September 22 GOP debate wrapup

On Thursday, nine contenders for the GOP nomination for president participated in a televised question-and-answer session hosted by Fox News and Google. As usual, I hesitate to refer to these events as «debates» because they really aren’t debates. There’s not enough time allotted to permit more than a soundbite on each issue and there are few real chances for rebuttal. They are all about the personalities and very little about the principles and issues.

Here is my take on the candidates’ showing, in order of my general opinion of the candidate (not in order of how I thought they did Thursday evening, though there is a rough correlation) from best to worst.

Gary Johnson

Governor Johnson didn’t get as much time to discuss substantive issues as the other candidates, but he compensated for that with his quip about his neighbor’s two dogs. That got him some of the attention he needs in the national spotlight.

I can’t help but think it was a mistake for him to hold his tongue when Stephen Hill was booed by members of the audience. There are two parts to Johnson’s appeal as a candidate. One is his fiscal restraint, but that doesn’t distinguish him from the rest of the candidates on the stage as much as the other: his fervent belief that the GOP should not be the party of intolerance. It was not Governor Johnson’s turn to speak, but someone should have delivered a reprimand to audience members who booed a soldier serving in Iraq. It was an embarrassment to the Republican Party and an embarrassment to all Americans.

Remaining silent at that moment should be an embarrassment to everyone who was on that stage, but Governor Johnson is the only one who has expressed his regret for staying silent except for Rick Santorum who actually had the floor and who claimed not to have heard the loud booing in the hall.

Jon Huntsman Jr

Jon Huntsman may be so high on this list only because I know so little about him and his policies, but much of what I do know about him I like. He’s a motorcyclist—a lousy reason to vote for any candidate but I can’t help but give him a thumbs-up for riding on two wheels. He and his family give very generously to charities, which I find laudable in any candidate, but especially in a republican. Too often conservative rhetoric about charity being the job of the individual rather than the state rings hollow. It seems as though they’d really rather do nothing at all than help others. This is a myth, of course. Conservatives are generally more generous donors to charity, both in total numbers and as a percentage of their income. Nevertheless, it’s important to see the myth visibly subverted. Jon Huntsman is by all accounts one of the nicest people you’d want to meet. He comes across as fair-minded and honest, although I can’t say I approve of his positions on reproductive and civil rights.

Ron Paul

Dr Paul has a vocal following and is thought of as the premier libertarian republican, and he should. Dr Paul was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988 before he joined the Republican Party. The guy has his economic theory down but he has a lot of trouble communicating the relationship between economic theory and economic policy he’d recommend. The problem may be only that he tries to communicate said relationship. Start talking about fiat currencies and boom-bust cycles and American eyes start to glaze over. It is great to see his ideas make it to the stage but Gary Johnson is more truly libertarian and has more practical, definable solutions to the issues that face America.

Herman Cain

It’s disappointing to see Cain eschew the FairTax in favor of his 9/9/9 plan which, despite being better than our current system fails to address the fundamental flaws with the Internal Revenue Service. Beside that, I don’t see him bringing a lot of ideas to the table. At this point, Cain may be damned with the abundance of faint praise.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry

Mitt and Rick both lose points for sniping at one another constantly. Both of you, stick to the issues. The Punch and Judy show stopped being amusing long ago.

Newt Gingrich

Newt didn’t say much new this time around, but as he continues to campaign he looks less and less presidential. There’s no question that Newt is smart, knowledgable, and experienced but he’s also looking tired and less like he actually wants the presidency than enjoys the attention he gets from participating in the debates. I can’t blame him; I think if I were in his shoes I’d attend any debate I was invited to and not drop out of the race unless I had some better job offer. Ultimately, Newt ought to stick to an academic role: teaching, writing policy papers, editorials, op-ed pieces, and acting in the occasional advisory role. That appears to be what he’s best at and he ought to stick to that once he’s done having fun on the debate stage.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum has been my least favored candidate from the very beginning, and in Thursday’s debate he cemented his position as a person that should be prevented from holding public office. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann worked hard to make it to the bottom of this list, and Santorum’s answer to Stephen Hill’s question about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell constituted Santorum’s effort in the race to the bottom. Regardless of whether he heard the booing of Hill (or his question—the distinction is meaningless) his answer showed his own intolerance and lack of respect. Santorum failed to thank Hill for his service, which displayed tremendous disrespect in light of the fact that Santorum was saying he would return to a policy of discrimination against Hill in the military if elected president.

