GOP Debate II: Medina Scores, Perry Defends, Hutchison Benches Herself

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The single most stunning thing about Friday night’s Republican debate was the fact that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison did not belong on the same stage with upstart libertarian Debra Medina.

The second most stunning thing was the gross journalistic malpractice committed by a TV anchor who was given a golden opportunity to grill Gov. Rick Perry. Hutchison’s dismal performance—even worse than in the first debate—was probably the most significant news of the night.

How could a woman who’s been in elected office for 20 years running—and was once Texas’ first female TV newswoman, and has no shortage of big-bucks consultants to drill her—show up for a televised debate that she had to win and just quietly, passively, self-destruct? But that’s exactly what the senator did in Dallas.

Looking and sounding heavily narcotized, offering absolutely no reason for anyone to support her, the lady vanished before our eyes. And her dwindling hopes of being elected governor might very well have vanished too. It’s impossible to choose the senator’s single worst moment—aside from showing up at all, which turned out to be a terrible mistake. But you knew it was curtains for Kay Bailey when she was shown videotape of the first debate, with the audience laughing derisively at her clumsy evasions of questions about whether she supports overturning Roe v. Wade—and then proceeded to answer in almost exactly the same risibly evasive way.

While it’s undeniably true that defending Roe would have lost Hutchison some conservative votes in this state, there is also no question that she’s pissed away a whole lot more by coming across as not simply a political prevaricator, but a flat-out liar—an awkward liar, no less. Somehow, Hutchison seemed to suggest on Friday, outlawing abortion would lead to more abortions—a weird concept that Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News grilled her about with a suitable lack of mercy.

Hutchison spent the evening sounding like the worst kind of Washington politician—exactly the opposite of what she needed to do. She wasted time quibbling with Perry about such arcane matters as how many cents on the dollar Texas gets back from the federal government in transportation funds.

In stark, technicolor contrast, Medina was sharp, tough and unfailingly on-message. While her politics are often scary, drifting considerably rightward of Ron Paul’s—she combines evangelical social views with libertarianism—Medina appears to be a natural-born debater. As she did in the first Republican encounter, Medina hammered home her main issues—eliminating property taxes, nullifying bad federal laws, increasing Texans’ personal freedoms (unless they’re gay), freeing the free market—with impressive discipline and clarity.

A viewer wouldn’t have had a clue in the world why Hutchison wants to be governor; with Medina, you heard exactly why she wants the job, and precisely what she’d do in the unlikely event that she gets it. It didn’t hurt, during a silly round of “How well do you know Texas” quiz questions, that Medina displayed more knowledge than either of her vastly more experienced opponents.

After Hutchison failed to name the first governor of Texas (told you the questions were silly), Medina was asked: “What is average annual pay for a Texas scholteacher?” As the correct number flashed on the screen below—$46,179—Medina thought for a minute, then answered: “I’m gonna say $46,000.” Ding! Ding! Ding!

Unlike the first debate, when she had the advantage of being unknown, Medina this time had to grapple with a few tough questions. She handled them adroitly. Asked about her characterization of Perry in the first debate as a “jumpy, fidgety frat boy”—an accurate description if there ever was one, but also kind of mean-sounding—she pivoted skillfully to accuse the governor, in politer terms, of painting Texas with a “broad, rose-colored brush” rather than facing harsh realities.

Medina was also confronted—in one of the brighter journalistic moments of the night— with videotape of her inflammatory remarks at a secession rally last fall, when she declared: “Stepping off into secession may in fact be a bloody war. … We understand that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”

(View the Observer‘s videotape here.)

Disingenuously—but without blinking—she claimed to have “never been a fan of secession,” and said, “The rightful remedy I advocated for at that rally was nullification and interposition.” Then, in another skillful pivot, she turned the issue back on Perry and Hutchison, claiming, “These two folks don’t understand the U.S. Constitution.They constantly vote to destroy it.”The video painted her as a wingnut, but she did make the best of it.

Gov. Perry, meanwhile, rebounded from his dreadful George W. Bush imitation in the first debate (mugging for the cameras, grimacing, sounding like an ill-informed fifth-grader).

Wearing a sort of cheerfully determined permagrin, he managed a spirited, good-natured and—if you didn’t know any better—reasonable-sounding defense of his unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor and his profoundly corrupt Enterprise (read: Slush) Fund.

