Dissecting the Republican Debate

Republican presidential candidates faced off last night in a CNN/YouTube debate. For some analysis, Farai Chideya talks with James Taylor, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, and Mark Sawyer, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

The gloves came off at the GOP debate last night. The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are less than six weeks away; Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney squared off with personal attacks from the very start.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican, New York): If you're going to take this holier-than-thou attitude, that your whole approach to immigration was so…

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): I'm sorry, immigration is not holier than thou, Mayor. It's the law.

Mr. GIULIANI: If you're going to take this holier than thou attitude that you are perfect on immigration…

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm not perfect.

Mr. GIULIANI: … it just happens you have a special immigration problem that nobody else here has. You were employing illegal immigrants…

Mr. ROMNEY: You know, what…

Mr. GIULIANI: That is a pretty serious thing. They were under your nose.

CHIDEYA: CNN and YouTube co-hosted the event in St. Petersburg, Florida. The candidates took questions from the public submitted through the video-sharing Web site. Most of them were basic webcam stand-ups, but there were a few colorful productions. One included a man eating an ear of corn; another a cartoon of Vice President Dick Cheney holding a rifle.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. NICK ANDERSON: Yeah. Will you grant your vice president as much power and influence as I've had, and remember before you answer, I'am watching you.

CHIDEYA: So who got the upper hand? We've got two folks to help us find out. Political scientist Mark Sawyer - he's director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA; and James Taylor - he's an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. Welcome.

Mr. MARK SAWYER (Director, Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, University of California, Los Angeles): Hello, Farai.

Professor JAMES TAYLOR (Politics, University of San Francisco): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So, I guess, James, I'll start with you. Was there a clear winner last night?

Prof. TAYLOR: I wouldn't say there was a clear winner, but I thought Mike Huckabee did well on a number of questions he came across, I think, as an attractive candidate, as someone who is quick making populous appeals such as eliminating the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security. And he talked about, for example, eliminating the National Income Tax and coming up with a fair tax and, so I thought he did a good job in using his sense of humor, being quick on the question of what would Jesus do on the death penalty. But I thought that was somewhat of an evasion to the extent that he never answered the question about what Jesus would do on the death penalty.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like you saw some threads of populism in what he was saying.

Prof. TAYLOR: Absolutely. I thought he, as well as Ron Paul, as well as those who talked about eliminating the various federal programs trying to make different sorts of a populist appeals, and Ron Paul clearly comes across best in that area.

CHIDEYA: And, Mark, immigration - it was just lit on fire last night. You had that exchange between Romney and Giuliani that set the tone for other exchanges. What was the top issue for you? Was it immigration? And if so, how did that play out?

Mr. SAWYER: Yeah. I mean, I would characterize the debate as gods, guns, gays and illegals with illegals leading the way and what really touched off was the idea that they really see immigration as an issue of sort of the criminality with - there being a really stark difference between the people who've been governors and mayors who've had to take a sort of practical view about the issue, understanding that the people are there. They need to have certain kinds of policies to sort of deal with their existence being in sharp contrast to those who haven't had to deal with that.

Of course, Romney attacked Giuliani on being a sort of sanctuary person and tried to sort of reposition himself on the issues as being sort of really tough on immigrants, a kind of Tancredo type. And that seems to be the sort of Romney playbook, which is sort of repositioned himself on a range of different issues quite differently than the way he addressed them in much more sort of practical terms as the governor of Massachusetts.

CHIDEYA: James, there were a couple of questions that came from African-Americans last night. The first one dealt with black on black crime. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Unidentified Man #1: Hi. This is me and my son, Prentice(ph). We're from Atlanta.

Unidentified Man #2: I want to ask you guys a question. I noticed you spend billions of dollars on the war in Iraq every year, but what about the war going on in your own country, black on black crime? Two hundred to 400 black men die yearly in one city alone. What are you going to do about that war? It feels like the Taliban's right outside.

CHIDEYA: And here's Mitt Romney's response.

Mr. ROMNEY: About the war in the inner city? Number one is to get more moms and dads. That's number one. And thank heavens Bill Cosby said it like it was; that's where the root of crime starts.

Number two, we've got to have better education in our schools. I think that the civil rights issue of our time is the failure of inner city schools to prepare kids in the inner city for the jobs of tomorrow.

And number three, of course, you have to do a better job with our policing.

CHIDEYA: So, James, is that an answer that you think really gave some substance? Who else put anything on the table during the discussion of that issue?

Prof. TAYLOR: Yeah, I thought it was, again, somewhat of an evasion because in terms of, you know, talking about education and family structures, in addition to many other issues that these candidates neglected, no one really talked specifically about, you know, the fact that, you know, in America, 27,000 African-American young men have died over the past five years through gun violence and a hundred thousand have been wounded and maimed in America.

This is not Baghdad; this is not Abu, this is not, you know, the Sunni triangle. This is the United States of America, and we've had - African-American young men are actually safer in Baghdad at this point than they are in any of the major cities in the United States.