Regardless of how one feels about the policy of openly-gay individuals serving in the military, if being homosexual without committng any sexual acts is grounds for dishonorable discharge as it was until the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the «special treatment» is the discrimination against gays. Failing to discharge a soldier or an officer for being homosexual is not a «special privilege» as Santorum called it—it is the absence of a special privilege. In essence, Santorum told the soldier that he was receiving special treatment for continuing to be permitted to risk his life to keep Santorum and the rest of us safe and secure. That’s not just wrong, it’s ingrateful and unbecoming of anyone aspiring for public office on any level. The second half of his answer—that he would exempt military personnel who came out as homosexual after the repeal of DADT but before Santorum reinstates it—was what kept him from beating Bachmann for last place on the list. I also give him some credit for condemning the booing, even if he didn’t do it until the day after the debate.

Michele Bachmann

Bachmann impressed me when I first heard her speak. She seemed sharp and on the ball, although I can’t say I loved her positions on many issues. The press made far too big a deal over her confusing Concord New Hampshire with Concord Massachussets—they’re only sixty miles apart. It was a mistake, but was it really any worse than Obama saying he’d be travelling to all fifty-seven states? When I see the press focus on something as trivial as a misstatement in public speaking it earns that person my sympathy.

However, since then, she has taken every possible chance to lower herself in my eyes. In the previous debate Bachmann tore into Rick Perry about the «forced» immunization of twelve-year-old girls in Texas on Perry’s watch. In so doing she came out strongly and passionately in favor of death by cervical cancer. Yes, she raises a valid public health policy question about the authority of the state to mandate immunization against infectious diseases, but by her logic we ought to bring back smallpox and polio and stop immunizing children against infectious diseases that they will then pass on to adults with less-robust immune systems.

It’s not her logic that is most upsetting. Rather, the most upsetting part of her argument is the utterly irrational assertion that there is something immoral about giving girls as early as nine years old a vaccine for a sexually-transmitted disease (Human Papillomavirus is the primary cause of cervical cancer) and that it somehow taints the girls’ innocence. What’s maddening about this is that the vaccine is only effective as a preventative measure. The idea is to get girls vaccinated before they become sexually active. It’s absurd to think that a shot in the arm at the doctor’s office is in some way morally corrosive. The only justification for this position is that cervical cancer is God’s punishment for the sin of sex—including marital sex—and that only by threatening our daughters with death can we keep them «pure». That sounds like Sharia law.

Bachmann was also asked about her implication that Gardisil causes brain damage and in typical politician form she refused to take responsibility for spreading misinformation. She said she never claimed that the vaccine caused brain damage, that she was only passing on information given to her by a woman who claimed her daughter had become developmentally disabled as a result of the vaccine. That Bachmann won’t even acknowledge that she gave the impression of an endorsement of patently false medical information means that we must parse her every word very so carefully that there is no point in listening—she simply cannot be trusted.

The list of offensive things Bachmann has said which angered me is too long to list here, but one more from Thursday’s debate merits mention. The idea that opening diplomatic relations and trade with Cuba would represent an existential threat to the United States is absurd. Cuba’s human rights record could stand to be improved (greatly) before they get Most Favored Nation status, but opposing charter flights? Supporting the embargo against Cuba in the 21st Century is evidence of a position arrived at through emotional and ideological posturing, not any considered or researched decisionmaking.

