This is getting tiresome. On the night before the full moon in October, ominous in and of itself, the Republicans had another debate, trying to winnow the field. That’s the right verb. You might recall that winnowing fan that Homer recounts in the Odyssey. A winnowing fan is what you use to toss your harvest in the air – the breeze will separate the wheat from the chaff. Keep tossing and all afternoon the fat and ripe grain will fall at your feet and the breeze will carry off the straw to nowhere in particular. It’s a symbol of course – the ghost of Teiresias points out that sooner or later Odysseus will realize the tool of his trade, that fancy oar over his shoulder, like his bronze sword and his fast ship, is not a useful tool for life. You want to separate the wheat from the chaff – what matters from what doesn’t matter, sense from nonsense. In short, the tools of conflict and its resolution, of justice and revenge and righteousness and heroism and all that stuff, don’t resolve anything or bring you peace. Give it up and all will be well. Teiresias tells him that’s how things really work. Someone will ask Odysseus if that is a winnowing fan on his shoulder. That will be a sign. Pay attention, Odysseus! Intense conflict is exciting, and can bring you renown, but the business of life is separating the wheat from the chaff, the sense from the nonsense.
You don’t remember that? The only Homer you know is Homer Simpson? It doesn’t matter. In Spaulding Auditorium, on the campus of Dartmouth, the seventh debate of the Republican nominating marathon was pretty much a business of tossing everything but the kitchen sink in the air and seeing which useful goodies fell to earth, the golden kernels, and seeing what just floated off in the breeze, the straw, the chaff – it was winnowing.
But the format was new. Sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, it was the candidates sitting around a big round table and chatting with Charlie Rose and the Post’s Karen Tumulty – all very civilized. And they got to ask each other questions, kind of like a college seminar or like sitting around the kitchen table.
And it was what it was:
Mitt Romney offered a robust defense of the health care plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts and sought to look beyond his Republican presidential rivals at a debate here Tuesday night by presenting himself as the leader who is best prepared to take on President Obama.
With a fresh air of confidence in his candidacy, Mr. Romney set out to diminish Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and all but ignored him, a different approach from the last three debates, where he repeatedly tangled with Mr. Perry. Given a chance to question a fellow candidate, Mr. Romney selected Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
And the winnowing began. Romney also defended the Wall Street bailout – the TARP legislation in the last months of the Bush administration – saying sure it was imperfect, but it really was necessary. This is a notion that will tick off many end-all-government-doing-things conservatives, but it may be part of a strategy to show that he is the most electable candidate in this odd field. You don’t crash the world’s economy just to make an ideological point. Sure you get to feel all high and mighty, but that’s nuts. You avoid total disaster, as a rule. Romney seems to be calculating that notion might appeal to voters in the general election.
Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, now the rising star of this group, this week, said everyone should consider his 9-9-9 economic plan – what he says is a simple solution to restructuring the tax system. Everyone else at the table said it was just a new national sales tax, and Michele Bachmann said that, upside down, the Cain plan is 666 – the Mark of the Devil. She seems to have meant that as a joke. But she is useless chaff that blew off in the breeze weeks ago. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is described here – eliminate the capital gains tax, the payroll tax and the inheritance tax and put in place a flat nine percent tax on businesses, a nine percent tax on personal income, and a new nine percent federal sales tax on top of existing state and local sales taxes. And that’s that – done.
Most economists are not impressed, and Bruce Bartlett, a senior policy guy in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, examined the Cain plan in this piece and said it came down to a situation where “the poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and good reason to believe that the budget deficit will increase.” But it is simple, and Cain scoffed at Romney’s fifty-nine point plan. And then Romney laid this backhand compliment on Cain – “Simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.”
And that was that. And the rest is what you would expect:
In the days leading up to the debate, Mr. Perry aggressively challenged Mr. Romney and accused him of waffling on conservative principles. But he brought almost none of the criticism to the debating stage and went for long stretches without being recognized by the debate moderators or trying to insert himself into the conversation.
Mr. Perry is set to deliver his first major policy speech of the campaign on Friday in Pittsburgh. When pressed for specifics, he said that he would not present his full plan during the debate. He took that as a rare opportunity to criticize Mr. Romney, saying: “Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan. I’ve been in this about eight weeks.”
