At GOP Debate, Good Work by CNBC

Will the rest of the media take the opportunity to follow up?

There’s an obvious top story coming out of last night’s Republican presidential debate: Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, which reinforced a coalescing narrative about the Texas governor’s weak debate performances and crumbling campaign. As the political scientist and blogger Brendan Nyhan tweeted, Perry “seems to be on a one-man crusade to embarrass political scientists who say debates usually don’t matter much.”

But, thanks in part to the stellar work of CNBC’s moderators, there were also a number of meaningful policy-oriented moments that warrant follow-up reporting—either to take a sharper look at the positions of Mitt Romney, who now looks like an overwhelming favorite for the nomination, or to see whether other candidates can add something useful to the debate. Here are a few exchanges that warrant a second look:

The Euro Problem

As David Frum and Ezra Klein both noted this morning, the replies to questions about how the U.S. should deal with exposure to the debt crisis in Europe—and in particular, Italy—were not persuasive. Frum gets in digs at Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman, but focus for now on Romney, who said:

Well, Europe is able to take care of their own problems. We don’t want to step in and try and bail out their banks and bail out their governments. They have the capacity to deal with that themselves. They’re a very large economy.

And, soon after:

There’s going to be an effort to try and draw us in and talk about how we need to help—help Italy and help Europe. Europe is able to help Europe. We have to focus on getting our own economy in order and making sure we never reach the kind of problem Italy is having.

If we stay on the course we’re on, with the level of borrowing this administration is carrying out, if we don’t get serious about cutting and capping our spending and balancing our—our budget, you’re going to find America in the same position Italy is in four or five years from now, and that is unacceptable. We’ve got to fix our—our deficit here.

Romney is probably correct that “Europe is able to help Europe.” (For one way it might do that, see Matthew Yglesias.) And he’s also correct that Europe’s leaders bear responsibility for this mess. But there’s increasingly reason to worry that European elites won’t get their act together, and whether we like it or not, a meltdown in Europe would harm American interests. The question is what we should do to address the near-term risk of a Euro shock; “fixing our deficit” has not much to do with that.

Because this challenge will likely require some sort of U.S. policy decision well before the election, we’re unlikely to see a Romney campaign white paper on it. Instead, he’ll do what any politician in his position would do, which is to wait for the incumbent to grapple with a no-win situation and then announce he’d have done the opposite. But some follow-up questioning here by campaign reporters might prod him into an answer that’s at least responsive to the problem—and even if it doesn’t, that coverage could clarify the stakes, and the choices facing the U.S., for voters.

The Housing Crisis, Then and Now

Romney has been a persistent opponent of targeted programs to avoid foreclosures, saying it’s better to let the housing market hit bottom and focus on a broad-based recovery, and he stuck by that position his last night. But he also seemed to endorse a proposal by Newt Gingrich to alter regulations so that banks have incentives to pursue short sales—in which houses are sold for less than the value of a mortgage—rather than foreclosures. We could use some follow-up reporting on what that shift would mean for the people now at risk of foreclosure, and for the market in general.

In another vein, we could use continued press attention to the point that Binyamin Appelbaum makes in The New York Times, which is that the story Romney and his GOP rivals tell about the roots of the housing crisis doesn’t hold up. Here’s Romney:

And the reason we have the housing crises we have is that the federal government played too heavy a role in our markets. The federal government came in with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd told banks they had to give loans to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back.

And here’s Appelbaum:

There is a basic problem with the argument, made by several candidates, that the government forced mortgage lenders to make bad loans: most subprime loans were made by companies that were not subjectto any kind of federal regulation…

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage finance companies, did provide financing for large numbers of subprime loans, mostly by purchasing mortgage securities for their investment portfolios. But the historical record shows that they came late, diving into subprime lending because private companies were stealing their business and profits. As such, most experts have concluded that Fannie and Freddie helped expand the bubble but did not create it.

Correctly identifying the roots of the subprime crisis may or may not tell us how to get out of the economic mess it created. But at the least, it can help us avoid another one.

The High Price of Higher Ed

While the CNBC crew did good work, one of the missteps occurred when a moderator cut Perry off while he was actually saying something interesting. The subject was the exploding cost of higher education, and the commensurate exploding levels of student debt. Perry asked the right question, which is, “How do you force these universities to be efficient?” And he offered a couple answers, including heightened gubernatorial pressure at state schools and increased use of technology. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul said some nutty things, but they also argued, plausibly, that federal subsidies have led to higher tuition.

It’s possible that none of those three will be seriously contesting the nomination for much longer (if they ever were), but political reporters shouldn’t let this issue drop. While neither the primary nor the general election is likely to hinge on anyone’s policy position on this issue, the cost crisis in higher education looms as an obstacle to our long-run economic growth. The press should keep the issue on the agenda, and press candidates from both parties for solutions.

What to Do About China?

One of the most interesting parts of the debate came at the end, when Romney and Huntsman sparred over how to address alleged unfair trade practices from China. Romney accused China of “cheating” said he was prepared to impose tariffs on Chinese goods to ensure “a level playing field”; Huntsman countered, “that’s not a good idea,” though he didn’t take the moderator’s invitation to accuse Romney of “pandering.”

It’s an emotionally loaded issue, one that invokes notions of fairness and national rivalry—and also one that doesn’t necessarily break down on partisan lines. But follow-up reporting here could try to take a clear-eyed look at who, exactly, the beneficiaries and victims of China’s actions are, and whether that picture complicates or confirms the candidates’ views. In a brewing dispute about China’s “dumping” of solar panels, for example, U.S. manufacturers are pushing the federal government to impose steep tariffs, while buyers, installers, and environmental groups are happy to let China send us cheap hardware.

There were other interesting moments too—Rick Santorum’s pitch for blue-collar industrial policy; Romney’s proposal for further middle-class tax cuts and his more equivocal stance on the payroll tax holiday. Even after Perry’s gaffe is fully digested, there’s plenty for the press to chew on here.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.