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24 April 2014 17:45 (South Africa)

GOP Tampa debate zeroes in on Rick Perry

  • J Brooks Spector
perry romney

Anointed by the newest polling data, Republican front-runner Rick Perry was in the crosshairs of all of the other participants in the most recent debate over who will challenge Barack Obama come November 2012. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The Monday evening debate, moderated by Wolf Blitzer and cosponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express, a rather obviously partisan political action body, took place in Tampa, Florida. Florida is a state crucial for both parties’ hopes. Reliably Democratic for almost a century, Florida is probably the largest state that is consistently in play in American general elections.

Back in 1965, as he was about to sign the landmark Civil Rights Act he had bulldozed through Congress, then-President Lyndon Johnson (a Texan himself) famously told a political friend that once he signed this bill and made it law he doomed the Democratic Party’s chances in the South for at least a generation. While his prediction largely came true, paradoxically it has also meant the Republicans have, in that same ensuing half century, become a starkly more southern and western party, shucking off their older north-eastern, internationalist, big-business, suburban support. As a result, Florida is an important key to their success in national electoral campaigns.

The state has a large, varied population that ranges ethnically from Cuban-Americans, retired hyphenated-Americans from north-eastern states, African-Americans and White rural and small town voters whose sensibilities are similar to the populations of other southern states. Florida has become a battleground for presidential candidate hopes over the past several electoral cycles and was, of course, the state where a contested victory put George W Bush into the White House in 2001.

Summing up the texture of this newest debate, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Bernstein wrote Tuesday morning that: “The problem with assessing these Republican presidential debates continues to be that there are only two people up there on the stage who are  really, honest-to-goodness, running for president. I don’t know what Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul think they’re doing, but they aren’t serious candidates for the nomination and never  have been….Are they trying to win a book contract or a slot on Fox News? Are they trying to nudge the party in their direction on the issues? If it’s the latter — why are they so obviously incapable of speaking about those issues with a minimal amount of knowledge?  All I know is that it makes it hard to sort through what effect, if any, these debates have on Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.

“Do these folks really believe that the biggest economic problem today is runaway inflation? That Americans are desperate to rid themselves of Social Security? That policies enacted by Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2009 (whatever you think of those policies) caused a recession that began in 2007? That ‘exceptionalism’ is the beginning and end of foreign policy?…The audience has been trained by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and the rest of that squad — and therefore a careful, cautious, Republican presidential candidate who is perfectly well-versed in the issues, solidly conservative in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, and knows exactly what he or she needs to do to win the Republican nomination is going to sound like a nut half the time.”

Specifically, the temptation is to slide into the language of automotive writers: “I test drove the Rick Perry with its fast, powerful motor, rugged off-road looks, but I found its stiff steering tends to pull hard to the right. Then there’s the Romney that comes with a classic, sleek chassis that comes from generations of grooming, but unfortunately the transmission suddenly shifts gears without warning. Of course, there’s also the Bachmann, Paul, Santorum and Cain on the market now, but they are eccentric, even esoteric models. They have passionate fans but they simply don’t appeal to broader bands of buyers. That means they will end up being discontinued by their manufacturers.”

At the start of this electoral cycle, it probably didn’t occur to most that the key issues of the Republican debates would be the nefarious influence of the Federal Reserve Bank or the purportedly fraudulent Social Security pension system. And yet, on Monday night Rick Perry came under fire over his outlier position on Social Security, as well as his record of creating jobs in Texas.- and even his earlier advocacy of mandatory vaccination of Texas schoolgirls against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted disease.

Perry, of course, has written that Social Security is “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government” and so Mitt Romney hammered away at Perry’s comments on Social Security, while fellow Texan Ron Paul, assailed him for state tax increases, and Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum went after the vaccination issue. Bachmann charged Perry had received campaign contributions from the drug company making the vaccine.

Since being called out on his views over the past several weeks, Perry had backed away from his earlier harsh rhetoric about Social Security. This time he offered up “A program(me) that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away”. And then he counterpunched against Romney, accusing him of straining to scare the seniors about the death of the federal pension system if he were elected.

In Perry and Romney’s “broedertwis” over Social Security, Romney insisted Perry’s position could spell defeat for the Republicans next year – an acknowledgement of the importance of the senior vote. Perry retorted that Romney had himself argued in his own writing that if people did their own family financing in the way the government handles Social Security it would be a criminal offense. Coming right back at him, Romney insisted, “You've got to quote me correctly. What I said was taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is criminal and it's wrong.”

Although all the Republican candidates have naturally been cosying up to Tea Party attitudes, Perry, Romney and Bachmann all said they opposed repealing the Medicare prescription drug benefit – a truly major unfunded liability that is a significant contributor to the rapidly rising costs of the federal health insurance program for seniors. Surveys have repeatedly shown that very few Tea Party supporters are also in favour of repealing Medicare or Social Security - despite their contributions to federal deficits.

In fact, the winner of this particular debate may just possibly have been the man who wasn’t even there - Barack Obama – as criticisms of his administration were less in the limelight than accusations between Republicans about their internal differences. And so, Republicans now have an increasingly stark choice. Should they go with an experienced, business-savvy, mainstream Republican who is “next in line”, and who may be able to oust a wounded Democratic president? Or should they hold their collective breaths and roll the dice with a candidate who says he is prepared to make major changes in government priorities and spending, but who may be way too far off the centre of the road to win that crucial independent vote in the general election.

Given the importance of Florida to the electoral chances of the Republicans, speculation is already beginning that the vice presidential nomination, regardless of whether Romney or Perry is the eventual Republican presidential candidate, would go to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Think about it: he’s youthful and handsome, not your standard issue, knee-jerk conservative, a real Floridian – and most important of all, a Cuban-American Latino politician with charisma to spare. The Latino vote could be crucial in more states than just Florida, and if the Republicans play this electoral card just right, it might help offset the Democrats’ usual reserve of African-American voter power. DM



Read more:

  • Perry assailed by GOP rivals, defends his record on AP;
  • Rick Perry goes on defensive in Republican presidential debate in The Washington Post;
  • Perry Is Target as Republican Candidates Take Aim on The New York Times.

Photo: REUTERS

  • J Brooks Spector


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