The crowd

The big loser in the debates so far has been the audience in attendance. I can’t think of a better way to reinforce the idea that republicans are all hateful, intolerant, bigots than to show someone a tape of one of these debates. The crowds have been ill-mannered, disrespectful, and inflammatory. This is not what the Republican Party should stand for and not the kind of conduct it should allow in its events. From booing when Newt Gingrich was introduced to applauding at mention of executions of criminals, to cheering «yeah» when asked if an uninsured person needing medical care should be refused treatment, to booing Ron Paul for suggesting that not all Muslims should be blamed for 9/11, to the previously-mentioned booing of a US Soldier serving in Iraq, the audiences at these debates have included vocal factions that are being used to show that republicans are mean-spirited and cruel.

Republicans are fond of complaining about how the press portrays them, but if republicans can’t keep from displaying themselves in this way, what are people supposed to think? Gary Johnson said, «The booing that occurred last night at the event is not the Republican Party that I belong to,» but if more of the party leaders don’t step forward to reprimand these classless hecklers, then the party leadership has tacitly approved of the sentiments. That would not only be not be the Republican Party I belong to, it would be the Republican Party that deserves to lose every election.



I'm not a religious person, but I do have a problem with the Perry vaccine issue. In addition to the way it was done (by executive order, which even Perry admits was a mistake), it is an example of the intrusive nanny state. This disease is transmitted sexually, not like other diseases we vaccinate (polio for example). I haven't studied the potential complications of gardasil, but I think it would be worth it to assess the risk of a complication versus the risk of catching this disease, especially since this disease is preventable. One other solution could be to educate children on the issue and make the vaccine easily available to them, perhaps anonymously. Maybe not the best solution, but more welcome than Perry 's approach, in my humble opinion.

I appreciate your point, but public health regarding infectious disease is one area I find the so-called nanny state to be beneficial. If one's aim is to totally eradicate a virus, universal vaccination is the way to go. With expensive vaccines, even middle-class families may take risks with vaccination for financial reasons. The idea of the nanny state is that government protects us from ourselves with eg seatbelt laws. However, government is rightly involved in protecting us from one another. When you don't get your child vaccinated you don't just put your child at risk, you put others at risk as well.

I don't see that being sexually transmitted has anything to do with it. Even if you could mount a 100% effective child and teen abstinence program (by itself an unlikely scenario) those kids will grow up to be sexually active adults, as is entirely appropriate. There's no such thing as «safe sex» when it comes to HPV either, because condoms don't prevent the spread of HPV. People carrying the strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer don't have outward signs so their partners can't refuse to have sex with them on the basis of infection. There is no clinical test for it in men, so men can be carriers forever and never know it. For women, HPV can be detected on a pap smear, but by then it's too late.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 75% of all Americans either have HPV or HPV antibodies indicating a previous infection.

By that same token, I don't see any reason why one would feel the need to make vaccination anonymous. By the time a young woman becomes sexually active, it's too late for vaccination. Being vaccinated against HPV should have no connotations of immorality at all. 

I fully agree with and applaud your resistance to government solutions to health problems and I agree that an executive order is not the right way to have come to that decision. But in this case even though Perry overstepped his authority I believe he still made the right decision.

You may be right about the nanny state not being an accurate term in this case, since this is not simply about protecting an individual from himself/herself.

I don't have a problem with making the vaccination available.  As I said, I'm not religious and have no moral issues with being vaccinated for HPV.   I don't think children are "tainted" if they get the vaccine.  My point about anonymity was to make the vaccine available to children or young adults who are thinking about having sex.   I only recommend it be anonymous so they wouldn't be afraid of their parents finding out that they are planning to have sex.   The anonymity would encourage children or young adults to be vaccinated.

I think the fact that this disease is sexually transmitted is indeed important.  There is choice involved, unlike for other diseases such as polio or smallpox.  

Parents can always choose to have their children be vaccinated as well.  

I think an important thing to know is who were the primary lobbyists for requiring this vaccination.  Was it doctors, parents, or the pharmaceutical companies? 

