Jacob Heilbrunn

The Consequences of the Republican Presidential Debate

At the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. last night, Texas Gov. Rick Perry seemed to be channeling the motto of Frederick the Great: "audacity, audacity, always audacity!" For Frederick, who consolidated the kingdom of Prussia, it worked. The benevolent despot, the friend of Voltaire, turned Prussia into the rising power of Europe. Can Perry effect something similar from the kingdom of Texas—turn America back into a fearsome power—which he once threatened could secede from the United States?

Perry made a bold appeal for the votes of the Republican base. Social Security, he announced, is a "Ponzi scheme" and Obama possibly "an abject liar." Global warming doesn't exist. The federal government is tantamount to a snake whose head needs to be cut off. And so on.

While the other candidates mostly looked on without saying much—Jon Huntsman pledged not to make any pledges, Michele Bachmann was barely able to get a word in edgewise for awhile, and Ron Paul got into abstruse remarks about eliminating air conditioning for the troops in Iraq as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (does he want to get rid of airplanes as well as the federal government?)—Romney blasted Perry's comments about Social Security.

The best thing that may have happened to Romney, in fact, is to have to confront Perry. Perry has achieved what many might have deemed impossible: he's created an animated Romney. Gone is the cautious former frontrunner who thought he could sail to the nomination. "You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it," Romney declared.  Now Romney has to fight to achieve the nod. Perry went right at Romney in declaring, "We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts." Perhaps the battle will allow Romney to shed his image of a cossetted and pampered dauphin.

Romney is clearly positioning himself as the candidate who can win in the general election. Perry's calculating that the Tea Party contingent can put him over the top. But in blasting Social Security, one big question looms for Perry: how will he win the Florida primary? Seniors, after all, vote. And promising that he won't touch the benefits of the elderly won't persuade them, either. Still, it is startling to see a politician not to bolt from inflammatory comments made in a book published a few years ago—Perry's happening to appear in Fed Up!. He might even start a new trend.

But Perry is playing with fire. To me, the winner of the debate was clearly Romney, who came across as the most poised and presidential of the candidates.

Still, the biggest speech isn't going to be any emanating from the Republican debate. The blunt fact is that the Republican debate may not matter all that much. The fear of American decline is pervasive. Obama's approval ratings are abysmal. Job creation is at zero—Michael J. Boskin notes in the Wall Street Journal today that "the fraction of the population working is the lowest since 1983."

Obama is pinning his hopes on his oratorical powers when he delivers what is supposed to be his comeback speech. But his own base is disaffected and his power to persuade has begun to fade in the face of daunting economic numbers. Perhaps Obama can revive his fortunes. But if Obama continues on his current path, any Republican candidate likely won't have to work overtime to win the White House. Obama may have done it for them.