Rick Perry grins, shrugs and swings away at Reagan Library GOP debate
Fresh from surveying wildfires in his home state, Perry was the shiny new toy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It was his first presidential debate, and moderators Brian Williams of "NBC Nightly News" and Politico editor-in-chief John Harris called on him at most every opportunity.
And he didn't disappoint, particularly in pointed exchanges with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was the presumptive front-runner until Perry entered the race on Aug. 13, the day of the Ames straw poll in Iowa.
Consider this exchange on the question of job creation:
Romney: "George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor."
Perry: "That's not correct."
Romney: "That is correct."
Williams: "Nice to see that everybody came prepared for tonight's conversation."
Or, when Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said Perry wrote a letter in the '90s "supporting Hillarycare."
Perry countered that he was his state's agriculture commissioner during the Clinton administration and that he was urging Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady, not to forget rural healthcare in her proposal to overhaul healthcare policy. Then he looked at Paul and said, "I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan, saying, 'I'm going to quit the party because of the things you believe in.' "
"Oh," said Paul, "I need an answer on that!"
He went on to explain how he'd supported Reagan in 1976, and supported his....
"Funny thing about mail," said Williams, "it tends to live on forever."
(Boy, future debates featuring tons of tweets and Facebook postings should be a hoot.)
The audience also tossed some red meat to GOP critics when, late in the debate, there was considerable applause when Williams mentioned the 234 inmates executed in Texas during Perry's tenure, asking Perry whether he struggled with thinking one of them might be innocent.
Perry's response: "No, sir, I've never struggled with that at all." He went on to describe the heinous crimes eligible for capital punishment and the lengthy appeals process the accused goes through. But Williams only paid attention to the applause.
Williams asked Perry about that, and he said, "I think Americans understand justice."
No doubt the nuances of crime, punishment, victims' rights, the legal system, the will of the voters and so on will not be considered when the applause is discussed in certain quarters.
Overall, it was a little hard for anyone not named Perry or Romney to get a great deal of time in the debate, and if Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was hoping for a strong showing, she didn't really get the chance.
The event began with jobs -- appropriate, since there won't be an official GOP response to President Obama's much-anticipated speech on jobs before a joint session of Congress on Thursday evening. Perry defended his job creation record in Texas. He commended Romney's record as a job creator in the private sector, as a businessman, but decried it in the public sector, as governor.
"We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas," said Perry, "than he created in four years in Massachusetts."
Williams tried to widen the debate and bring in businessman Herman Cain, but Romney jumped in to list all the good things Perry had in Texas that he didn't have in Massachusetts -- no income tax, a right-to-work state, Republican Legislature and judiciary, oil and gas.
"Those are wonderful things," said Romney, "but Gov. Perry doesn't believe he created those things. If he tried to say that, it'd be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."
After that came the Dukakis remark.
Cain finally got his chance and laid out his "9-9-9" economic growth plan, including a 9% tax rate.
"If 10% is good enough for God," he said, referencing religious tithing, "9% should be enough for the federal government."
Williams offered former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who most recently served as ambassador to China, the chance to attack Romney on his recently released economic plan, which labeled China a "currency manipulator."
Huntsman -- whose tan is now reaching Charlie Crist depth -- warned against starting a trade war and then defended his job-creating record against those of the other former state chief executives on the panel.
At this point, about 13 minutes in, Bachmann got her first question from Williams, on onerous regulations, and took the chance to reiterate her pledge to eviscerate "Obamacare."
Williams then wanted to know if Paul would get rid of federal oversight of medication or car safety or air-traffic control.
Paul said he believed the market could take care of that.
Williams asked again. Paul gave about the same answer again.
Then Williams turned to Newt Gingrich, pointing out that he'd written the foreword to Rick Perry's book, "Fed Up!" in which he'd called the Texan "uniquely qualified to explain what's taking place with the economy."
As to whether that meant job creation, Gingrich said, "No, but it means if he wants to write another book, I'll write another foreword." That drew a broad grin and a thumbs-up from Perry (top and bottom-of-the-ticket speculations can now officially begin).
The discussion moved, as it does every time Romney waves hello to a reporter, to the subject of his universal healthcare plan in Massachusetts and the "individual mandate." Perry, unsurprisingly, didn't think much of it.
This caused Harris to point out to Perry that he has a much larger percentage of uninsured in Texas than Romney had in Massachusetts, saying the state was "50 out of 50, dead last. It's pretty hard to defend dead last."
Perry said something about not getting "flexibility" from the federal government. Not sure that one got answered.
And, of course, Huntsman did better than both of them in Utah (a claim he also made for job creation). And did we mention Bachmann wants to repeal Obamacare?