Yes, that is whining – it’s just not fair. Perry didn’t seem to want to be there. And that too winnows the field, as does this:
Romney preceded the debate with a little stagecraft of his own, rolling out one of the most sought-after endorsements of the year on Tuesday afternoon: the backing of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Mr. Christie had been heavily courted to run for president by prominent Republicans who were unsure of Mr. Romney. By sewing up Mr. Christie’s endorsement, Mr. Romney sought once more to line up the party establishment behind his candidacy and appeal to major donors who are still sitting on the sidelines.
This may be over.
And there were other reactions, like this from the fellow at the Economist known as Democracy in America:
The economy is Romney’s bailiwick and he delivered. It is becoming increasingly clear that he operates at a higher level than the other candidates. Perry is toast. If he’s not actually dumb as a stump, he doesn’t know how to show it. Herman Cain continues to come on strong as the non-Mormon conservative alternative. Bachmann and Huntsman both sounded smooth, assured, and smart, but they no longer matter. Ron Paul continues to dominate the Ron Paul vote.
And there was the far-right Erick Erickson:
Mitt Romney won the debate. No one knocked him off his game. He really is that good of a debater. Herman Cain proved himself a bit of an unstable number two. He is starting to get the tough questions on his 999 plan and his responses sound like they were crafted in the land of unicorns and rainbows…
And there’s David Kurtz:
The average low-information voter isn’t going to be exposed to any account of this debate that includes this necessary corrective: The prescription for economic recovery offered by the Republican presidential field is completely divorced from reality.
And there is Kathy Kiely:
Perry says blame Obama for income disparities but non-partisan analysis says the gap between the haves and have-nots has been widening since 1979, when Barack Obama was 18 years old.
And there’s Andrew Sullivan:
Perry’s entire answer to the growing inequality in America is that it is entirely the fault of Barack Obama. Entirely! They have constructed a version of the president that is completely of their own imagination. I mean: tax increases. Since Obama became president, he’s raised taxes, they claim. Really? And when Obama actually cut Medicare, Romney criticized him for it! This party desperately needs to lose the next election if it is going to regain its sanity.
No one came off well:
I suppose there were some encouraging things tonight – tax reform, cutting red tape, investing in education. But I have to say the level of debate, the other-worldly discussion in which so often up is down, and white is black, and our urgent priorities today are to ensure that 40 million people lose their health insurance, and that Wall Street be deregulated more thoroughly than in the 2000s … well it’s disorienting. The cure for spiraling demand is to cut more now, not later.
I really don’t know what to say to this. I find it surreal. I’d like a minimally intrusive federal government, and lower, flatter taxes, so why do I feel so detached from this debate? I think because I respect the president and have some sympathy with the appalling legacy he was bequeathed, because I still believe the GOP has responsibility for that legacy and it would behoove them to figure out where they went wrong rather than insist on doing all the same things again; and because… 2011 is not 1979, and repeating Reaganism is simply not attuned to the times, when revenues are in the toilet, debt and the threat of deflation are omnipresent, and corporate profits are enormous.
Huntsman I can understand and appreciate. Perry is an empty bad suit. Romney lies with such facility it unnerves me. Bachmann is a fanatic, as, although I am extremely fond of him, is Ron Paul. Santorum just seems like a lost child from the 1950s, trying to have the campaign he dreamed about when he was ten. Cain is an egomaniac businessman with a talk show host patter and a mild wit. Gingrich is a giant, gaseous asshole.
Maybe what we have here is all chaff and no wheat. And then there’s Politico’s Roger Simon:
The Republican race has turned into The Wizard of Oz. Rick Perry wants a brain. Mitt Romney wants a heart. And any number of candidates are Dorothy, realizing there is no place like home and they should have stayed there.
Herman Cain is seeking courage. He needs the courage to face the fact he is never going to be the Republican nominee, no matter how well he does in the polls. He needs the courage to settle for something far better than the presidency: His own show on Fox.
They all march down the yellow brick road that leads not from rally to rally or, heaven forbid, voter to voter, but from debate to debate…
Yes, all the candidates were seated at what Charlie Rose described as a kitchen table, and Simon says if that had been his kitchen table growing up, he would have left home:
Ostensibly devoted to the topic of economics, the debate was instead devoted to sniping and one-liners and familiar regurgitations from the candidates’ briefing books. If it is possible to hold a debate and have nobody win, this was it. But, once again, Romney didn’t lose, which makes him the same thing as a winner. If he could only find a heart. He seems like someone who plays a president on TV, not someone who really yearns for the job. If you put your ear to his chest, would you hear the lub-dub, lub-dub of a warm human heart or the whirr and click of a cold, calculating machine?
