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.