Getting vaccinated against HPV isn't something to do because the girl is planning to become sexually active soon. It's something to do because the girl might become sexually active in her lifetime. We're not just talking about protecting girls from the consequences of teenage sex. We're talking about protecting girls from the consequences of sex in her twenties. Or her thirties, forties, or fifties.

Nobody cares about HPV itself. It's a virus, but most strains of the virus have no symptoms. There isn't even a clinical test to detect it in men. You can never tell if a potential partner is carrying the virus. Because the virus is so common, it is three times more likely that a potential partner has the virus than does not.  So there's no way to be sexually active at any age and be safe from this virus. A woman who has sex only once in her life still has a seventy-five percent chance of getting the virus. Odds are you have the virus and odds are that I do too. The only way to avoid it is a lifetime of abstinence.

The problem is that people hear the phrase «sexually transmitted disease» and start to think of it like something that can be prevented through responsible practices. They think, «my daughter isn't ready for sex, so why prepare her for it?» Instead they should be thinking, «I'd like to have grandchildren someday, but I'd also like my daughter to live long enough to take care of me in my old age.»

The only reason to eradicate this virus is because it causes cancer. The fact that the virus spreads through sexual contact really is irrelevant. 

I can't answer your last question. No doubt phamaceutical companies want to sell their vaccines. My understanding is that the primary advocates for HPV vaccination are doctors and that parents are the ones opposing HPV vaccination. Doctors want to prevent cancer, and parents are scandalized at the idea of treating their daughter for an STD. It's not that parents don't love their children, but parents have difficulty seeing past the taboo word sex.

It's recommended that girls get their first pap smear after becoming sexually active, yet there's no hysteria or scandal associated with pap smears; they are a routine part of a visit to the gynecologist. 

There's more information about HPV at

Also, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article much like the discussion we're having here but with bigger words: in which Dr Colgrove discusses a variety of ethical and political issues about compulsory vaccination, but also writes, «Requiring HPV vaccination by law will almost certainly achieve more widespread protection against the disease than will policies that rely exclusively on persuasion and education.» To me, that assertion is key and that's why I favor mandatory vaccination. 

Note too that the Mayo Clinic refers to Gardasil not as an HPV vaccine, but as a cervical cancer vaccine:

As evidenced by this conversation, there is room for reasonable people to disagree on this question, and I respect that. I agree that Perry overstepped his authority, but I believe that he overstepped his authority in order to do the right thing. But even if the individual right to control whether one's child is vaccinated is more important than the larger public health issue, I think that Bachmann is way out of line to demonize Perry as she has been. Yes, politics is a full-contact sport, but you and I are ultimately the referees. I say Bachmann is out of line.

Interestingly enough, California seems to have implemented what I mentioned: teens being able to be vaccinated anonymously.  Well, in California it's 12 year olds, which may be a bit young.  I think 14-15 year olds could be in a bit better position to make this decision.

Not surprisingly, this has many people outraged :)

If teens are to be making this decision, though, they need to be informed.  Giving them a 30 page package insert is not the way, in my opinion.

I think a short fact sheet would be more useful, with key numbers: 

1) % of people who catch HPV, 
2) % of people who develop cancer from HPV, 
3) % of people who die from this cancer, 
4) % of people being vaccinated who have complications. 

5) Perhaps other relevant numbers...

Keep it simple. No scare mongering either for the cancer or for vaccine complications.

I'll have to comb through the links you provided.  Perhaps I'll be able to construct this fact sheet from that information :)

Good to see you back, Carmen.

My response got pretty long-winded so I rolled it into its own new post.

Some quick numbers to answer your questions, though: claims that 103 young women have died from adverse reactions to Gardasil. CDC says it cannot link any of these deaths directly to the vaccine, but lets assume 100 (to make the math easier) is an accurate number. Two years ago it was stated that 40 million women had been vaccinated with Gardasil. So that's one out of every 400,000 vaccinations as a worst case statistic.

