First, it was an odd debate under the giant old pterodactyl pelican in McAlister Auditorium last night. Both Harold Ford, Jr. and Mike Huckabee proved themselves anything but pure surrogates for their respective party platforms.
Huckabee is a very populist Republican in some ways, a genuinely compassionate conservative who doesn't mind translating his altruism into government action. At times, he sounded more like a Democrat. Ford presented himself as rather hawkish on foreign policy, albeit to show Obama was strong in that regard, and emphatically fiscally conservative. At times, he sounded like a Republican.
Both speakers were cordial, relatively eloquent, and surprisingly thoughtful. The moderator, a veteran New Orleans educator, was somewhat goofy in her random Southern-inflection-infused observations. She also opened by calling Huckabee the former governor of "Alabama" and saying she always told her students to watch Fox News.
Ford made it clear he was pulling for Obama. Huckabee barely mentioned McCain throughout the evening, hardly dropping him a supportive line only at the very end when practically forced to address it. He also handled Palin gingerly, dismissing much substantive discussion with humor.
1. Bailout - Mike Huckabee gave a brilliant, concise, reasonable attack on the government financial bailout plan. He presented the position that any Republican candidate should have employed to address the situation. He mentioned moral hazard, the failure of the bailout to produce results, the random selection of a figure by Treasury, and the inability of the market to find a bottom or induce investment in the face of what he equated with Hugo Chavez potentially nationalizing the next entity. He tied the action to his audience, lamenting the fact that we students would have to bear the burden of the irresponsibility of the present.
Ford, conversely, reluctantly supported the bailout as a sort of dirty necessary. He did point out that blame should be pointed at many different points along the way. Huckabee, on this crucial and relevant overriding issue of the moment, won bigger applause, to my surprise.
2. Renewable Energy - Both candidates were wholeheartedly in support of a host of renewable sources, as well as energy independence for the nation.
3. Taxes - Huckabee's Fair Tax proposal dominated the intellectual playing field on this issue. Ford painted it as harmful to innovation, but he didn't point out precisely why. Huckabee, on the other hand, laid out the nature and ostensible benefits of a consumption sales tax in depth. He played out the entire laundry list of taxes out there and gave concrete examples of why our taxation system is harmful to a competitive advantage in the international marketplace and some its perverse results.
4. Healthcare - Ford echoed Obama in calling healthcare a right. Interestingly, he noted that everyone does have healthcare - it's just that some people get it at the expense of everyone else at the emergency room. He assailed McCain's healthcare plan. Huckabee emphasized preventive healthcare, but didn't go so far as to say healthcare was a right, pointing to the fiscal consequences. He argued paying for preventive care was a more conservative approach. But he didn't really outline what a full-out preventive healthcare system would entail - and what it would cost to implement and administer. Getting into entitlements at a different point, Huckabee emphasized a plan to allow people to cash out of entitlement programs to forestall entitlement implosion.
5. Bush Doctrine/Foreign Affairs - In a student question at the end, the two candidates presenting different philosophies. Or at least emphasized different things. Huckabee said he supported preemptive action in two instances: 1. imminent threat to the US or its citizens, or 2. Humanitarian situations, such as genocide. Ford emphasized Obama's willingness to go across the Pakistani border after terrorists, attempting to hit the same awkward key about Obama's hawkishness. Neither candidate thought Iran should be allowed to create or obtain a nuclear weapon. Huckabee offered an interesting moment of empathy with the Iranian people, showing some nuance in recognizing the leadership of the nation as the problem, calling Mahmoud a nutjob.
6. China - Ford, asked if China was friend or foe, called them a strategic competitor, a Bush term, actually. Huckabee agreed with the characterization. Both men focused on the problem of China financing so much of U.S. debt - and having the theoretical ability to call those debts in to our detriment. They both want U.S. jobs over jobs abroad. Huckabee, stood out on this question for his understanding of the end reality in China - a lack of rights, a totalitarian political government in the end, despite any free market economic tendencies. Moving on into Russia, Ford called for a new containment, citing their newfound resource wealth. Huckabee had a slightly better understanding the Georgia scenario and its implications as far as test of the West's reactions and a possible foreshadowing of a Ukrainian action. Huckabee also had the better understanding of the real Chinese problem: a growing military with no threats beyond the U.S. for it to be used against.
Overall - Ford, at times, seemed to be compensating for his lack of fluency with sheer volume. Huckabee was slick, smooth as all getup, the words flowed unceasingly. I felt Huckabee "won" the debate by doing better than expected on a college campus based on audience reaction - and overcoming the potential Obama-like qualities of youth and unique background enjoyed by Ford.
This is my take. Feel free to share your perspectives in the comments below.