The Defining Moments of the GOP Debate

There were several noteworthy exchanges in Iowa. The most important showed that low taxes matter to Republicans far more than deficits

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The most noteworthy and damning moment of the GOP debate in Iowa Thursday was when the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would walk away from a deal that cut ten dollars from the deficit for every one dollar in tax increases. Every last person on stage said they'd reject that deal.

All claim that deficits and debt are grave threats to America's future. On that point, I agree. One way to interpret their answer is that they think tax rates are more important than deficits by a factor of more than ten. To me, that makes them deficit doves. By prioritizing tax cuts above all else, the GOP has long been complicit in growing the deficit and the debt. If all of these candidates would reject a compromise much better than anything they're likely to get as president, what good are they? Is the plan really to hold out for super-majorities in Congress that can be sustained for long enough to make deeply unpopular spending cuts that won't then be repealed once the backlash sets in? Don't they understand that those ten dollars in spending, left uncut when they walked away from the hypothetical deal, would be paid for (with interest) by future taxpayers?

For most if not all, they do understand it. But the GOP primary electorate, after years of misinformation on taxes, doesn't. As my colleague points out, Michele Bachmann seems to have a tenuous grasp on how all this works too. My guess is that Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Tim Pawlenty are lying, and as president would take that 10 to 1 deal in a heartbeat -- and that Michele Bachmann would really walk away from it. Ron Paul? It's hard to say. Unlike so many in the GOP, I think he really does care about deficits, but he doesn't tend to pander either.

Other thoughts about the debate:

-- Michele Bachmann is the logical candidate for everyone who believes Fox News commentators and Rush Limbaugh. For her, compromise isn't a necessary or inevitable part of federal politics. Were that premise correct, what argument could conservatives offer against her?

Of course, most of them know better, and in one of her answers, Bachmann actually revealed, without quite admitting to it, that when forced to compromise, abortion is the biggest issue for her, and fiscal matters are subservient to that issue. It's a perfectly defensible position, and GOP voters should know that a President Bachmann would prioritize her social conservatism to her fiscal conservatism in the negotiations, implicit and explicit, that she doesn't acknowledge will be necessary for her to accomplish any of her agenda. Is that what the tea party wants?

- Newt Gingrich's attack on the moderators was noteworthy mostly because it showed Fox News personnel being criticized in exactly the same way as a "mainstream media" broadcaster would. There were some silly "gotcha" questions, as in every presidential debate, and undue attention paid to conflict rather than policy substance. That said, the moderators did an above average job relative to past performances by broadcast journalists. If the American people want better questions, one method would be to take debates away from the subset of journalism where pleasing hair, the ability to read seamlessly from a teleprompter, and a knack for creating dramatic tension are core job qualifications. The resulting debates might be less watched.

- To me, the most off-putting moment perpetrated by the moderators was when Ron Paul was shouting about wanting to end foreign wars. Chris Wallace and Bret Baier mugged for the camera, as if to signal their mutual embarrassment that a candidate would get earnestly upset and passionate. That unhinged Ron Paul, getting all angry and losing his cool again. And in the game of national politics, it is unusual for pols to show normal human emotion. But for someone like Paul, who doesn't regard our foreign wars as part of "politics as game" -- who very earnestly believes that they're resulting in needless death, destruction, and trillions of dollars squandered -- it isn't at all bizarre to get a bit passionate talking about war of all subjects.

Note too that we're talking about a presidential primary debate, where grown men and women say the most absurd things in the course of pandering to voters. It is damning indeed that someone passionately staking out an unpopular position against foreign wars is all but laughed at for doing so, whereas the moderators react to all manner of political theater with straight faces. It's almost as if the implications of Paul's critique is too awful for Wallace and Baier to take seriously, so they dismiss it as a mental defense mechanism. No wonder we keep entering wars.   

- Given the fact that lots of rank and file conservatives are tired of foreign wars and the money they cost, it is bizarre that there aren't more candidates taking a position that is more moderate on foreign policy than Ron Paul, but quite a bit less hawkish than the bulk of the Republican field.  


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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