The two big fights in the Republican presidential debate in Iowa are worth paying attention to, because they represent wider debates that the Republican primary electorate is going to sort out.
The first fight was between Rep. Michele Bachmann and Governor Timothy Pawlenty. He attacked her for not getting results, for, as Senator Santorum put it in his own attack on her, "showmanship, not leadership." Mr. Pawlenty said, making light of Ms. Bachmann's claim to have a titanium spine, "It's not her spine we're worried about, it's her record of results." Ms. Bachmann, for her part, complained that Mr. Pawlenty's vaunted "results" had been achieved at the price of his having "cut a deal with the special interest groups." She criticized him for supporting an individual mandate for health insurance, for supporting a cap-and-trade energy policy, and for proclaiming that the era of small government is over.
Republican voters are going to have to decide whether they want someone as unwilling to compromise as Ms. Bachmann portrays herself, or if they'd rather have a compromiser who might be able to work more effectively with Democrats and independents, or at least win their votes. Ms. Bachmann began by saying she would appeal to independents, disaffected Democrats, and libertarians, and maybe she will, but that seemed designed as a preemptive shield against the attacks that came on those lines from the other candidates.
The second fight came on Iran, between Rep. Ron Paul and Senator Santorum. Dr. Paul had been asked about his opposition to sanctions on Iran, and replied by saying in part that America started our problems with Iran by staging a coup there in 1953. "We just plan don't mind our own business," he said. Mr. Santorum replied, "He sees it exactly the way Barack Obama sees it." Mr. Santorum went on to accuse Iran of trampling the rights of women and gays and also of being the world's biggest supporter of terrorism. Mr. Paul dismissed that as "war propaganda," which he said was "just like we did with Iraq."
Dr. Paul and Mr. Santorum are both considered second tier candidates, but all the candidates, and the Republican voters, are going to have to think about whether they are going to criticize President Obama on the foreign policy front, and, if so, if they are going to differentiate themselves by being more hawkish than he is (like Senator Santorum) or more dovish (like Ron Paul).
There were three other newsworthy points in the debate that I came away with.
Newt Gingrich helped himself, I think, with a concrete proposal that he made twice, noting that while the presidential election is 15 months away, the crisis is now. He called on Congress to return to Washington immediately and repeal the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulation laws as well as ObamaCare.
Mitt Romney helped himself, I think, with an overall strong performance, his second in a row. As a leader in early polls, he was a target. Mr. Pawlenty tried some class warfare, making fun of Mr. Romney's wealth by offering to mow the lawn of anyone who can find Obama's plans for entitlement reforms, then joking, "if Mitt wins, I'll limit it to one acre." Mr. Romney handled it well: "That's just fine." Mr. Romney also handled a question about layoffs at companies owned by Bain Capital, where he worked, by explaining that "Bain invested in 100 companies," and that not all of the investments succeeded, but that's how the real economy works. "Herman Cain and I are the only ones on the stage here who have actually worked in the real economy," he said. Mr. Romney also handled an immigration question pretty well, suggesting the "staple a green card to their diploma" plan for foreign Ph.D. students that I mentioned as one of my 27 ideas for jobs and growth, and reminding everyone, "we are a nation of immigrants. We love legal immigrants." Mr. Romney also said he'd stop extending unemployment benefits and instead reform the unemployment benefit program with "unemployment savings accounts," which is another idea that was discussed in those 27. Mr. Romney also parried a question from Chris Wallace about where in the constitution he found the authority for the individual health insurance mandate by asking Mr. Wallace whether he'd studied the Massachusetts State Constitution, which I thought was a wonderful answer. He said on day one he'd order his health and human services secretary to give ObamaCare waivers to all 50 states. And he offered a closing statement previewing his attack on President Obama as someone who "just doesn't understand how the economy works," a contrast to Mr. Romney, who "believes in free enterprise, believes in capitalism." Mr. Romney is one of the best debaters and communicators in this field. Whether he'd be the best president is a different question, but not an entirely unrelated one.
The third and final takeaway point is about the press. I said the last time around that I thought CNN was a real disappointment. I thought Fox News and the Washington Examiner would be markedly better, but they weren't. Speaker Gingrich complained about "gotcha" questions. Maybe because the journalists were from outlets with conservative reputations, they went out of their way to ask questions with perhaps surprisingly liberal premises, perhaps to prove to their fellow journalists that they weren't "in the tank" for the Republicans. So valuable debate minutes were spent grilling candidates about whether they would favor criminal prosecutions for doctors who performed abortions on rape victims. "Doesn't this show that sometimes raising taxes is necessary?" the Washington Examiner's Byron York asked Governor Romney at one point. His Examiner colleague, Susan Ferrechio, asked Herman Cain why there should be lower taxes on repatriated corporate profits from abroad, since last time there was such a tax break, "companies didn't create jobs, they just paid out dividends to shareholders." That line of attack is based on a flawed New York Times article that I tackled here back in June. Mr. Cain, to his credit, was having none of it, and replied to Ms. Ferrechio, "So what? It's their money." Maybe if the Examiner had had Michael Barone or Timothy Carney ask the questions, it would have been better.