Grading the Candidates: A Report Card for the GOP Debate

Let the games begin. I say "games," because the race certainly has not started yet, and CNN tried to run Monday night's GOP primary debate in New Hampshire like an episode of America's Next Top Model. Sure, there are candidates and minor squabbles, but for the most part, the GOP realizes that it will take a unified effort to confront President Obama. The "debate" was closer to a cordial introduction to the candidate's personalities, or, as the Atlantic called it, a "Manchester Lovefest."

Classes are out for summer and grades are coming in. I rated each of the candidate's performances, and provided an explanation for my mark. I do not have a Ph.D. in Reality Television (or whatever qualification you need to comment on the internet about politics), so I asked Professor John Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, for his opinions on each candidates performance.

The following grades are based only on the candidate's performance in Monday night's debate, NOT on previous records or their ideological views.

Michelle Bachmann: C+

Who: Minnesota Congresswoman

Quote: "In the last two hours, I've learned more about the goodness of the American people -- from the question from John, his three sons that are serving in the Navy, his wonderful service."

I know that she was declared the #winner of last night's debate by the national news media, but that is only because everyone had such low expectations for her. Just because she was able to hide her craziness for one night, and come off as mediocre, does not by any stretch of the imagination mean she won. It's like telling your college-aged kid that you're proud of them for not dying of alcohol poisoning when they get back from school for the summer. That said, Bachmann's personality, Tea Party rhetoric, and 23 foster kids attract a particular type of voter. If Sarah Palin joins the fray, however, let the race for craziest candidate begin.

Professor Pitney's Grade: A-

"Bachmann gained ground.  She drove home her status as a tax lawyer and foster mom, which most people probably didn't know."

Newt Gingrich: B

Who: Former Speaker of the House of Representatives

Quote: "Take half of the current Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy in Washington, transplant it to Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. You'll have more than enough people to control the border."

G-unit did pretty well last night, especially considering he probably had to prep all by himself. For those of you not following the race, last Thursday, a number of aides on Gingrich's staff as well as his campaign manager suddenly resigned, reducing his chances of winning from almost none, to virtually none. Last night, however, he came off as experienced, knowledgeable, and earnest, which should probably be a baseline for candidacy, but you can't have it all I guess...

Professor Pitney's Grade: B

"Gingrich didn't make any big gaffes but did not dazzle.  In light of his campaign's troubles last week, he needed to be spectacular, and he wasn't.  As a former college professor, he does best when talking for 60 minutes, not 60 seconds."

Mitt Romney: A

Who: Former Massachusetts Governor

Quote: "Any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama."

Romney was in a completely different mind set. He did not engage with any of the other candidates, and it was obvious that he was already focused on President Obama. Romney avoided injury (although he need not worry because he passed universal health care in his state) and honestly was likable. He made jokes, announced the Bruins score before a commercial break (which sucked for those of us who TiVo'd the game), and made other gestures that showed that he does have a heart, fiscally-responsible experience and most importantly of all, a brain.

Professor Pitney's Grade: A

"Romney did well.  He looked presidential and gave sharp answers.  He has a slight lead and probably widened it last night."

Ron Paul: A

Who: Texas Congressman

Quote: "Free markets will give you 10 percent or 15 percent growth

or whatever and you will not have to turn it off because you think it's going to cause inflation. It doesn't work that way."

I'm sorry, but Ron Paul was awesome last night. The New Jersey

Newsroom (ironically) said it best, when they referred to the debate as "Ron Paul and the Pandering 6." The merits of libertarianism can be debated at great lengths, but at least Ron Paul has an ideology and sticks to it. Contrary to pretty much every single other politician, Paul's foreign policy, economic policy, and social policy all actually stem from his ideology - which became clear when CNN shifted the questions to social issues. Instead of trying to pick up the schizophrenic portion of right-wing voters that want no government involvement most of the time (unless it concerns an issue they care about like social security, Medicare, foreign policy, abortion, gay marriage... you get the idea) Ron Paul stuck to his (deregulated) libertarian guns.

Professor Pitney's Grade: B+

"Ron Paul probably fared better among Republicans than he did 4 years ago.  In 2008, he was a sharp critic of Bush foreign policy, which got him jeers. Now he makes the same criticisms of President Obama foreign policy, which is more acceptable to a partisan audience."

Tim Pawlenty: F-

Who: Former Minnesota Governor


Quote: "Senator Biden has been wrong about every major strategic decision in the modern history of the international conflict and military."

I had heard optimistic things about Pawlenty, but I can't understand how he made it this far. After watching him last night and promptly vomiting on my notes, I tried to figure out how he was so extraordinarily bad and wishy-washy that it fascinated me. This man has it all: between backing away from his critiques of Romney, speaking without saying anything, taking the most widely accepted position on an issue no matter what, and beginning every sentence with his credentials, it is clear now how he was elected. Unfortunately for T-Paw (as he refers to himself on his website), his first debate left most of us who didn't know much about him with a bad taste in our mouths.

Professor Pitney's Grade: B-

"Pawlenty did poorly.  In his answer on Romneycare, he tried to sound civil but ended up sounding evasive.  To the extent that the debate introduced Pawlenty to a wider audience, it was a bad first impression."

Herman Cain: B-

Who: Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza

Quote: "To paraphrase my grandmother, with the situation in Libya and many of these other situations, they're not simple situations. It's a mess. It's just an absolute mess."

Cain did well. He struggled when pressured about his insensitive comments regarding religion, but I doubt that the people who might support him cared. He could have hammered home his Washington outsider status a little harder, but he definitely got the whole businessman problem-solver persona out there. He "kneaded" (sorry, I couldn't stop myself) to be more inspiring then he was, however, and while he may gain steam and become this year's Huckabee, he's not a real contender.

Professor Pitney's Grade: B-

"Cain stumbled over the Muslim question.  In the competition for tea party voters, Bachmann defeated him."

Rick Santorum: D

Who: Former Senator from Pennsylvania

Quote: "I think the Tea Party is a great backstop for America. I love it when people hold up this Constitution and say we have to live by what our founders laid out for this country."

Santorum was not memorable. I tried to think of something to write, and all that came to mind were feverish hand motions and the phrase "remarkably average."

Professor Pitney's Grade: B+

"Santorum came across as sincere but he didn't break out of the pack."


The whole debate was a letdown. If it revealed anything at all, it's that the GOP candidates will need someone strong to join in the race, a double-dip in the economy, or Osama Bin Laden to rise from the grave if they want to compete with President Obama's wit and oratory skills in the 2012 debates.

Want more articles by Nathan Falk? You may also enjoy his article on David Brooks's visit to Scripps or his piece on the CMC Trailers