Gingrich agrees, but first he took a swipe at Harris, saying, "I, for one, and I hope all of my friends up here, are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated."
That got perhaps the biggest applause of the night, including from Perry.
Williams asked former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a "devout" Roman Catholic, about helping the poor, and he listed his legislative efforts in that regard, both in the House and the Senate.
To Williams' assertion about white households being much wealthier than African American ones, Perry quoted John Kennedy in asserting that the "most powerful welfare reform program is a job."
After a brief film about the Reagan Library and a salute to Nancy Reagan, who was in the audience (and looking quite fine after her near-fall during Marco Rubio's recent appearance there), Harris went at Perry with comments from his book criticizing Social Security.
Perry refused to back off one bit, reiterating his stand that the program is a "Ponzi scheme," and saying it is "a monstrous lie" to tell people in their 20s and 30s that they will receive their expected benefits.
When Harris mentioned that former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove had called such comments "toxic," Perry shot back that "Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. I'm not responsible for Karl anymore."
A bit later he added, "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country."
Cain offered a solution to the issue, based on the "Chilean model" of private retirement accounts.
Bachmann tried to chime in, but Harris went to Paul to ask about his criticisms of Perry's record on immigration and his executive order mandating that 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas be given the Gardasil vaccine against HPV, which causes cervical cancer.
Paul said it wasn't good medicine or good social policy -- getting an unhappy face from Perry -- and then complained strongly that it was done by executive order, a decision the Texas Legislature later reversed.
Saying, "I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party," Perry explained that there was an opt-out in his order.
That cut no mustard with Santorum or Bachmann, who supported parental rights and decried Perry's actions.
Perry did say he regretted the way he did it, which Romney later supported, saying, "We've all taken a mulligan or two."
Perhaps it takes a governor, who's gotten beaten up for being a "decider," as Bush used to say, to understand someone else who's taken the same heat. "His heart was in the right place," Romney added.
There was some back-and-forth about Homeland Security and FEMA, with Gingrich, Cain and Huntsman coming down on the side of fixing the bureaucracy over killing it, and Paul taking the opposite stance.
Paul suggested where FEMA money could be found, claiming that cutting air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan would not only save money, but bring troops home more quickly.
Williams then thumped Perry on Texas' educational record and his recent cuts to school funding, and Perry explained the "unique situation" of having a state share such a long border with Mexico -- implying it has many students who speak Spanish as a first or perhaps only language -- and then pointed out that the Texas workforce is well-educated enough to attract many major companies to move there.
Then NBC brought out Jose Diaz-Balart from Telemundo to ask the immigration questions (but didn't let him sit down).
He asked about a border fence (most everybody liked that, to some degree) and what to do with illegal immigrants already here (amnesty was a nonstarter, with Gingrich pointing out that Ronald Reagan signed that in the '80s, in exchange for other promises that ultimately didn't happen).
Romney and Gingrich want to be harder on employers; Paul agreed with that but also blamed U.S. drug laws (and worried that a border fence could not only keep people out but keep Americans in).
Huntsman spoke about legal immigration, which really wasn't the question on the table.
Williams asked Perry about the question from the last debate, in Iowa, about whether participants would accept $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases. Perry joined in the unanimous "no" from the last time.
On the question of U.S. military exploits since 9/11, Huntsman would rather nation-build at home than in Afghanistan.
Harris tried to get Perry to directly criticize Bush's "military adventurism," but Perry instead praised President Obama for getting Osama bin Laden, saying, "I tip my hat to him. I give more props" -- or, "propes," as he pronounced it -- "to those Navy SEALs who did the job."
Harris went back to the question again, prompting Perry to say troops shouldn't be put at risk without genuine American interests being at stake and having an exit strategy.
Santorum, though, decried "isolationist" views and exit strategies and said Reagan had been committed "to America being a force for good."
Harris asked Huntsman about an advisor of his who said some of the candidates were "crazy," and Huntsman said he should call the advisor. Harris then asked about Huntsman's concerns that the GOP is "anti-science," leading to an exchange on anthropogenic global warming (Huntsman seemed to go along as a supporter of that notion) and to Perry citing air-quality improvement in Texas by Texans.
There was only a brief discussion of energy policy, followed by Romney and Gingrich asserting that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be out of a job in short order in either of their administrations.
Asked about school nutrition programs, Paul objected to being accused of lacking compassion.
Then, having run a bit over, the questions came to an end.
-- Kate O'Hare
Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.
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Photos: Plaque at the Reagan Library, reflecting a section of the Berlin Wall; Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at the Reagan Library GOP debate; Rick Perry and Ron Paul at the Reagan Library GOP debate; Credits: Kate O'Hare (plaque); MSNBC (screen shots of Perry, Romney and Paul)