The Conservative Circus

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POLITICS MAY 6, 2011

The Conservative Circus

Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina basically consisted of one actual, viable politician who could conceivably win a presidential election—Tim Pawlenty—standing alongside a bunch of fifth-tier candidates who had no hope: Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson. Indeed, by about halfway through the debate, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had blasted out three long “fact-check” e-mails addressing things Pawlenty had said, while completely ignoring everyone else. It was a conservative circus, to be sure, but even the most ridiculous of the performers showed up for a reason. So what, exactly, was each candidate trying to accomplish by taking the stage?

Tim Pawlenty. Pretty obvious answer, here—Pawlenty’s trying his best to look presidential, even when standing next to folks who are talking about legalizing drugs (that would be former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson) and scaling Mount Everest (Johnson, again). Pawlenty spent time testing out stump speech lines (“I grew up in a meatpacking town…”); finding novel ways to bash President Obama’s foreign policy (if the U.S. had only installed a no-fly zone went Pawlenty wanted one, rather than waiting for U.N. approval, Muammar Qaddafi would probably be defeated by now); explaining away old positions to the well-prepped Fox News moderators (Pawlenty only wanted to study cap-and-trade, you see, he never wanted to actually implement it), and taking care not to antagonize politicians who are polling well in Iowa (“I love the Huck!” he cried, in regards to Mike Huckabee, who hasn’t declared, and wasn’t at the debate). Few of the other candidates seemed interested in savaging Pawlenty, so he probably fared just fine for the night.

Rick Santorum. Few campaign handicappers seem to give Santorum much chance at being president, even though, on paper, he’s a reasonable candidate (well, except for that pesky Google problem...). Nonetheless, Santorum really seems to believe he has a shot (“Santorum Delivers Impressive Performance in First Presidential Debate,” his own campaign crowed at the end of the night). His main pitch was that he’s won long-shot races before (“You want someone who can beat Democratic incumbents in tough times?” he asked, while pointing at himself). Plus, as the standard-bearer for social conservative values, he was there to keep the flag flying high; on possible presidential contender and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’s call for a truce on social values, Santorum growled, “I think anyone who calls for a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America’s all about.” So did he succeed in seeming like a serious candidate? A possible mark of legitimacy is that, sometime in the debate’s second half, the DNC relented on its Pawlenty-only campaign and blasted out a fact-check hitting Santorum for his remarks on immigration.

Herman Cain. No one else seemed to know what to make of Cain, a former pizza entrepreneur and talk-radio host. He made a rousing pitch for the FairTax—his plan to replace income and payroll taxes with a hefty sales tax—and, when Fox News anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace pointed out that the plan would mean a tax cut for the wealthy and a tax hike for the middle class, Cain shot back with, “With all due respect, your experts are wrong.” Cain wins the award for most fantastical answer of the night: After mocking Obama’s recent remarks that not much can be done about gas taxes in the short term, Cain noted that, if the president just issued an energy independence plan, then energy-market speculators “would stop speculating up and start speculating down.” Still, Cain did win over viewers in the post-debate Fox focus group, so he must’ve been doing something right.

Gary Johnson. For much of the night, it seemed like Johnson’s goal was simply to get someone to pay attention to him (he interrupted the moderators at one point to declare, “It’s like nine questions for these guys and none for me!”). At times, Johnson managed to make a principled case for libertarianism, even when it put him at odds with longtime GOP positions. He noted that giving all the undocumented immigrants in the country work visas (rather than citizenship) was a more sensible alternative to building a 2,000-mile border wall. He went there on drug legalization (“Ninety percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related”). And, unlike just about everyone else in the country, he has no interest in indulging in old-fashioned China-bashing (“I don’t favor tariffs of any kind, whatsoever,” he said, when asked about Donald Trump’s proposal to slap trade barriers on China). Sometimes fringe candidates can serve a valuable purpose by stating ideas that the mainstream guys are afraid to utter. In that sense, Johnson was a welcome addition to the debate.

Ron Paul. Paul plays a similar role to Johnson’s, but he tends to push the envelope on debates that are already starting to divide conservatives—and, in that respect, he’ll probably end up being the most influential long-shot guy in the Republican race. (That’s especially true given his rabid fan base and ability to raise impressive gobs of money.) On gay marriage, Paul said he wants to get government out of the business altogether—”I have my standards, but I shouldn’t have to impose them on others”—which might well appeal to a younger generation of conservatives who have no interest in Santorum-style gay-bashing. Then, of course, there’s national security. Paul is against secret military prisons (“It’s more typical of an authoritarian government”); he wants to get out of Afghanistan (“We went to Afghanistan to get [Osama bin Laden], and he hasn’t been there. Now that he is killed, it’s time to get out.”); and he’s against torture under all circumstances. When Santorum tried to suggest that “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to the capture of bin Laden, Paul cut him off: “That’s not true!” The crowd went wild. Not a bad showing for a guy with no chance.

Bradford Plumer is the associate editor of The New Republic.

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posted in: politics, godfather pizza, google, santorum, everest, gary johnson, herman cain, mike huckabee, rick santorum, ron paul, tim pawlenty, iowa, new mexico, south carolina, united nations

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