Texas Governor Rick Perry recovered well from his memory lapse in the last debate, dominating the Saturday night CBS News - National Journal national security debate with a proposal to take the U.S. foreign aid budget to zero at the start of his presidency.
"The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars. And then we'll have a conversation," Mr. Perry said.
When the debate moderator asked Newt Gingrich if he agreed with Mr. Perry, the former House Speaker replied, "absolutely."
Later in the debate, Governor Romney volunteered his own agreement with Governor Perry: "You start everything at zero."
The only two candidates to voice disagreement with Mr. Perry on the topic were Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Congresswoman Bachmann said, "I would not agree with that assessment to pull all foreign aid from Pakistan." And Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, said the foreign aid creates jobs in America because military aid dollars are spent on American weapons manufactured by American workers.
In response to a follow-up question, Mr. Perry said the zero aid baseline would also apply to Israel. He joked that "we ought to try doing it" — zero-based budgeting — "with some of those agencies that I was trying to..." remember, a reference to his memory lapse the last time around.
It was the second time in this debate that Mr. Perry looked back with humor on the lapse in the prior debate. The first time came in response to a question about his plan to eliminate the department of energy — the department he couldn't remember the last time around. The question was what would he do about the nuclear weapons programs now within that department. "You remembered it," Mr. Perry replied to CBS's Scott Pelley, who had asked the question. Mr. Pelley responded that he had had some time to think about it. "Me too," said Mr. Perry, in a way that struck me as likeably humble.
Governor Romney stood his ground against Mr. Pelley early in the debate when the CBS anchor tried to cut him off after 30 seconds on one answer. "I get 60," Mr. Romney said. Mr. Pelley first protested, then conceded, "You know what governor, you are right, I stand corrected."
Mr. Romney, Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich seemed to be competing for who could offer the toughest stance against Iran and China.
On Iran, Mr. Romney promised to work "with the insurgents in the country to encourage regime change." Mr. Gingrich vowed "maximum covert operations, including taking out their scientists," as well as "maximum coordination with the Israelis."
On China, Mr. Perry said, "I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues." Maybe he meant to say values? But the "ash heap of history" phrase is what people will remember, along with the zeroing out of foreign aid. Mr. Romney repeated his threat to take China to the World Trade Organization and impose "selective tariffs" as punishment for what he said was Chinese currency manipulation. Said Mr. Romney, "People say, well, you'll start a trade war. There's one going on now, folks. They're stealing our jobs."
The dissenters were Congressman Ron Paul and President Obama's ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. Mr. Paul said the talk of Iran's nuclear threat struck him as similar to the "war propaganda" that went on against Iraq. Mr. Huntsman said Mr. Romney's tariffs would hurt American farmers, exporters, and small businesses (he didn't mention American consumers.)
The first hour of the debate was broadcast on CBS, while the final half-hour was available in many markets only on an internet video stream that was herky-jerky at times in my own experience and according to the reports of some other viewers.
Even for a national/security and foreign policy-oriented debate, it wound up being heavy on Pakistan and light on Europe, Russia, the Americas or Africa.
Mr. Gingrich declined an opportunity offered by the moderator to critically "evaluate" Mitt Romney, responding instead that Mr. Romney would be "a tremendous improvement over Barack Obama."
It was not a particularly strong debate for Herman Cain.