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I finally have a chance to talk about the last ninety minutes of the debate,

1.  What the heck is with Juan Williams?  There is no upside whatsoever in calling out Gingrich on his food stamp President/go-to-the NAACP- and-tell-them-to-demand-jobs-not-food-stamps comments.  Gingrich makes those comments for two reasons.  The lesser reason is that it is good for some applause from conservative audiences that think Gingrich is committing to expand the constituency for free market policies. But that applause fades quickly.  The greater reason for Gingrich’s comments is to bait liberals into asking him “Why so racially insensitive” questions. Gingrich can then explode with his “dignity of middle school students to be janitors and become doughnut entrepreneurs for the freedom of prosperity of everyone and only elites prefer Obama food stamps to self-employed business jobs” act.  Then the applause from conservative audiences is lasting and so are the memories.  Gingrich won the night because he won against the liberal media.  There is just no way to get illuminating answers out of this line of questions.  How does Williams spend years in the political media and still walk into that rhetorical trap?

2.  Finally! A question on entitlements.  Romney gave a good answer on Social Security (changing the indexing of benefits for future high earners and slightly increasing the retirement age) and Medicare reform (gradually transitioning to a premium support model.)  If we ever get right-leaning entitlement reform it is going to look very much like what Romney talked about yesterday.  It is a reminder that, for all his flaws, Romney is running for President of a country with large fiscal problems and would like not to drive the country into the rocks.

3.  Unlike Newt Gingrich.  The Seib fellow asked Gingrich the wrong question about converting Social Security into private accounts.  The real question is about the transfer costs.  It would cost the government at least  $1.3 trillion (see table 1a) over the first ten years to maintain Social Security payments to current and near-term retirees while diverting the funds from the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts.  That is $1.3 trillion of new deficit on top of our existing projected deficits.  The $1.3 trillion number is also very generous as the estimate was for 2004 to 2014.  Projecting the costs from 2013 to 2023 when the retired population will be larger would show larger transfer costs.  But that is okay because Gingrich is going to pay for the transfer costs by reducing duplication in anti-poverty programs.  Sure.  Did I mention that he is also for large tax cuts and called Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan right-wing social engineering?

These kinds of pseudo-solutions are worse than worthless.  They take up space that could be used to talk about prudent policy solutions that come somewhere near adding up.

4.  Santorum was right that Gingrich’s proposal didn’t add up, but Santorum wasn’t smart enough or quick enough to explain why Gingrich’s proposal didn’t add up absent huge spending cuts to either entitlements or defense.  Gingrich is a weasel, but he is a talented demagogue and Santorum showed, one more time, that he is a decent guy who is trying to do the right things but just doesn’t have it.  Or maybe he does have it and I’m not giving him enough credit.  I have a bad feeling about South Carolina.  As I was driving home listening to some talk radio, Gingrich had gotten his mojo back among the callers as the brilliant invincible debater.  Gingrich’s performance puts him in a good place to finish second and maybe establish himself as the non-Romney, non-Ron Paul candidate. I wonder if there are enough loose Romney voters, loose Santorum voters and loose Paul voters for a late surge that puts Gingrich into first place by Saturday.  I hope not.

5.  Gingrich’s spectacular, cost-free, completely dishonest policy platform got most of the attention and applause.  The thing is, Gingrich isn’t really running for President.  He is running to sell books for when he loses (whenever that is.)  He will go on and on about how everything would have gone great if only people had listened to his radical, transformational, common sense, nonsense.  The people who read his books will never see the Social Security Chief Actuary’s analysis of Gingrich’s plans.  Some fraction of Gingrich’s readers will decide that Gingrich’s mirage is the real Social Security/Medicare/tax policy solution. Gingrich will continue to distort public discussion of serious issues and profit from selling easy and false answers.  In a constrained choice between Romney and Gingrich, Romney is the easy first choice. 

But how did it come to that?

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