This latest debate had a slightly changed dynamic, driven by the opinion polls showing Herman Cain gaining and Governor Perry falling. Some of the other candidates started directing their attacks at Mr. Cain.
Rep. Ron Paul, for example, used his chance to ask a question of any other candidate to ask Mr. Cain why he opposed auditing the Fed. And the former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, attacked Mr. Cain's plan for a 9% national sales tax. Mr. Santorum asked the audience, "How many people are for a sales tax in New Hampshire?" Getting no response, Mr. Santorum said, "That's how many votes you'll get in New Hampshire, Herman."
Governor Perry, who had been the center of attention after he entered the race, was said to have been put to bed early by his aides to make sure he had gotten enough sleep for the debate. Alas, it wasn't clear the aides had awakened him early enough; he struggled to assemble a single coherent or grammatically correct sentence. Not that articulateness is everything in a politician or a candidate, but at a certain point one begins to wonder if it points to some deeper problem.
The big loser in the debate was the Bloomberg News-Washington Post combine, which delivered so many questions animated by left-liberal assumptions — why won't you raise taxes to balance the budget like Ronald Reagan? What will you do about the terrible problem of people being rich at the same time as other people being poor? How eager will you be to compromise with the Democrats to raise taxes? Why aren't more Wall Street executives in jail — that the program at times felt not like a debate among the Republican presidential candidates, but like a debate between the group of Republican politicians, on one side, and the group of journalists, on the other. It's not that the journalists were hard left, just that they were kind of conventionally left-moderate in a predictably, plodding fashion.
The most self-damaging moment of the debate, other than almost any time Governor Perry spoke, was when Herman Cain was asked what Federal Reserve chairman of the past 40 years he most admired, and he named Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve when Mr. Cain was a director of the Kansas City regional fed. Ron Paul replied, "Alan Greenspan was a disaster," keeping rates too low for too long. "Greenspan caused so much trouble," Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Romney, asked who he'd like as Fed chairman, said, "I wish we could find Milton Friedman." He went on to quote Friedman as saying, "If we could lay all the economists end to end, that would be a good thing." It got a laugh, but Mr. Romney showed no indication that he understood Friedman, while a genius and a free marketeer, was not a sound money guy but rather one who helped encourage Nixon to take the fateful step of closing the gold window 40 years ago.
Newt Gingrich had a good debate, challenging Governor Romney on what his rationale was for limiting his proposed capital gains tax cut to those with incomes of $200,000 or less. Mr. Gingrich suggested that was lower than even President Obama's $250,000 cutoff for defining "rich" for the purposes of taxes, and suggested that it would, Obama-style, "divide us."
Mr. Romney said something about, "If I'm gonna use precious dollars to reduce taxes" — falling into the politician's trap of thinking of the dollars as belonging to the government rather than the individual who earned them. He went on, "I'm not worried about rich people, they are doing just fine."
Mr. Gingrich took aim at George W. Bush's treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, saying, "Paulson and Bernanke and Geithner didn't have a clue."
Mr. Romney had a strong — impressive, even — debate performance in terms of communicating his own considerable strengths effectively, but both the Milton Friedman answer and the answer to Mr. Gingrich's questions on the capital gains tax will probably also provide some additional grist for those who wish his command of policy and principle were raised to the level of his skill as a debater.
Huntsman and Bachmann were there, too, but weren't much factors, in my view of it.