Tonight's CBS/National Journal debate was the first to be on broadcast television, and was devoted to national security and foreign policy. Out of a sense of duty to you, dear readers, your humble blogger
downed a lot of vodka watched the whole thing, and is ready to offer my grades.
Before talking about the individual candidates, I'll say this -- I've been rather harsh on the GOP 2012 field, and, to be honest, most of them did better than I expected in this debate. I didn't expect much, but still: kudos to the campaign staffers, because everyone seemed better briefed on foreign policy than in past debates (On the other hand, I note that none of the candidates said a single good thing about Barack Obama's foreign policy. I wasn't expecting hosannahs or anything, but the man is polling at 60% approval on this front).
A big fail to CBS and National Journal for having a 90-minute debate that was only aired for 60 minutes on television. The webcasts were bad, with lots of glitches on both sites. As for Major Garrett and Scott Pelley, they did OK, but John Harwood and Maria Bartiromo outclassed them this week.
In alphabetical order:
Michelle Bachmann: She kept her crazy pretty contained for much of the night, but it escaped for two big whoppers. The first was when she said, "The table is being set for a worldwide nuclear war with Israel." The second was when she expressed a desire for the United States to adopt China's welfare system (or lack thereof). Grade: D.
Herman Cain: The worst debate performance of the night. Slow, rambling, evasive, and contradictory. His answer on torture contradicted itself inside of 30 seconds; his Pakistan response was a total dodge. His solution on Iran -- energy independence! -- would be like suggesting that the appropriate response to a rising China would be to move all Americans to Mars. Both activities will take the same length of time. Grade: F.
Newt Gingrich: He had a pretty good answer on Pakistan, and was consistent -- albeit disturbing -- on the assassination of Americans working for Al Qaeda. That said, Gingrich's "I'm smarter than everyone else" schtick wears thin fast. I say this as someone who encounters academics on a daily basis. Gingrich gives off the same insufferable mien of academics who think they're much smarter and more knowledgable than they actually are. Grade: B.
Jon Hunstman: Not surprisingly, the former ambassador gave the clearest and most coherent answers of the evening. He pushed back the others on staying in Afghanistan, and correctly pushed back Romney on taking China to the WTO. If foreign policy was really important to the GOP, he'd be the frontrunner, and it wouldn't be close. Grade: A.
Ron Paul: The contrast between Paul and the rest of the field was magnified during this debate. As someone who thinks that Paul is too dovish at times, I thought he did a very good job, and got quite passionate on questions of torture. Also -- and I think this is a first -- he got through the entire debate without mentioning the Federal Reserve. Grade: A-.
Rick Perry: Compared to his other debate performances, it was OK. Compared to what I'm expecting a commander-in-chief to demonstrate, it was again way below the bar. Perry proposed zero-based budgeting for foreign aid and a lot of other areas of the government; I wonder if he knows that the first president to embrace that idea was Jimmy Carter. Then there were odd word choices. China has to "change their virtues"? He invented the word "forewithal." And he was lucky that the end of the telecast cut off his attempt at an answerr on the euro, because it was not going to go well. Grade: C.
Mitt Romney: Romney has perfected the art of sounding firm and resolute in his first sentence of any response on foreign policy, and then, with the next sentence, inserting enough hedges and qualifications to give himself tremendous wiggle room. He demonstrated decent knowledge for the most part, and had another strong debate. Grade: B+.
Rick Santorum: I can recall quite clearly that Santorum have a decent answer on Pakistan at some point. Beyond that, all I can remember was his whinging about not getting asked enough questions. Grade: C+
Offer your own grades/assessments in the comments.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.