Perry’s finest moments—and they were, in terms of debate skills, very fine indeed—came when Slater pressed him about the failures of the Enterprise Fund, specifically asking about Perry’s $40 million grant to his alma mater, Texas A&M—a grant that is the very definition of “slush.” Perry smiled like a supremely confident riverboat gambler and corrected him: “Actually, it was $50 million given to Texas A&M.”

And then he gave a plausible-sounding (though completely specious) defense of the grant. It was just the kind of thing that people mean when they say the governor’s savvy is underrated—and it was an impressive bounceback from the first debate, when Perry looked downright overrated.

The governor was assisted mightily by the inexcusable idiocy of many of the questions tossed at him—especially the big, fat, underhanded softballs pitched by KHOU-TV anchor Len Cannon.

If Hutchison had no business on the stage, Cannon should have been picked up and thrown roughly out of the picture after committing the most sickening display of butt-kissing by a journalist that I have seen in many years.

If Perry’s people could have dictated the questions they wanted asked, they couldn’t have done better than Cannon did himself. Given the opportunity that every journalist in Texas would kill for (and would have to kill for, given the insularity of the Perry campaign)—five minutes to grill Rick Perry on camera—Cannon chose to start with a garbled question about why the governor signed a bill to allow non-legal immigrant Texans to go to college with in-state tuition. Is this fair, Cannon asked, to non-Texans who are U.S. citizens and have to pay out-of-state tuition here? You could see it in his twinkling eyes: Perry could hardly believe his luck.

Not only was this a miniscule matter, given the host of huge problems this governor has created for the state, it also gave Perry a rare opportunity to sound compassionate and forward-thinking. The law, he said, is all about helping “our citizens reach their potential … [which] ought to be our focus every day in this state.”

And so on, as Cannon asked several follow-up questions on this minor issue, ultimately giving the governor a chance to grandstand about how the federal government’s handling of border security is an “abomination.” Most of his question time completely wasted, Cannon then asked Perry about another minor controversy: his mandating of the HPV vaccine for 12-year-old girls.

“I always stand for life,” Perry said, again clearly delighted. “That issue was about being pro-life.” And then Cannon went in for the kill—not. “If you are elected to another four years,” he asked, “do you promise to serve all four years?”

It wasn’t a completely ridiculous question, given that Perry might be entertaining far-fetched notions of running for president, but it had nothing to do with the dozens of serious questions that could be raised about the governor’s 10-year record of incompetence, corruption and questionable medding into state boards—particularly the Forensic Science Commission’s Cameron Todd Willingham investigation (which never came up).

Perry simply swung and connected, batting this final softball lazily into right field.

“I have no idea what my future holds for me,” he teased. “I have a lot of faith in the lord…” But would he promise (oh, please, Cannon seemed to be saying, please say you’ll never leave us!) to serve all four years of his third term? “Absolutely,” Perry said, fully aware that he could change his mind later without it mattering one bit. Is there “any place any better than serving the state of Texas?” the governor asked rhetorically, grinning like he wanted to run out from behind the podium and give Cannon a hug (or maybe a cushy job in his administration, where he clearly belongs). “That place hasn’t been made yet.” Awwww…

If you didn’t feel like suffering through the entire debate, you could have snuck a peek at the candidates’ closing statements and pretty much known how it went down. Perry was mildly, smilingly positive, ridiculously claiming that he’s always being asked as he travels the country, “How come Texas is number one in so many categories?” Hutchison was muddled, long-winded and nothing but negative, saying things like “It is failure, and it is atrocious” and giving no indication of why anyone should vote for her, rather than simply against Perry.

Medina, again, spoke directly to the voters, noting that her opponents had recently gotten high-profile endorsements, but “The endorsement I’m most interested in is yours.” Medina is going to get a hell of a lot more of those endorsements than anybody would have predicted just a few weeks ago. She doesn’t have time to ride the momentum to victory, mostly likely, but she will surely get enough votes to prevent Perry from avoiding a runoff with more than 50 percent of the vote.

If Hutchison had shown half of Medina’s debating prowess, we’d be looking at a skin-tight race to the finish. On the other hand, if Medina had another month to raise money and capitalize on her two debate victories, she might be the one neck-and-neck with Perry at the end. But this governor is one lucky so-and-so.

Perry bounced back in this second debate well enough to steady his wayward campaign ship and, most likely, sail toward a runoff with Hutchison that he should win with ease.