Thoughts on the Fox News Sioux City debate

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  • You didn’t have to guess who was the frontrunner subject to attacks in the @FoxNews #iowadebate: Newt Gingrich.

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  • Mitt Romney got attacked hardly at all, and directed practically all his attacks Barack Obama’s way #iowadebate

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  • Big winner in the debate: Romney. Loser in the debate: Gingrich. Lesser winner: Perry. #iowadebate

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Well, you didn’t have to guess who was the frontrunner subject to attacks in the Fox News Sioux City debate tonight: Newt Gingrich. Michele Bachmann lambasted him on his $1.6 million relationship with Freddie Mac, relentlessly, repeatedly, talking about a “grandiose scam” and making the point that the government-sponsored enterprises—Freddie Mac and its larger twin Fannie Mae—were at the epicenter of the financial crisis of 2008. She also lambasted Gingrich on right-to-life issues, arguing that his willingness to campaign for (the very small number of) Republicans who opposed a partial-birth abortion ban and unwillingness to defund Planned Parenthood (an issue which lacked a majority in the House when Gingrich was speaker) were a betrayal of the pro-life cause.

"Big winner in the debate: Mitt Romney. Loser in the debate: Newt Gingrich. Lesser winner in the debate: Rick Perry." --Michael BaroneGingrich attempted to dismiss her as wrong on the facts; she came back, rather defensively, saying she was a serious candidate and that her facts were accurate. Ron Paul and Rick Perry also chimed in with derisive comments about Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac. Bachmann may or may not have advanced her own cause, but I think that she inflicted some damage on Gingrich, making it harder for voters to believe that he is the most principled and consistent conservative in the race.

Gingrich responded in a variety of ways, saying that Bachmann was wrong on her facts (to which she took predictable umbrage), going out of his way to praise Mitt Romney by crediting his Medicare reform package with inspiring what Gingrich said was the praiseworthy Medicare plan advanced today in the Wall Street Journal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden.

Apparently aware that his proposals to have Congress question and remove federal judges and calling for the U.S. to renounce United Nations programs sounded far out (though they drew applause from the audience), Gingrich began his comments on Barack Obama’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline by saying that since he gets accused of using overly strong language and is concerned about not appearing zany (the word used by Mitt Romney on TV recently) he has been standing there editing himself. Nonetheless he called Obama’s decision to defer a decision on Keystone until after the election “utterly irrational” and one that “makes no sense to any normal rational American.” Those are, in my view, defensible if not irrefutable statements. But Gingrich was on the defensive tonight, and Bachmann may have tarnished his conservative credentials for some significant number of Iowa caucusgoers and Republican primary voters generally.

Mitt Romney got attacked hardly at all, and directed practically all his attacks Barack Obama’s way. He gets points, I think, for hailing the Ryan-Wyden initiative as “a big day for the country” and “an enormous achievements.” He touted again and again his private sector experience, while noting self-deprecatingly and even citing specifics that he was not always right (preemptive attempted insulation against Democratic attacks in the general). He was actually pretty good in explaining why he changed his position on abortion and in arguing that he was consistently opposed to same-sex marriage (I believe Rick Santorum’s description of the Massachusetts Constitution, saying that as governor Romney could make the decision on this, is wrong). He was deft in responding that of course we don’t know what industries will propel economic growth forward, that that will be determined by the workings of the economic marketplace. He was also fairly specific on immigration, arguing that a biometric identification card could reduce the incentive of illegal immigrants to remain here. He had a great line when he said that if Barack Obama was elected America would be in decline but if he was elected it wouldn’t be. A fine debate performance for him.

Did you sort of love Rick Perry’s performance? I did. “I’m kind of getting where I like these debates,” he said, and I give him points for rebounding from earlier debacles. His call for a part-time Congress I think is kind of a cheap shot, but did you know that (a) this is the 220th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, (b) that Texas is the number one wind energy state, (c) that an attorney general who didn’t know about Fast and Furious should be fired for incompetence? I didn’t really, but Perry did. Plus he nominated himself as the Tim Tebow of candidates. His 42-stop bus tour may win him some support in Iowa, and so might this debate performance.

Jon Huntsman came off, once again, as intellectually interesting but also temperamentally as something of a scold. Ron Paul’s faceoff with Michele Bachmann on Iran’s nuclear weapons exposed what for me is an untterly unrealistic and even weird foreign policy (I’m referring to Paul’s, not Bachmann’s). Left off to the side, mostly, was Rick Santorum. He, like Bachmann, managed to bring up the Iowa Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state, and Santorum, unlike Bachmann, said that he actually campaigned against the three state Supreme Court justices who were on the ballot in 2010 and who, as both he and she noted, were denied reelection (though by not overwhelming margins of about 55%-45%). Santorum made the useful point that Iran has been committing acts of war against us since 1979 and noted the presence of Iranian and jihadist elements in Venezuela and other Latin American states allied with Hugo Chavez. But will his 350 town hall meetings and events in all 99 counties push him into contention? Nothing in this debate suggests that the answer is yes.

Big winner in the debate: Mitt Romney. Loser in the debate: Newt Gingrich. Lesser winner in the debate: Rick Perry. Or at least that’s how it looks from here. One major disappointment: no one mentioned that Sioux City was the home town of America's leading personal advice columnists from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Friedman twins, better known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby. And it was also the home town of Alan Baron, the George McGovern supporter and early newsletter publisher/writer, who did much adapt Iowa's old-fashioned precinct/county convention/state convention delegate selection process into the first caucus real presidential contest of the year. Baron did this because he sensed, accurately, that Iowa has a dovish/isolationist leaning and that having it as the first contest would push the Democratic party into the dovish direction.

As it has done. Whether you like that or not, it's interesting that an important role in setting America's mores and political calendars would be played by three Jewish kids from a small city in western Iowa which, on its bluffs above the Missouri River, has never attracted as many as 100,000 residents.

Only in America.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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