Having watched the last national security debate ten days ago, tonight's CNN/Heritage/AEI debate felt at times like a stale rerun. Michelle Bachmann trotted out her same ACLU line, Mitt Romney made the same bleats about the American Century, Ron Paul was … Ron Paul.
Having now watched way too many of these suckers, I'm probably far too
inebriated jaded to evaluate these candidates in the same way that a newcomer to their positions would. They still have to appeal to those newcomers, however, so I can't fault them entirely for repeats.
This is a long-winded way of saying that this debate left me in a very sour mood, primarily because of the following:
1) CNN decided to -- yet again -- waste 15 minutes with various forms of opening introductions. That's 15 minutes that could have been devoted to actual questions.
2) Many of the AEI and Heritage think-tankers asked excellent questions, but why did David Addington and Marc Thiessen get to ask questions while Derek Scissors or Sadanand Dhume didn't? The effect was that, after two hours, not one question was asked about China, North Korea, the rest of the Pacific Rim, India, the eurozone, NATO, Egypt, or Russia. That's just horrible debate management on someone's part.
3) All of the leading candidates said something mind-numbingly stupid. Newt Gingrich claimed that if the United States just unleashed the domestic oil drills, the global price for oil would crash within a year. That's a crock. Mitt Romney suggested trying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide. I'm no fan of Ahmadinejad, but... huh? Ron Paul claimed that Israel had sacrificed its sovereignty to the United States, which is an... interesting interpretation of events. He also claimed that all American foreign aid was worthless, which would be news to the Africans not suffering from malaria or tuberculosis.
So, with those provisos, my quick letter grades:
Newt Gingrich: A- Beyond that energy answer, Gingrich was probably the best of the lot, but that was as much due to style as substance. He gave a lot of "we need to be more strategic than tactical" bromides to start, but to be fair, when pushed he gave cogent answers.
Jon Hunstman: A- Huntsman went hard after Romney on the commander-in-chief question, and for much of the night gave the best answers to myriad questions. That said, he also had some surprisingly weak answers at times, like on the use of drones in Pakistan.
Ron Paul: B+ Consistent as always in his approach, and in some ways he offers the most logically coherent foreign policy of the bunch. As a debater, however, he's second rate. Gingrich schooled him on a question regarding homeland security, for example, when I symathize much more with Paul's position.
Michelle Bachmann: B At this point, Michelle Bachmann is a one-trick pony. On Pakistan -- a particularly tough issue -- she gives thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent responses. Everything else is Crazytown. Pakistan took up a large part of the debate, however, so she did well, takin Perry in paticular to task.
Rick Santorum: B He gave a good answer on foreign aid, and cracked a funny joke about agreeing with Ron Paul. Unfortunately, he also said, "Africa was a country on the brink." Oops.
Mitt Romney: B- Any time you screw up your own introduction, it's going to be a bad night. Romney wasn't horrible by any stretch, but he got pushed by Huntsman on civil-military relations and by Gingrich on immigration. Those guys are no Rick Perry. He did rally with a very thoughtful and considered answer on Syria, however.... in which he schooled Rick Perry.
Rick Perry: D At this point, Perry serves mostly as a foil to make other candidates (Paul, Bachmann, Romney) look smarter. Hard to believe this man was the front-runner, ever.
Herman Cain: F The mercy rule is, thankfully, still in effect.
What did you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.