Wolf Blitzer did a great job moderating Monday night's combative CNN/Tea Party debate among the Republican presidential candidates. Nonetheless, I find myself left with a few lingering questions.
1. Did this debate take place before or after the global economic meltdown?
Yes, I know it happened after. But as I listened to the exchanges on the desirability of privatizing Social Security and the intrinsic evils of regulation, I could have sworn it was before.
To be fair, whatever Democrats may say now, these points of view are neither new nor entirely without merit. As of the late 1990s, some real statesmen — including the late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) — favored some mechanism whereby individuals could opt to invest some portion of their Social Security entitlement into the stock market, on the bet that this would greatly increase their nest eggs. And Democrats, up to and including then-President Bill Clinton, supported the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, the most comprehensive act of banking deregulation in U.S. history, which cleared the way for the practice of banking, stock trading, and insurance services within single institutions. No doubt, like a nose ring or a third shot of vodka, that seemed like a good idea at the time.
It strikes me as strange that the entire Republican field seems committed to pretending that the financial crisis never happened.
But when the global economic meltdown did come along, was there not something of a collective "phew" that Americans hadn't had the option of gambling with their Social Security money? And were there not a hundred kinds of hell unleashed upon whatever cretins had allowed financial-services behemoths to become "too big to fail"? And was it not widely seen, if only in rueful retrospect, as folly to have given lenders such completely free rein as to offer major deals to multitudes of borrowers who couldn't possibly pay them back?
Don't get me wrong. The Democrats, with their penchant for demonizing a financial-services industry that the country very much needs, are no prize on this front, either. But when it comes to fitness for the highest office in a land that has been devastated in significant part by deregulation run amok, it strikes me as strange that the entire Republican field seems committed to pretending that the whole thing never happened.
2. Do the Republicans know that illegal immigration has plummeted?
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigration to the U.S. has been declining precipitously for a number of years, presumably because job-seeking foreigners have heard that America has no jobs. For example, according to Pew, between 2007 and 2009, the rate of undocumented arrivals declined by about two-thirds. Still, Monday's lineup treated illegal immigration as an unmitigated national disaster, with attacks raining down on Perry for having failed to "build enough fence" and for having signed a law allowing some illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition in Texas. Meanwhile, for purposes of spurring the U.S. economy, the far more pressing immigration issue is our need to stop blocking desirable immigrants, not that of absorbing undesirable ones. Incredibly, then, only Utah-governor-turned-Obama's-ambassador-to-China-turned-asterisk-in-the-polls Jon Huntsman so much as hinted at this. He made a fleeting reference to the need to reform homeland security policy — which now gums up the granting of HB1 visas to the cream of the international intellectual crop, who are thus prevented from coming to the U.S. and joining the industries that create the most — and best — employment. Of course, this raises the deeper question of why America flatly refuses to grow enough of its own job-generating geniuses, but no one got into that, either.
3. Does Michele Bachmann realize how expensive epidemics can get?
For right-wing candidates who dislike the taste of Rick Perry's dust, the Texas governor's 2007 decision to order a vaccine against the sexually transmitted infection HPV must have seemed like a magical twofer. Not only was it an executive order on a personal matter — and thus anathema to libertarians — but it was also an admission that very young females may have occasion to contract a sexually transmitted disease, and thus anathema to the "nice girls can't get pregnant" wing of the party.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was quick to lock himself in with the latter, distinguishing between inoculating children against diseases that they can pick up by attending school and inoculating them against diseases that they can only catch through sexual activity. But Bachmann made a much broader attack on behalf of "innocent little 12-year-old girls" who "do not get a do-over" when "forced" to receive a "dangerous drug" by "government injection." That's a charge that can be — and unfortunately is — hurled at any state-required vaccination. No doubt this is just fine with a segment of what she hopes to retain as her base. But if the national debt is Tea Party enemy number one, and health-care costs constitute a major driver of that debt, Bachmann might need to elucidate the fiscal wisdom of allowing communities to re-introduce diseases that used to cost a fortune in lives, health, and money.
4. Do "the churches" know that Ron Paul has nominated them to replace Medicaid?
Truth be told, I have always liked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), if only because he has a clear, consistent point of view and a clear, consistent way of stating it. In that regard, though, his best moment of the debate was immediately followed by his worst. Blitzer asked him about a hypothetical healthy 30-year-old man who decided he didn't want to pay for health insurance that he probably wouldn't use, and then went on to have a terrible accident resulting in the need for six months in intensive care. Who should pay for this? "That's what freedom is all about: Taking your own risks," Paul said. Blitzer pressed him on whether society should just let this risk-taker die. "Let's face it,” a logically consistent Paul would have said. "He wouldn't be the first person who died from making a bad decision."
Disappointingly, though, Paul whiffed with some mumbling about his days as a young doctor in a Texas hospital before Medicaid, when no one got turned away because there were churches and friends and so forth available to pick up the tab.
This is a long-standing Republican rhetorical feint, and it cuts two ways. First, there is the whole idea that there is a clear and complete separation of church and state when it comes to the funding of social programs: There is the corrosive, laziness-spawning money that comes from the government pot, and the edifying, neighborly money that comes from the religious-organizations pot. In practice, that line has always been blurred, and thanks to the "faith-based initiatives" first undertaken by the administration of George W. Bush, it has become much more so. For instance, in 2009, nearly 70 percent of Catholic Charities' multibillion-dollar budget came from taxpayer dollars. So sure, churches serve those in need — but very often, they do so with state money.
Even so, especially now, such entities are struggling with cash-strapped schools, bankrupt hospitals and bare food banks. They are in no financial position to pick up whatever social services the government drops, and it is simply dishonest to pretend that they are. If the Republicans win the White House, it will be a good thing that "the churches" believe in God, because only He knows what they'd do with a free-floating moral imperative to care for those who lived to regret their marvelous freedom to forgo health insurance, and no money to care for them with.
5. Will America actually buy any of these folks as a possible savior?
Notwithstanding all of the above, America very well might — but at least one of these eight is going to have to learn to recognize a rhetorical gift when it is handed to them, as when a CNN viewer wrote in to ask how the candidates could be both pro-business and pro-worker. Herman Cain plunged into a riff involving his humble origins and his experience running the National Restaurant Association. Jon Huntsman extolled himself as the erstwhile job spinner of Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, one could practically hear the soundbite begging to be spoken. It wasn't, but unfortunately for Obama, it probably will be next time: We can't help employees unless we help employers. A worker isn't a worker if he hasn't got a job."