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October 24, 2011

The GOP Beauty Pageant

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The latest debate, hosted this time by CNN on October 23, fell into a familiar pattern. These events are intended to grant Republican primary voters insights into the style and substance of the candidates for president. Instead, they've become an embarrassment.


Instead of showing us the hidden treasures within these presidential aspirants, we're shown the stunning lack of preparation by the people who will have to face down President Barack Obama next year.


Each debate features a similar theme. Lesser candidates line up to take shots at presumed front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. We've seen every candidate come prepared with attack lines and one-liners about Mr. Romney on healthcare, abortion rights, illegal immigration and gay marriage.


One problem with this strategy: Republican primary voters themselves don't seem to believe that Governor Romney is the best choice. He continues to plod along at 25% in national polling, while a substandard parade of less-qualified candidates keeps bouncing between mid-single digits and the mid-20 percent range.


The one missing piece of the GOP primary puzzle was Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, Mr. Huntsman refused to appear at an event in Nevada, citing his strong support of the voters of New Hampshire. Nevada had decided to accelerate its primary election date, placing in jeopardy New Hampshire's status as the earliest real primary in the nation. Iowa's straw polls notwithstanding, New Hampshire has fiercely defended its place in line.


Governor Huntsman's strategy is odd, to say the least. He's banking much of his campaign on the idea that with a strong New Hampshire showing, he can keep a failing campaign alive. It isn't even clear that he could win there even if he spent all of his time and money there.


Herman Cain, the latest flavor-of-the-month, found himself having to defend his 9-9-9 tax plan to the entire field, as well as the audience. 9-9-9 was a great slogan, a simple and easy way to explain his idea for bringing the nation out of insolvency and making the complex tax code simpler.


Problem is that the pundits and economists have now had a week or two to examine the numbers.


Turns out that 9-9-9, while simple to say, would be a mess to try to implement. A 9% national sales tax in exchange for lowered income tax rates sounds on the surface like a good trade. As explained in the CNN debate, Mr. Cain's national sales tax does not replace the state’s sales tax; he calls that an apple, while his national sales tax is an orange.


The problem arises in those places that:


1.)        Already have an apple, in Maryland’s case a 6% apple. Adding Mr. Cain's 9% orange makes a rather expensive fruit salad at the register.


2.)        Don't have an apple, like Delaware and Florida. Those places pride themselves on no sales tax apples. They will not be interested in Herman Cain's new federal tax orange.


It's probably unnecessary to point this out, but the above scenario essentially covers the entire country!


The former Godfather's Pizza CEO and gospel singer has an outsider's appeal.


He speaks like one of us, simple and direct. The problem is that simple and direct are less attractive when the person communicating those values lacks even the most basic understanding of government and politics.


We don't really want one of us to be president; we want someone qualified.


Besides, haven't we already tried a candidate with no apparent understanding of what it takes to run our federal government? Remember a certain two-year U.S. senator from Illinois, whose only previous non-academic experience was as a state legislator and community organizer? How's that experiment working out for you?


On the other end of the skills spectrum is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the truth-telling quasi-libertarian. Representative Paul is unabashed about his world view. He wants to abolish much of the federal government, slash Pentagon spending, bring all U.S. forces home, and punish Wall Street speculators for their past financial mismanagement.


He's either Huey Long, the screeching populist with his finger on the pulse of Middle America, or he's the crazy uncle who everyone hopes shows up at Thanksgiving, knowing that he'll say something incredibly stupid and insensitive to upset Grandma.


The safe bet is on the crazy uncle.


Minnesota Congressman Michelle Bachmann stuck to her guns, literally. Her only truly powerful moment came toward the end when she explained her worry as a mother that foreclosures were putting families in jeopardy. She expressed her compassion for and solidarity with those other moms, but she never explained what she would do to actually help them.


That explanation was left to the imagination, which is essentially where her candidacy will end up.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry once again proved the adage that the best proof of latent idiocy is a microphone. By all accounts, Mr. Perry has been an effective state chief executive. While lucky to govern a state rich in easily-exploitable natural resources, there's no way a total boob can serve as governor of a large state for 10 years.


As evidenced by his meteoric rise and subsequent fall in the GOP primary polls, a total boob can run for president. His attacks on Mitt Romney were easily turned back on him, and Governor Romney seems to have learned a lesson from Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008. He uses his Daddy voice to cut Governor Perry off, scolding the Texan like a wayward child when he speaks past his allotted time.


No amount of Texas swagger compensates for rhetorically being sent to your room.


Former Georgia Congressman and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had some of the best lines of the night. Quick witted and even faster on his feet, Mr. Gingrich has an encyclopedic grasp of federal policy. When he lectures us about needing a president rooted in fundamental moral values, though, it's fair to wonder about his own marital infidelity. Is this a case of do what I say, not what I do? If so, don't we already have enough of that on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington?


Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum reminded us that he is the candidate who is most against abortion and gay marriage. Okay, Rick, we get it already. His were great lines for a GOP primary, but a probably setup for failure in a General Election. Almost all Americans are against partial birth abortion, they just don't want to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer about it.


If this GOP presidential beauty pageant is supposed to be leading us to see one of these candidates facing off against President Obama, we left want something more. What we'll get is another debate, this one focused on foreign policy.


That should be exciting given the frightening lack of qualifications and preparation shown so far.


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