Wonkbook: The debate in 14 words

at 07:42 AM ET, 06/14/2011


From left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain stand on stage before first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., June 13. (Jim Cole - AP)
Romney won. Bachmann surged. Cain disappointed. Pawlenty whiffed. Gingrich slept. Santorum fretted. Paul scolded. That was my post-debate tweet, and I'm standing by it. But the debate wasn't just interesting for the performances of the candidates. It was interesting for the focus of the questions.

There wasn't a serious foreign policy question for the first hour-and-a-half of the debate. Social issues didn't get much traction, either. When John King asked if the candidates would reinstate Don't Ask/Don't Tell, Romney complained that he'd prefer to be talking about the economy. it was clear what everyone expected this debate -- and, by extension, this election -- to be about.

Romney covered economic and domestic policy with far more ease than the other candidates on his stage. The tone was set early, when King asked Pawlenty to reprise his attack on "Obamneycare." Pawlenty, who looked almost physically ill at the thought of challenging Romney face-to-face, stammered his way through the answer and leaving Romney to uncork a pretty good line on the subject: "The President is going to eat his words," Romney warned, saying that if Obama really wanted to copy his reforms, the president should've given him a call and Romney could've explained in detail why Obama's law wouldn't work.

Politically, it's a smart pivot by Romney: He's arguing that his experience in Massachusetts makes him the Republican field's most credible messenger against Obama's health-care reforms. The problem? Democrats did spend a lot of time talking to the people who designed and implemented the Massachusetts reforms -- people like MIT's Jon Gruber, and Connector-chief Jon Kingsdale -- and they liked the new plan. What's baffled them has been Romney's pretense that it's somehow radically different from his plan. But that didn't come up on-stage last night.

Pawlenty turned in a more mixed performance during the economic portion of the debate. His promise to achieve 5% annual growth for 10 years set the terms of the discussion, but his justification was peculiar: after blasting Obama for denying American exceptionalism and routinely comparing us to other nations, Pawlenty argued for his plan by...comparing us to other nations. Notably, China and Brazil, both of which have seen their economies grow at five percent for extended periods of time, but both of which are much, much poorer than we are. Poor countries simply have the capacity to grow much faster than rich countries, as they have much more unused capacity. A country like China can make huge gains from moving farmworkers to cities and talented young people to schools. But we've already picked that sort of low-hanging fruit. Our growth path is much harder, and for Pawlenty to pretend otherwise, is either a reflection of economic ignorance or epic pandering. Either way, it makes a mockery of his self-presentation as the candidate of hard truths.

Romney's only real competition was Michele Bachmann, who semi-officially announced she was running for president during the debate. Yesterday, I wrote that Bachmann is the candidate that Sarah Palin was supposed to be. Last night, I think she proved it. If you wanted a Mama Grizzly, Bachmann repeatedly reminded you that she'd fostered more than 20 children. If you wanted someone who wasn't a career politician, Bachmann didn't run for office until 2006. But she also delivered an easy, fluent discussion of the policy. She even got the coveted Dan Drezner nod in the foreign policy section. Her candidacy has mostly been greeted as a longshot bid, but on the stage last night, she came across as one of the primary's clear heavyweights.

Five in the morning

1) The parties are still over $1 trillion apart on a debt limit deal, reports David Rogers: "With 2012 appropriations bills already moving through the House, White House budget talks return Tuesday to where they began six months ago: Republican demands for deep cuts from domestic spending and foreign aid. Senate Democrats -- and a good many House Republicans, privately -- are hoping for a breakthrough soon so Congress can avoid a repeat of April’s high drama over a government shutdown. But even after concessions by President Barack Obama, the two sides remain more than $1.1 trillion apart over the next 10 years, and Senate Republicans have yet to step forward to help broker a deal between the administration and the House GOP...Tuesday’s budget meeting is just one of three planned this week by Vice President Joe Biden."

