The main purpose of campaign debates is to differentiate among the candidates. And in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, differentiating between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney was easy.
Romney demonstrated a thorough command of issues, while Perry served up word salad, Palin style, once the questions got complicated. Romney defended Social Security, while Perry reaffirmed his belief that the program was a “ponzi scheme." I won’t pretend to know how their respective performances will affect the campaign, because I’m not a conservative. But if this were a contest of smarts, savvy, and polish, Romney would have won handily.
But ultimately what unites the leading Republican contenders may be more important than what divides them. And that starts with their pledges of ideological extremity.
Romney has already stated that he would decline a deficit reduction deal with 10 dollars of reduced spending for every one dollar of increased revenue – a proposal Perry, who was not present last time, endorsed on Wednesday night. Such a deal would require draconian spending cuts, reducing discretionary spending and entitlements alike – radically reducing the public services and supports upon which not just the poor but the middle class depend. (Note that Romney, notwithstanding his defense of Social Security Wednesday night, has signaled his support for privatization before.)
In addition, both men can be dishonest when it suits their purposes. Here the debate’s exchange on health care was instructive. When moderator Brian Williams asked Perry about the high number of uninsured people in Texas, he blamed it on federal mandates – and insisted that his state could cover provide better coverage, to more people and for less money, if only Washington would grant the waivers he’s been filing.
But states already have some ability to change their Medicaid plans, as long as they meet certain standards. And when states propose innovations that will truly improve the program, the federal government says ok. It’s when states want to provide inferior coverage or cover fewer people that the feds stop them. That’s been the problem with the waivers Perry has sought. As the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff has noted, those waivers were so radical, calling for such dramatically reduced coverage, that even the Bush Administration felt compelled to reject them.
But Romney, who probably knows health care better than any other Republican, was deceptive, too. When asked about the individual mandate, the controversial requirement common to both the Affordable Care Act and the plan Romney signed in Massachusetts, Romney defended it ably and correctly: It was necessary, he said, in order to prevent insured people and taxpayers from covering the costs of medical care for the more affluent uninsured. But Romney prefaced his remarks by suggesting this problem was somehow unique to Massachusetts, making it appropriate for his old state but not the rest of the country. This is obviously not the case. Free riders are endemic to private health insurance markets in South Carolina, Idaho, or even Texas as they are to the markets in Massachusetts.
Later Romney tried to distinguish his plan from Obama’s by saying it affected only 8 percent of the state’s population, while Obama’s plan affected the entire country. But Romney’s care establishes regulations that affect everybody. In this respect, again, the plans are more similar than they are different.
Again, that’s not to deny the differences between Romney and Perry. They exist and they are important. But both are advocating platforms that, by any reasonable standard, qualify as extreme. And both are making dishonest arguments in their defense.