Thoughts on the first big New Hampshire presidential debate of this election cycle, just concluded:
CNN's John King, the moderator, was a real disappointment. What are the Republican candidates and the Manchester Union Leader doing turning the debate over to a journalist who seems so clearly out to embarrass them or drive them off message. Mr. King's questioning about the economy was largely devoted to grilling the candidates about whether Governor Pawlenty's 5% growth target was "too optimistic." He asked pointedly at one juncture that if tax cuts create jobs, "where were the jobs" after President George W. Bush's tax cuts. He asked the candidates if Republicans were demonizing public employees. He asked not a word about Iran's nuclear ambitions or the regime in Syria, but spent a long time on gay marriage, gays in the military, and abortion. He wasted valuable debate time with trivialities, asking Governor Pawlenty whether he preferred Coke or Pepsi and asking Governor Romney whether he liked his barbecue spicy or mild. (The answers were Coke and spicy.)
Governor Romney helped himself, as did Newt Gingrich. Both of them pushed back against Mr. King's ridiculous questions, with Mr. Gingrich bridling against a question that seemed to force him into a false choice on immigration and Mr. Romney, in response to the gays in the military question, telling Mr. King, "We ought to be talking about the economy and jobs." Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich to some degree had the most at stake, since they had taken some heat in the past weeks for their positions on health care, but they seemed the most comfortable on television of all the candidates.
One might object that a debate like this tests television presence and the ability to think on one's feet rather than the skills necessary to be a good president. But television presence and the ability to think on one's feet actually are skills needed to be a good president, if not the only ones.
The debate did manage to tease out some differences among the candidates. Ron Paul is the most averse to American military activities overseas. When the other candidates said they'd listen to what the generals advised, Mr. Paul put them in their place by saying, "I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander in chief." Mr. Romney, Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, and Michele Bachmann all expressed support for President George W. Bush's constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, while Herman Cain said it was a matter for the states, and Mr. Paul said it should be a matter for churches: "Get the government out." Ms. Bachmann did say that as president she wouldn't campaign to overturn state laws providing for same-sex marriage.
Mr. Romney had one blunder when he spoke of America leaving Afghanistan and handing the country over to the "Taliban military," but quickly caught and corrected himself.
Mr. Pawlenty sounded a little protectionist when he answered a trade question by talking repeatedly about "fair" trade.
But what was really remarkable was the consensus — not a single one of the seven candidates on stage supported the TARP that George W. Bush proposed and Senator McCain suspended his campaign to get passed in the last presidential election cycle. (Update: Though for more on Herman Cain's TARP position and on that of the other candidates, see the comments. Some of them were for it before they were against it.)
Perhaps as the campaign wears on the newer candidates such as Mr. Pawlenty will acquire some of the apparent ease that more grizzled veterans such as Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney have. And perhaps there are other candidates who will spice things up, like Governor Huntsman or Governor Perry or Governor Gary Johnson, who was inexplicably excluded while Mr. Cain, Mr. Santorum, and Ms. Bachmann were included. On the basis of this first showing it seemed like Mr. Romney who was farthest along in developing and communicating a focused criticism of President Obama on job creation. But there's a long campaign ahead.