2) Obama wants the deal to include a payroll tax cut, reports Carrie Budoff Brown: "President Barack Obama signaled Monday that a deficit-cutting package should include an extension of the one-year payroll tax cut for workers, saying any effort to slash government spending must be coupled with targeted investments...The president first hinted last week that the payroll tax cut, which expires at the end of this year, should be extended. But his comments Monday were his most direct statement yet that the tax cut should be part of any deal between the White House and Congress to raise the country’s debt limit...The reductions in government spending would go into effect over the next two decades, Obama said, so 'that gives us a little bit of room to continue to do some smart things like the payroll tax cut that we initiated in December while still keeping our eye on the ball in terms of the long term.'"

3) Obama introduced a high tech job training plan yesterday, reports Helen Cooper: "Confronting the challenge of running for re-election while the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, President Obama convened a session of his new jobs council on Monday, offering a proposal to train 10,000 American engineering students a year in a program focused on filling high-tech jobs. The program, which Mr. Obama unveiled during a visit to a lighting manufacturer...would seek to marry private companies with colleges and universities in a bid to encourage students to focus on science, technology, engineering and math degrees...It was unclear how Mr. Obama planned to finance his latest jobs proposals. The administration is locked in a debate with Congressional Republicans over long-term spending and deficit reduction, facing an August deadline for a decision on raising the country’s debt ceiling."

4) Any debt deal will likely include farm subsidy cuts, reports Philip Rucker: "In their recent budget proposals, House Republicans and House Democrats targeted farm subsidies, a program long protected by members of both parties. The GOP plan includes a $30 billion cut to direct payments over 10 years, which would slash them by more than half. Those terms are being considered in the debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, according to people familiar with the discussions. 'There’s no sacred cows anymore,' Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a farmer who represents one of the nation’s biggest farming states, said in April in a conference call with Iowa reporters...President Obama has also taken aim at farm subsidies, with a plan to scale back payments to farmers with incomes of more than $250,000 a year."

5) Some companies on Obama's jobs council get most of their revenues abroad, reports Jia Lynn Yang: "Some of the powerful executives who advised President Obama on Monday about how to solve the unemployment problem in the United States are themselves focused overseas for growth. Five of the biggest companies on Obama’s jobs council, General Electric, Citigroup, Intel, Procter & Gamble and DuPont, rely on foreign revenues for a majority of their sales -- a shift that’s occurred just in the past several years for most of these firms...A central assumption in Obama’s economic plan is that private-sector growth will translate into more jobs in this country. But that strategy could be less potent as decades of globalization have loosened the connection between the health of large U.S. firms and the economy."

Farewell show interlude: Wolf Parade play "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son" at their last concert.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: The underdog candidate to run the IMF wants US support; David Brooks's Hamiltonian wish list; Medicaid's defenders in Congress may not be enough to save it; Dan Froomkin profiles Cass Sunstein, the Obama administration's "ambivalent regulator"; Republicans are lukewarm on a business-backed bill to expand high-skilled immigration; how the airplane and air-conditioning helped polarize Congress; the administration has proposed an overhaul of the electrical grid; and two seals celebrate their newfound freedom with a kiss.

Economy

IMF underdog Agustin Carstens is seeking US support, reports Howard Schneider: "The Mexican banker running to head the International Monetary Fund warned Monday that the agency could face a conflict of interest if his chief rival, a European, was appointed to the top job in the midst of the financial crisis roiling Europe. Mexican Central Bank chief Agustin Carstens, who was in Washington to lobby for the IMF post, said the agency needs to be seen as guarding the interests of all its members, not just those of the Europeans. Carstens’s chief competitor, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, is considered the front-runner...Lagarde has been deeply involved in the European debate about how to keep the Greek government from defaulting on its loans and how to help other strapped economies."

Greece now has the world's lowest credit rating, reports Jennifer Ryan: "Greece’s credit rating was cut three levels by Standard & Poor’s, which branded the nation with the world’s lowest debt grade and said a restructuring looks 'increasingly likely.' The move to CCC from B reflects 'our view that there is a significantly higher likelihood of one or more defaults,' S&P said in a statement Monday...The downgrade follows a decision this month by Moody’s Investors Service to grade Greece only one level higher and may intensify pressure on European governments to stem the region’s sovereign-debt crisis. Credit-default swaps on Greece, Ireland and Portugal surged to records Monday on concern that governments’ struggles to resolve the turmoil will threaten their ability to pay off their debts."

