Florida debate: 5 things we learned

Republican candidates clash on immigration, Fannie and Freddie and space domination.

Last night the four remaining Republican candidates took part in the final debate ahead of the primary for the battleground state of Florida on 31 January. There was a degree of role reversal in the performances; frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney repeatedly pressed, ridiculed and challenged one another -- the former showing less fight and momentum than his polling figures have suggested in recent weeks.

The verdict has largely fallen on the side of Romney as victor; though the other two candidates, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, held the spotlight and audience applause in surprisingly large measure at this late stage in the race for nomination.

Here's the main five things, and corresponding clips, that we learnt from last night's crucial debate for the final four GOP candidates:

1) Romney's got bite

Early in the debate, Mitt Romney shamed rival Newt Gingrich over his claim the former Governor of Massachusetts was the "most anti-immigrant candidate." Romney called Gingrich's words "absolutely inexcusable" and "repulsive", while to his right the former House Speaker stood around uncomfortably. The crowd were behind Romney, and continued so whilst he stared Gingrich straight in the face, awaiting an apology.

 

2) Paul's king of the one-liner

He's going to hold on and keep them laughing until the bitter end. Conveying policy seemed not to be at the top of Ron Paul's agenda last night, but he certainly pleased the crowd.

 

The Texas congressman is not actually running in the Florida primary, but as in previous years, his safe base of supporters (and his health) will see him through the Presidential nominee race until he is finally forced out.

 

3) Gingrich shows signs of wearing down

After the immigration scuff, Romney continued to fire accusation of inadequecy at Gingrich, who responded to the attacks with weak anecdotes and complaints. The crowd were unimpressed.

 

Over in the Marbury blog, this was Ian Leslie take on Gingrich's performance:

[Gingrich was] tetchy, overly defensive and tired. He allowed Romney, whom he clearly despises, to get under his skin. He was too easily goaded into rhapsodising about space programs, which, even in Florida (home of the Space Coast), can make him seem a little detached from reality.

4) American's don't fear China "dominating space"

During the debate Gingrich was given the opportunity to expand on his proposals to build a moon colony -- for the benefit of the US economy -- were he to become president. In response, Romney relished saying he would fire Gingrich for such an idea, were he his boss, and swiftly moved on to attacking his rival's record of making state-specific pledges, vacuously "promising billions and billions of dollars to make people happy".

 

5) Santorum is hardly running, but he probably won

He is coming last in the polls and the pockets of his campaign may be empty, but Rick Santorum made an impressive performance on stage. He emerged the most successful candidate in holding Romney to account on policy; in many ways playing the part that Gingrich failed to claim. The former Senator for Pennsylvania spoke passionately "about freedom" in an attack on Romney's health care plan. Romney called him "angry", but the crowd -- and Republican voters watching at home -- most likely share Santorum's frustration.

 

Politico praised the performance:

. . . It's safe to say that on overall points, Santorum won the debate, although it was Romney who had the standout moment.

Santorum is barely making a play in Florida, and he is leaving the state this weekend to go home and handle his taxes -- essentially ceding the stage to Romney and Gingrich. But he has been presenting himself in this race as a more "consistent" conservative alternative to Gingrich, and someone who can match Romney on leadership.

Tuesday's closed primary will see one nominee gaining the full 50 Florida delegates. In the final debate, Romney's success at pressing his close rival Gingrich on issues that are contentious for them both -- transparency of personal wealth and immgration -- appears to have knocked him back into the lead.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue