Questions from friendlies?  Hmmmm. I have to say that I was a little skeptical of the Palmetto Freedom Forum debate yesterday.

It’s good to have your ideas subjected to the debate of those who disagree. It not only makes you stronger but reveals the stronger argument. So questions from conservatives – to conservatives…I thought we were in-store for cupcakes and pre-packaged statements. I was wrong.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, Iowa Congressman Steve King, and Princeton professor Robert George prodded, pushed and followed up with each candidate in a way not seen in other debates. It all amounted to essentially asking the candidates: Do you know what you’re talking about? What you’re selling? Are you for real?

Yesterday I wrote that I wanted to see the candidates asked fact based quiz questions like: What’s the capital of Ukraine?  I wrote this because I want to see the candidates struggle and think.

Sidenote:  Don’t you wish candidates were administered the Wonderlic test…or some political equivalent? I do. It may seem irrelevant to ask Mitt Romney questions like:

The boy plays baseball. All baseball players wear hats. The boy wears a hat.

True or False? (more sample questions here.)

But if Rick Perry could only throw up a Vince-Young-ish SIX (!?)…I want to know that…it’s relevant to me.  (I’m sure Perry would do better than that…just using a name for illustration purposes.) Surely I’m not the only one.

Sidenote 2: Or as an alternative, what if for one of the 489 debates we simply made all the candidates appear before Alex Trebeck and play a furious game of Jeopardy. If Herman Cain blows everyone out of the water and Rick Santorum just can’t remember to give his answer in the form of a question…I want to know.

But the Palmetto Freedom Forum successfully challenged candidates and made them think.  (Without asking them: Which country’s GDP is larger? Mexico? Or Saudi Arabia?)  And that’s what this was: who can think on their feet while we push them on the values they espouse.

The Clear Winner

Newt Gingrich. I am no Gingrich fan.  But this event was tailor made for Newt. It was easily the best 22 minutes of his campaign. (The bar is admittedly not high.)  He thinks on his feet and he’s smart.

This was exemplified when the questioners asked Gingrich how many of the 50 million people on the immigration waiting list should be allowed into the country? Other candidates said, “I don’t know.” (Not a bad answer.) Newt gave a smart answer saying that we would have to take into account both how much our economy could absorb (that changes in good economic times versus bad economic times) and how much our culture could assimilate. (video here)

Newt’s problem is that he’s prone to intellectual masturbation. I can identify with that. If asked which is better: democracy or dictatorship? I would surely mention all the terrible dictatorships in world history, hitting the highlights of Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc. But I probably wouldn’t stop there. I’d dive into the problems with democracy and the tendency of free people to exchange their liberty for government retirement programs. Not good for getting elected.

Still…we have to give credit where credit is due…and Newt shone.

The Clear Loser

In my mind it was Michelle Bachmann.  Federalism is one of the core concepts of not only conservatism but in a clear and original understanding of the Constitution.  Federalism is the concept that all powers not specifically granted the federal government in the Constitution are reserved for the states.

When asked whether Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care mandate was unconstitutional at the federal level…Bachmann said yes.  Professor George asked her why. She said it was “inherent” in the Constitution.  George asked for a specific provision…and Bachmann didn’t know…she would need George to enlighten her. (video here)

It appeared at that moment that Bachmann was much more interested in being certain than being right.  It also appears that she doesn’t have the proper respect for federalism.  Whether it is abortion, gay marriage or state health care mandates, Bachmann seems too happy to use the power of the federal government to control things she doesn’t like.  Her entire performance wasn’t bad…but this instinct…revealed when pushed…while thinking on her feet…is concerning.

The Others

Ron Paul had a fascinating exchange with George over the 14th Amendment.  Herman Cain was charming and funny and bold in his tax plan. And Mitt Romney did, I think, very well…looking like a true frontrunner with command of the issues.

It would be good to see more debates like this. Where candidates could be pushed. Where we could see if they know what they’re talking about. Where we can see if they’re for real. But I’m still for the Wonderlic test.