And so in addition to all of these issues that these candidates neglected, none of them talked about job creation. None of them talked about, you know, the trade and balance with China and other countries around the world that we have imbalances with that are germane of World Trade Organization, you know, agreements that definitely undermined the ability of semi-skilled sort of individuals to be able to find work in the United States.

And employment rates are extremely high. This came across - in the past presidential election I thought John Kerry did a good job in highlighting the point that African-American men in New York - the majority of them were unemployed where these kinds of issues are hardly being discussed today, but in city throughout city in America, with the exception, ironically, of Los Angeles right now, violences is on the uprise.

CHIDEYA: Mark, let me take you to another question from an African-American questioner. He basically just asks why don't black votes for Republicans, given their social conservatism. Let's listen to part of Giuliani's answer.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Mr. GIULIANI: So there are many, many issues on which we can reach out. I found that one of the best was moving people off welfare. I moved 640,000 people off welfare, most of them to jobs. I changed the welfare agency into a job agency, and all of a sudden, I had people that had a future, people that had great hope in life.

CHIDEYA: How solid do you think was that response and also given that now there are some questions about what is actually happening to some of the people who left the roles(ph)?

Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, it was a very weak response. I mean, the sort of Giuliani if you go on and listen to his argument was somewhat of African-Americans have a false consciousness. They're really Republicans; we just don't know it. And it seems to talk down and really not address the sort of issue, the historical issues that the Republican Party has had, which has been sort of running against using the image of African-Americans as a sort of scapegoat to whip up white voters.

You know, that began with a southern strategy and a range of other things. Giuliani was roundly hated by African-American voters - most of the people he'd moved off welfare, he moved in to poverty. And, you know, the issues were sort of - and another thing that they continued to address is, is that, African-Americans are addressed through the lens of crime.

And there are a lot of issues that face the community that are not related to crime, as James mentioned. The economy issues around trade; health care was not talked about at all. Those are things that are really core African-American issues and if, you know, for instance, if Romney thinks that education is a civil rights issue of our time, what is he going to do about it? There was no substance to the response.

CHIDEYA: When you take a step back and look at how these guys are positioning themselves for the general election, there actually was a chance for them to do their own YouTube commercial and John McCain and Tom Tancredo showed themselves squaring off with Hillary Clinton. So they went for that aspect of it. Fred Thompson went for the jugular with the other candidates. Do you think that, at this point - first of all, there's a presumption that Hillary Clinton will be the person to beat. And secondly, that there should be a term from just attacking each other to moving into talking about the general election. James, how do you feel about that? Were they more focused on each other or more focused on the general election?

Prof. TAYLOR: Yeah, I thought, you know, those who were like Tom - as you say, Tom Lancredo(ph) - Tancredo, he actually tried to sort of raise the specter of Hillary Clinton. But I think at this point, it seems almost staged that Giuliani and Romney started this whole debate last night as a kind of, you know, Mike Tyson's fight. You know, the first few minutes were furious and - on the issue of immigration, but, you know, eventually, they sort of, you know, moved away from each other and began to try to talk about Hillary Clinton, but she never really fully, I think, became the focus of the debate last night.

CHIDEYA: So, Mark, it sounds like he is saying that basically, it was just mano a mano among the Republicans.

Mr. SAWYER: Yeah. Well, I mean, you can see that. I mean, it's a very tight race on their side. There's no - there's not really a sort of - I guess, Giuliani is the presumptive frontrunner. But it's not clear that he's going to win in Iowa, and someone could pick up a lot of momentum, so therefore, it was really set up. I mean, eventually, it was going to emerge as, at least, a little bit of the argument of who's best positioned to run against Hillary.

And - but it's - and, again, that may also be a mistake because it's not quite clear that Hillary may be the final opponent. If you look at what's going on in Iowa, if Obama picks up a win there and gains some momentum, things could shift and that sort of Republican argument that we're gearing up for Hillary may not become - come into fruition, actually.

CHIDEYA: There's going to be a forum this weekend that deals with black and brown issues in the heartland. And, of course, the first two states - the first state, the Iowa caucus, is not very black or brown, but is that going to, James, be able to insert some issues into the consciousness even as we go towards the first couple of states that don't have a lot of people of color?

Prof. TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I'm not quite sure, but it seems like, you know, in the Midwest, you have important states with large populations of African-Americans, especially, you know, for example, in Chicago, in Cleveland, in the city of, you know, Cincinnati, Dayton, these Midwest cities in Detroit. You know, these sort of issues that will be discussed in the Midwest certainly have a sort of captive audience of African-American and Latino and Chicano American people who would be interested in what sort of yield these discussions sort of produce.

CHIDEYA: Well…

Prof. TAYLOR: But there's a great deal of, you know, interest that African-Americans would have.

CHIDEYA: Mark and James, thanks so much.

Prof. TAYLOR: Thank you.

Mr. SAWYER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Mark Sawyer. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA; also joined by the University of San Francisco, politics professor James Taylor. Both joined us from the U.C. Berkley School of Journalism studios.

And tune in Monday for our coverage of the Iowa brown and black presidential forum with the Democratic candidates.

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