Each year 11,000 women develop cervical cancer and 4,000 women die from it. 80% of the population has, had, or will have some strain of HPV at some point in their lives but I don't have any figures about how common the strains that cause cancer are. There are 150 million women in the US and 40 million have been vaccinated. That means in theory that if the vaccine is 100% effective, that infections that will lead to death should drop by about 1000 per year. If it's only 50% effective, that would drop by 500 per year. 

Even if the vaccine were only 10% effective, that would mean that we're saving as many women each year as the vaccine has killed (assuming that the vaccine was actually responsible for that many deaths) in the entire history of the vaccine being administered.

It's important to point out that since we're talking about preventing infections that haven't happened yet that the death rates won't actually drop for years. Gardasil won't do anything for someone who has already been infected with a cancer-causing form of HPV. Even if we vaccinated every woman in the world today, magically and instantly, the cervical cancer rates wouldn't dip for a few years.

I'm sorry I don't have percentages as you asked. Hopefully the CDC site has what you're looking for.

Also, let me acknowledge how distasteful it is for me to look at human lives in terms of numbers. Obviously, every death is a tragic loss to friends, family, and the community at large. We can't simply add up numbers and sacrifice a few to save many. This needs to be looked at in terms of balancing risk for each individual, and it seems that over the long term, the risk of not being vaccinated is greater than the worst estimates of risk of being vaccinated.

One red flag that put Perry on my list of "candidates I won't vote for if it comes down to them against Obama - I will write in a name if I have to": he said he would always "err on the side of life".  That certainly sounds good.  But I think that with this kind of rhetoric or thinking, we end up with situations like the TSA in airports today.  I'm not sure what your position is on the body scanners and pat-downs, but I believe they are a violation of our right to travel from point A to point B without being searched unreasonably and without probable cause.  I don't think the likelihood of a terrorist attack justifies these measures, in terms of financial cost or loss of rights.  But, if we don't really care about doing an actual cost-benefit-risk analysis, then we can always "err on the side of life"...

I don't think the vaccine mandate is as bad in terms of personal rights, as the TSA searches, but I think Perry's line of thinking is clear, and not one I agree with.  I'm just glad he made it so easy for me to add him to my black list :)



Perry is far from my favorite but he hasn't gotten on my blacklist yet. By now it should be clear that I am solidly in the Gary Johnson camp. Even my #2 and #3 picks on this list, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, I'm really not very enthused about. If the election were held today I'd vote for either of them if they had the nomination. The only ones I've ruled out so far as absolute noes are Bachmann and Santorum. 

As far as erring on the side of life, I don't think that means the same thing as always deciding on the side of life. It means that when making the cost-benefit analysis one prefers to play it safe with lives rather than play it safe with money. In principle I agree with that; in practice what matters is how far one errs.

My biggest problem with the TSA is that I don't think they actually are making us safer. I don't think that the searches are unconstitutional because they are voluntary. To the same point you made about sexually transmitted disease vaccination, flying on a common-carrier airline is a choice; you can drive, take a bus or a train, or even charter a flight with a pilot who won't require you to go through the searches.

Interestingly enough, despite our differences, we have the same top-3 list.  I'm split on first place: either Johnson or Paul, and then Huntsman.  I have to decide about the others still, but I'm pretty sure Santorum is on my black list. :)

As for the TSA searches being voluntary, I think it's not really realistic, for a few reasons.  First, if you need to travel from Seattle to Florida, it is not realistic to say "just drive".  Even taking the train is not realistic for this particular trip.  This point is even more important if you live in Hawaii or Alaska.  Also important to consider is that TSA plans to (and already has begun) perform similar searches on buses and trains.   They will probably eventually end up controlling private charter flights as well (because somebody can always take control of a private jet and fly it into, or explode it into, a building, right?)  Perhaps TSA (DHS actually) will begin these procedures at shopping mall entrances some day if nobody tries to stop this now (they're heading in that direction already with the NFL).   In addition to vacationing, people need to use transportation for their jobs, to take care of family members etc, and people shouldn't be harrassed and searched unreasonably in their travels, regardless of the mode of transportation they choose.   Would you have told Rosa Parks to just walk or take a taxi? :)

