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The South Carolina Debate

A couple quick thoughts about the GOP debate:

1.) There was a lot of talk going into last night about how Fred Thompson would be gunning for Mike Huckabee's head. Thompson didn't disappoint. He bashed Huckabee on taxes and spending, on his liberal foreign policy instincts and soft immigration record, on his National Education Association endorsement. He also lectured Huckabee about why we need to subsidize the Pakistani military, not-so-subtly suggesting that Huckabee was in over his head.

Thompson and Huckabee are theoretically competing for a similar bloc of conservatives, so these attacks make some sense. (Though the word "competing" implies Thompson is doing much better than he actually is.) But Thompson hardly laid a glove on McCain, the other front-runner in recent South Carolina polls, leading me to suspect Thompson of having a secondary motive: doing McCain's dirty work for him. There were times when he looked more like a running-mate than a candidate in his own right, though maybe I'm over-thinking it.

2.) Is it just me, or does that corrupt Boeing tanker deal McCain put the kibosh on--to his great credit--get more expensive every time he mentions it? The last time he mentioned this, I thought he said he'd saved the American taxpayer $2 billion. Tonight it was $6 billion. I suspect there's a direct correlation between the rise of that figure and the number of hits McCain takes for opposing Bush's tax cuts. He's decided his best defense against those attacks is his record on spending.

3.) Mitt Romney sounded like a smart technocrat last night--his comments about the recent near-confrontation with Iran was detailed and impressive. This is a winning persona for him. The problem is that technocrats don't inspire much passion. And, having dug himself a hole in Iowa and New Hampshire, I'm not sure he can get back into the race without something more dramatic. (Also, as Jonathan Martin points out, the one issue on which he does seem to excite Republican passions--immigration--was relegated to a quick segment at the end of the debate. Good for McCain, bad for Romney.)

4.) Huckabee had a couple of very impressive answers last night. His answer to a question about Israel--"If I were president, you can rest assured that we would not let an ally be annihilated by the enemies which surround it"*--not only seemed heartfelt, but must have gone over like catnip among the evangelicals he's courting. 

I also thought Huckabee held his own when questioned about a Southern Baptist Convention statement he'd endorsed back in 1998, about how a wife should "submit graciously to the servant will of her husband." Huckabee started with a winning comment about how everyone says we should keep religion out of presidential politics and yet he constantly gets questions about his religion. Then he explained that this was a tenet of his faith, not an expression of his politics, and that the full commandement is for both husband and wife be the servants of one another. "[M]arriage is not a 50/50 deal, where each partner gives 50 percent," he said. "Biblically, marriage is 100/100 deal. Each partner gives 100 percent of their devotion to the other."

Though Baptists have a history of emphasizing only the female-to-male subservience, Huckabee's point is technically accurate--the New Testament does talk about subservience in both directions. I think that gave Huckabee the best of both worlds here: It let him tout his knowledge of the Bible and his orthodox reading of it while sounding almost progressive--certainly not like a neanderthal. (In case it needs to be said: I completely disagree with the statement myself. I'm just talking debate tactics here.)

Huckabee's most disappointing answer came on a question about a possible recession. He started out strong--feeling people's pain about exorbitant gas prices and the subprime mortgage crisis. But, after mentioning rising healthcare and education costs, he explained that the solution to all of these problems was ... to eventually move to a fair tax. It would have been a completely glib proposal even if the fair tax were a sound idea. (A tax reform proposal would have to unleash some pretty powerful entrepreneurial forces to make most Americans rich enough to afford escalating healthcare and tuition costs.) Alas, nothing could be less so. The response fits with Huckabee's general pattern of correctly diagnosing problems but being unwilling to grapple with the implications of his diagnosis.   

5.) Rudy did nothing for me.

*All the quotes in this post are from my contemporaneous notes, so they might not be completely accurate. I'll update when I get a transcript.

Update: I've been meaning to do this all day; commenter cspencef beat me to it:

When in doubt, go to the source:

Ephesians 5:21 specifically reads "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (NRSV).  Good start.

What most people read starts in verses 22-24: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.  For the husband is head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior  Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands."  Not the Apostle Paul's finest hour, even in the eyes of his biggest fans.

If the parallelism had continued then there probably isn't much to pick on, but instead the turn in verse 25 is different: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word..." and goes off further in that direction.  Nothing about submission of husband to wife.  

Granted, one can argue that telling a husband to love his wife was pretty darn radical in first-century society.  But as it sits this stuff is darned easy to spin (as Southern Baptists spun it) based on the "husband is head of wife" angle.  

So not quite mutual subservience, but not quite one-way subservience of wife to husband either. Seems like enough room for Huckabee to spin it the way he did...

Second update: Quotes have been cleaned up. Full transcript is here.

--Noam Scheiber