The Most Libertarian GOP Debate in History

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Fox News moderators asked tough questions. Two out of five candidates on the stage were anti-war. Welcome to the debate different.

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The winners in last night's GOP debate?

The Fox News Channel was the biggest. The cable network's moderators asked questions that were reasonably tough, well-researched, and less flawed than is typical. America could always do a lot better when it comes to what is asked of its presidential candidates. Relatively speaking, however, kudos are owed, even if former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson got a silly question about what reality TV show he would host if given the chance. (He flubbed it too -- the answer is clearly "The Amazing Race.")

Libertarians had a great night too: they accounted for two-fifths of the people on stage for the only time in memory, and were allowed to make their points without being attacked because none of the other candidates saw them as a threat. As a result, Fox News viewers heard unrebutted and lengthy arguments for ending the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, as well as ending the war on drugs. Has that ever happened before on America's top rated cable news network?

Tim Pawlenty won what I call the central casting award: if you had to pick one of the guys on the stage to play president in a movie, who would it be? His delivery is smooth, he has a nice smile, and he seems friendly and reasonable. That "seems presidential" quality is a terrible metric for picking a leader, but voters seem to put a lot of emphasis on it. Too bad for Rick Santorum, who doesn't have it, and Gary Johnson, whose likable but slightly kooky personality is its opposite. I loved Johnson's utter refusal to pander at all on matters from the drug war to immigration, but his "lack of gravitas" -- this is a phrase people use as if it signifies something meaningful -- is going to cost him. Strange to put so much emphasis on that quality, but admit it: You'd irrationally vote for Morgan Freeman over most other actors, despite the likely disasters that would ensue.

Finally, Herman Cain was the overwhelming favorite among the voters Fox News spoke to after the debate. It was actually very weird. They were all sitting in a room together, and as the host went down the line they all seemed to have a pithy talking point prepared about why they liked him. 

The biggest losers in the debate?

Opponents of torture ought to be dismayed that three of the five candidates raised their hand when asked whether they'd perhaps employ a formerly Communist torture technique known as waterboarding, wherein detainees are strapped to a table, blindfolded, and repeatedly made to fear they will drown by men who pour water down their throats.

On substance, I thought Santorum had one of the weakest answers of the night. On the subject of Pakistan, he said, "We need a president out front saying you either cooperate with us, or there will be consequences, and one of the consequences will be aid." The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a nuclear power that gives us some cooperation in exchange for our aid, but that is also divided in its government and includes some people who want to actively undermine us. This is just a geopolitical reality, and while presumably there are things we can do to marginally improve the situation, the idea that a tougher-talking president would do better for the U.S. is simpleminded.

Finally, Mitt Romney took the most hits among likely candidates who weren't on the stage.

A lot of people are lamenting the fact that only five candidates were present, but watching the event, I preferred it. The American people were afforded the chance to learn about some of the lesser-knowns. In fact, I wonder if a field of ten candidates should always be split in two sections during early debates. It isn't as if there is much interaction among pols, and once you've got more than six or seven people on stage there just isn't enough time for anyone to be meaningfully interrogated.  

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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