Hi Carmen—

I didn't get the sense from anything you wrote that we have differences enough to surprise me that we have the same top three picks for president. I agree with you in principle that vaccinations should only be made compulsory with caution and discretion. It sounds to me as though you'd be OK with (or at least much less opposed to) the compulsory Gardasil vaccinations if it had gone through the Texas legislature and been signed into law by Perry rather than issued as an executive order. I agree that using an executive order circumvented the democratic process. Just because I believe it's the right public health policy doesn't mean that I think we ought to scrap our system of checks and balances for it.

Another reason it doesn't surprise me that we'd have the same top candidates is because of something else I wrote in my endorsement of Governor Johnson: authenticity and integrity count for more in a candidate than policy positions. Clearly it's good to share values with a candidate and Governor Johnson and I see eye to eye on a great many things, but Jon Huntsman and I disagree on a great many things and he's still my #2 pick. I am paying attention to the issues, but I'm responding largely to my sense of how trustworthy the candidates are.

I agree that it's not realistic to expect people not to fly, but from a legal and constitutional point of view, it's simply not the same as the police coming in to our homes. There are situations with even less choice about whether you go there (going to a courthouse or a Federal building) where it's considered reasonable to submit to a search and go through a metal detector. And I'm not even saying I approve of DHS's requirements for flying on a passenger plane. They are invasive, ineffective, and wasteful measures that are a violation of standards of decency. But I don't believe that they violate the Fourth Amendment because, again, we for the most part get to choose if and when we submit to those searches.

Segregated buses in the South is not a comparable situation. The issue isn't whether Rosa Parks could take other forms of transportation. Yes, taking the bus was voluntary and she could have avoided the treatment she got, but that wasn't the relevent question. The issue was whether she was treated equally once she was on the bus. Most everyone getting on an airplane is subjected to the same invasive treatment equally. Different issues, different legal standards.

Although I hope I would have told Rosa Parks to walk or take other transportation. Boycotting the bus company was a very effective tactic and I believe it was the right thing to do. It's easy to see in hindsight but I can only hope I would have given her that advice had I been there.

I know it doesn't necessarily come out all that well in the debates but Ron Paul quite a large list of practical, definable solutions if you bother to go to his official campaign page ( and select "issues" from the menu at the top). Don't get me wrong, I like Gary Johnson a lot and if he gets the nomination I will certainly vote for him. However, I don't see how he has any more practicle or definable solutions than Ron Paul. Ron Paul will stay my first choice but Gary Johnson is in a not too distant second. I would likely vote for a 3rd party candidate should any of the other candidates get the nomination.

Hi Steven—

You nailed it when you said that it doesn't come out all that well in the debates. Johnson is promising to submit a balanced budget and cut spending, and having respectful conversations with people who don't understand why that's necessary. Paul is promising to strengthen our monetary stability by ending inflationary policies that devalue our currency, and then treating anyone who didn't understand what he said the first time as an idiot.

Clearly someone can become president while holding the American people in contempt—look at our current President and his predecessor—but I don't believe Ron Paul can be elected while he displays open contempt for the American people.

And look, I don't actually believe that Ron Paul holds Americans in contempt. But he comes off that way because he has little patience for people who hold opinions that he sees as foolish or wrong. That's a big problem for his electability in my opinion. It means he gets a vocal group of supporters at the beginning of every campaign: people who are outraged that the country is being run by ninnies and want to take the country back from the morons. These are people that use the neologism sheeple. But ultimately you can't win America's heart by playing to a vocal minority who loves America but holds Americans in contempt.

That's why looking at Ron Paul's popularity frightens me. He's a wildly popular fringe candidate but I can't see him becoming more than a fringe candidate without changing his rhetoric in a way that will lose him the support of the fringe.