The stimulus showed that tax cuts work better than infrastructure spending, writes Ron Klain: "Yes, infrastructure projects create jobs. But even by the administration’s own estimate, the number of jobs created or saved by $25 billion in Recovery Act spending on roads was a mere 150,000 over a two-year period. That isn’t a trivial number, but it’s hardly a game changer for an economy that needs to create 5 million jobs each year just to keep the unemployment rate constant. In the short run, more jobs can be created with initiatives like the payroll tax cut the administration is reportedly considering. In January, the administration extended a 2 percentage-point reduction in worker contributions to the tax during 2011. The new proposal would cut employers’ contributions, too, making it easier and cheaper for them to add workers, with an incremental contribution from federal revenue."

GOP tax cuts should be targeted at the middle class, writes Ramesh Ponnuru: "The payroll tax, now set at 15.3 percent of wages for most people, finances Social Security and Medicare. Although those programs’ troubles have been in the news a lot, one problem with them has received little attention: They’re unfair to families. As Robert Stein explained in a recent essay for National Affairs, parents contribute to the programs both by paying payroll taxes and by making financial sacrifices to raise the children who will pay tomorrow’s payroll taxes. But they only get credit for the first set of contributions. Stein’s solution is to offer parents tax relief, by expanding the tax credit from $1,500 per child to something closer to $5,000...There are two ways to make up the revenue. The first is to scale back tax breaks...The second way to make up revenue is by lowering the floor on the top tax bracket."

David Brooks presents his "Hamiltonian" policy wishlist: "Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid. The Republican growth agenda — tax cuts and nothing else — is stupefyingly boring, fiscally irresponsible and politically impossible. Gigantic tax cuts — if they were affordable — might boost overall growth, but they would do nothing to address the structural problems that are causing a working-class crisis. Republican politicians don’t design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signaling devices — as ways to reassure the base that they are 100 percent orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012. As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing. They acknowledge huge problems like wage stagnation and then offer... light rail! Solar panels!"

Anthropomorphism interlude: Two seals celebrate their freedom with a kiss.

Health Care

Medicaid's defenders in Congress may be making concessions already, report Jason Millman and Jennifer Haberkorn: "There may be more to read from what wasn’t included in Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s letter to the White House last week than what was in it. Multiple letters released June 9 -- designed to show that Senate Democrats won’t support efforts to dismantle Medicaid -- didn’t mention the Republican proposals to repeal the program’s maintenance of effort provisions. And they didn’t include 12 Democratic senators who some worry may be persuaded to join Republican efforts to chip away at the program...Some of the Democrats who didn’t sign a letter aren’t exactly voicing rock-solid opposition to Medicaid block grants, and at least one -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- is suggesting he could support them."

Mitt Romney isn't the only 2012er with health care-related skeletons, report Kendra Marr and Kate Nocera: "Newt Gingrich has been on record for nearly two decades as backing a requirement to purchase health insurance. Jon Huntsman once flirted with the Massachusetts model for Utah. And Tim Pawlenty appointed commissions that studied both in Minnesota. All of Romney's opponents stopped short of enacting the reforms they now lambaste as top-heavy, socialist-oriented and unconstitutional under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act -- the plan said to be modeled after the Massachusetts reform. But their long looks at those policies underscore the fact that much of the GOP field hasn’t always towed the anti-Obamacare line -- and it could blunt the effectiveness of their attacks on the front-running Romney."

Domestic Policy

Cass Sunstein is alienating other regulators, reports David Froomkin: "Even more infuriating, say regulatory activists, is that Sunstein, as the nation's chief rule-writer, hasn't been calling attention to the extraordinary regulatory and enforcement deficit the country is facing. The only alarm bell he's rung is the Republican one. 'The White House's leading guy on regulatory policy thinks the main problem is excessive regulation,' marvels Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Reform. 'He's acting as if it was George W. Bush's administration."

