will be triggered if the Super Committee cannot reach a deficit reduction deal. Of course, the debt ceiling agreement itself wouldn’t be in place had Republicans just voted to raise the debt ceiling as Congress always has in the past. But Bachmann was against doing that. It is thanks to Bachmann and her ilk that we now face the prospect of the Super Committee cuts. And that prospect can still be avoided if the committee can reach a deal. But that would require Republicans agreeing to raise revenues, which is something that none of them accept.
Fortunately for Bachmann and Perry the audience showed that the Republican primary electorate does not much care for cogitation, rationality or human empathy. The most telling moment of the night came not from the stage but from the seats. When Williams noted during a question that Texas has executed 234 people during Perry’s tenure he was interrupted by the crowd bursting into applause. It’s unlikely that Perry and Bachmann’s inanities will disqualify them with that sort of voter.