The big question of tonight's Republican presidential debate was whether Rick Perry, cratering in the polls and facing a party Establishment starting to accept the inevitability of Mitt Romney, would survive. I think he did. He is a bad debater, but given the history of figures like George W. Bush, I see no evidence that Republican voters want a good debater. They just want someone who doesn't hopelessly stammer through every answer and accuse conservatives of heartlessness. Perry seemed to attain that level of competence.
One thing I've noticed about Perry is that he seems to be able to speak plausibly about Texas, and he turned national questions into Texas questions whenever possible. On one occasion, he seemed to dismiss "policy" as an important part of having an economic plan. The likely explanation for Perry's travails is that he simply never paid much attention to national politics before.
Mitt Romney hewed to his constant strategy of turning every question into an over-the-top attack on President Obama, while limiting his exposure to unpopular policy proposals. Romney's theory is that Republican primary voters are angry but uninformed and thus that the extreme conservatism they have displayed since 2009 reflects primal rage rather than any coherent worldview. He believes he can mollify them by satisfying their emotional animus toward Obama, while continuing to advocate policies that, in many cases, are identical to the president's.
Once again, Romney defended his Massachusetts health care plan by citing its reliance on private insurance, and the way it was designed to cover the uninsured without changing health care for the already-insured. This is exactly what Obama did, too. But, of course, by describing his plan in reasonable terms, Romney realizes that Republicans will conclude it must be different from the hated Obamacare, which is based on socialism and death panels. Romney's contempt for his electorate continues to endear him to me.
From an intellectual standpoint, the debate offered a few brief moments of inadvertent clarity. Newt Gingrich filleted Romney's proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes for people earning under $250,000 a year by noting that those people, by and large, don't have capital gains. Rick Santorum pointed out that social mobility is higher in Europe than in the United States. He presented this as an indictment of Obama, but of course it undercuts the conservative claim that "socialism" destroys social mobility.
Once again, large portions of the discussion were given over to a crazy-off among hopeless candidates running as part of a business plan rather than to become president. Michele Bachmann blamed the financial crisis on overregulation. Newt Gingrich seemed to want to throw Chris Dodd and Barney Frank in prison. Gingrich defended the notion that the Affordable Care Act contained death panels. The moderators did not seem to know what to make of this. The most sublime moment of the crazy-off occurred when the moderators called in Bachmann, on her authority as a former tax lawyer (which is virtually nil), to assess Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan (which is beyond crazy).
The business-plan candidates seemed to understand that the price of using national debates as a free platform is that they have to isolate their craziness from the actual contenders. The Romney-Perry competition existed on its own, separate plane above the threats to jail Barney Frank and endless repetitions of 9-9-9. In some ways this resembles the new format of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, in which the lowest-seeded teams play each other in an early round, formally part of the official tournament but understood by all as not really a part of the real thing. The key advantage to both arrangements is that it makes more money for everybody.