Republicans are wary of a business-backed bill to boost high-skilled immigration, reports Kim Hart: "House Republicans who trek to Silicon Valley in search of campaign cash keep hearing the same request: We need more visas to hire more highly skilled foreign workers. But that’s a deal Republicans have so far been reluctant to make. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a former immigration professor who represents Silicon Valley, plans to introduce a bill as soon as this week that’s designed to keep foreign-born workers -- especially the engineers and scientists needed by technology companies -- in the U.S. Her bill has the support of Intel, Oracle and Google, but the ranking member of the Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee hasn’t been able to get a majority member to sign on."

States are pretty broke, reports Reid Epstein: "It’s not just the federal government - the states are broke, too. The 50 state governments owe more than $1 trillion in unfunded pension contributions and health care obligations to retired public employees, according to an Associated Press survey of state-level budget data. And the worst may be yet to come. Five states have budget deficits that account for more than one-fifth of the state’s general operating fund, and in seven more the deficit amounts to at least 15 percent of expected general fund revenues. State governments also will have a 5 percent less revenue in the upcoming fiscal year than they did in 2007-08, before the collapse of major financial institutions prompted an economic recession, the AP found."

Technology is changing politics in unexpected ways, writes Ezra Klein: "Another techno-driven difference between the Congress of the 1950s and today is the rampant use of the filibuster. In the past three years, we’ve seen more filibusters than in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s put together. Gregory Koger, author of the book 'Filibustering,' blames the airplane. Filibustering, he argues, is about how much the majority party’s senators value their time, as only one or two members of the minority are needed to filibuster, but about 50 members of the majority are needed to hold a quorum. In the 1940s, air travel was too expensive and inconvenient to do routinely, and so senators moved their families to Washington and headed home only during recesses. So long as Congress was in session, they had all the time in the world to sit through the minority party’s talk-a-thon and wait for an opening, or look for a deal. Now they’re commuters in a rush to get home on the weekend."

Adorable children in museums interlude: A kid plays with a scuba diver on the other side of the aquarium class.

Energy

The administration wants to revamp the power grid, reports Brian Vastag: "Our 21st-century nation is operating on an early-20th-century power grid. Power outages are becoming more common -- and not just because of natural disasters. Transmission lines are not equipped to handle the expected influx of wind and solar energy. And consumers have no idea how, exactly, they are spending their electricity dollars -- or how to save them. That’s why the White House on Monday announced policies designed to speed development of a next-generation electrical network. Such a 'smart grid' seeks to reduce consumption, efficiently deliver power from renewable sources, and reduce the frequency and length of blackouts, White House science adviser John Holdren said Monday at an event to roll out the initiative."

Senate Democrats are urging a "no" vote on Tom Coburn's ethanol amendment, reports Ben Geman: "The Senate Democratic leadership is urging Democrats to vote against Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) amendment to kill ethanol industry tax incentives Tuesday, according to aides. The politics of ethanol split along lines that are more regional than partisan. But Democratic leaders are upset that Coburn last week used an uncommon procedural tactic to force a test vote on ending the credit for blending ethanol into gasoline and on repealing the ethanol import tariff. A Democratic aide said the opposition to the Coburn amendment is 'on procedural grounds.' 'Coburn doesn’t run the Senate,' the aide said. Other aides confirmed that leadership is whipping against Coburn's amendment, which would need 60 votes to advance in a test vote scheduled for Tuesday."

Eric Cantor doesn't want to deal with ethanol subsidies in a debt deal, reports Russell Berman: "House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday that the elimination of energy subsidies should be considered as part of a comprehensive tax reform package rather than the debt reduction talks that Vice President Biden is leading. Democrats are pushing for the removal of tax breaks for major oil companies as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, arguing that revenue increases must be included along with spending cuts. Some conservatives and Democrats are separately targeting ethanol subsidies, which will be subject to a Senate vote Tuesday. Cantor said he is 'personally against the ethanol subsidy and has been so consistently.' But he said the issue would be taken up by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who is working on a broad proposal to overhaul the tax code."

Closing credits: Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Dylan Matthews and Michelle Williams.

 
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