As usual, he had his lines down: “The answer is to cut federal spending. The second part of the answer is to get our economy to grow. Get Americans back to work and paying taxes. I think it’s a terrible idea to cut defense. I think it’s a terrible idea to raise taxes.”
And as for Rick Perry:
Visibly nervous, he stumbled from answer to answer, and even his rehearsed lines seemed defensive and prickly. “Mitt’s had six years to work on a plan,” Perry grumped. “I’ve been at this about eight weeks.”
Pray for another eight weeks, governor.
And as for the rest:
Rick Santorum said at one point: “I want to go to war with China.” He was talking about an economic war. I think. Jon Huntsman, moderate, reasonable and therefore un-nominatable in the Republican Party, reduced himself to low comedy. “I would respectfully disagree with Rick Santorum; Pennsylvania is not the gas capital of the country,” Huntsman said. “Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the country.” He then waited for the guffaws that never came.
And so it went. The idea is to winnow out the weak candidates, leaving only the wonderful ones. But what happens when you winnow-out the whole Republican Party? This is a dismal field.
But David Frum argues that there are still reasons to be a Republican:
Modern democracies generate a choice between one party offering more public services and higher taxes and another offering fewer services and lower taxes. Under the pressure of the current crisis – intoxicated by anti-Obama feelings and incited by talk radio and Fox – Republicans have staked out an extreme position on the role of government. They are expressing opinions they have never acted on in office and won’t act on if returned to office.
They’re talking to relieve their feelings, always a big mistake. I remain convinced that the Tea Party moment is a passing infatuation, a rhetorical over-indulgence, that will fade as soon as Republicans re-encounter the responsibilities of governing – just as the Democrats’ over-heated MoveOn.org type rhetoric about the war on terror was quietly retired by President Obama in favor of continuing most of the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush years. In a more normal kind of contest between the party of less (not zero) government and the party of more and bigger government, I’m with the party of less government.
But all we have is people talking to relieve their feelings. And there is economist Jeffrey Sachs’ new book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity – all about a shift in Washington toward smaller government that began in the early eighties and has yet to be reversed, and may never be reversed. And in this interview he adds some background:
Reagan came to office with a diagnosis, most famously put in his inaugural speech, that government is not the solution, but the problem. This was put forward as the reason why the 1970s were so shaky, why we were experiencing more instability. Reagan made a big and wrong diagnosis, with extraordinary consequences, and a lot of the country bought it.
He was playing to a lot of powerful interests, and the dismantling of government began, all in the service of cutting top tax rates as a theory of how to make the economy function properly. It’s a weird idea because there is plenty of evidence that government and markets are complementary parts of a healthy society – it’s not one of the other. The interests at the top benefited from globalization through market forces, tax avoidance and tax havens – and they absolutely grabbed hold of the federal government.
Each of the parties is constantly feeding at the trough of major interest groups. The Democrats, basically, were sold to Wall Street by Clinton, and they’ve remained in Wall Street’s hands up until now. And that is one of the greatest failings of the Obama administration: the fact that he couldn’t find his way clear of the major interest group that helped bring him to office, and therefore he really couldn’t undertake deeper changes in the country.
And the current crop of Republican hopefuls just takes this to the extreme:
When I was growing up, it was a commonly thought that America needed a mixed economy, that there were spheres of life where the market economy should prevail, and there were spheres of life where the government would be crucial. The mixed economy has had great history in all of the high-end democracies and there is a lot of economic reasoning behind it.
Basically, government has to be operating where the profit motive won’t suffice. The profit motive works where you have good economic competition, but if you just need one highway between city A and city B, that’s not going to be a competitive highway, so you’d better involve the government. If you want scientific knowledge in a society, for example, you don’t patent basic theorems, because everybody needs to use them, so you have to find a different way other than the profit motive to get science to develop.
I think Ronald Reagan really had a devastating effect on this. The idea that one would elect a president on the premise of demonizing government rather than making it work properly is really a shocking idea – “I’m here to dismantle the role of government.” No president since then has deviated from that line. Bill Clinton declared the end of big government. Rick Perry has been quoted as saying that he wants to make the federal government as inconsequential as possible to the American people. Well, maybe he should look for another job. That’s a lousy platform for a president of the United States.
But that’s where we are, with endless debates on dismantling the government. And they’re winnowing-out the field on the right. Just who can best eliminate it? Frum thinks it’s all just hot air – a matter of these folks relieving their feelings. But it’s the hot air the blows away the chaff. That’s the useless stuff – all just stuff and nonsense. But then, what’s left?