Tonight’s CBS/National Journal Republican Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy

Bookmark and Share   What happens in tonight’s presidential debate matters a little less than the media spin that will be put on the debate in the days following the debate.  The decision to hold the debate on a Saturday night, is sure to produce a relatively small audience of viewers who will be seeing the debate live.  That means the vast majority of voters are going to be reaching their conclusions about the candidate’s performances through second hand descriptions crafted by the media and its talking heads.  This will allow any highs or lows in their debate performances to be exaggerated to whatever extent the authors describing the debate wish to with slightly more success than in past debates.

That situation could be either a big help to individual candidates or major problem for them.  Most especially Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and to a lesser extent Mitt Romney.

If Perry can somehow pull off a debate appearance that is gaffe free, and startles opinion makers with an eloquent, well thought out, and articulate view on foreign policy and national security, that will result in reports that praise him to an extent that could help him begin to dig his way out of the hole he has dug himself in to with previous bumbling and stumbling debate appearances.

For Herman Cain, foreign policy and national security are considered his weakest area of expertise.  In fact he has no expertise in these areas and has proven that in the past with multiple faux pas, such as his misunderstanding of China’s already having an a nuclear capacity.   For him, this debate could either solidify his front tier position or be the beginning of the end.  If you remember, it was a foreign policy question that helped sink the election of Presidential Gerald Ford in 1976 [see video below this post].

Ford flubbed a statement about the Soviet Union and made a misstatement that claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and that there will never be one under a Ford Administration.  After President Ford was pressed to clarify his position, he reaffirmed his belief that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. 

In the days following the debate, President Ford conducted an interview with Jim Lehrer.  In it Lehrer asked Ford about that answer.  The exchange went like this:

PRESIDENT FORD: There is no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That’s what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that, at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland.

JIM LEHRER: Did you realize there on the stage that night that President Ford had made a serious mistake?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Yes, I did. And I was prepared to jump in, you know, and take advantage of it. But just on the spur of the moment, I realized that it would serve me better to let the news reporters question President Ford’s analysis and judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have any idea that you had said something wrong?

PRESIDENT FORD: Not at the time. Not at the time. In retrospect, obviously, the inclusion of a sentence or maybe a phrase would have made all the difference in the world.The reason for a federal government is to provide for the national security of its people.

The problem was that the answer remained a major gaffe that hurt the President.  He spent valuable time having to explain his answer and try to set the record straight.

With less than 60 days to go before the first votes in the presidential nominating contest take place, neither Cain or anyone else can afford to be put in the position that Ford had put himself in to back in 1976.

The one person who will probably fuel any fire in tonight’s debate will undoubtedly be Ron Paul.

Paul’s isolationist policies (and make no mistake, they are isolationist policies) are almost certainly going to spark a clash between him and Rick Santorum, who in past debates, has been one of the candidates on the stage who were most genuinely offended by Paul’s views on Israel, defense, and America’s role in the world.  While Paul’s views will certainly play up to his small but vocal liberal-tarian base of obnoxious supporters, it will do little to broaden his appeal.  But the way in which Ron Paul presents his isolationist policies could stir up emotions the emotions of some of the other candidates to the extent that one or more of them way state or phrase something in a way that will make headlines for them.

The debate will take place at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina at 8:00 PM EST.

Moderated by CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley and National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett, the debate will air on the CBS Television Network and will be webcast at CBSNews.com and NationalJournal.com.  The final half hour will only be available online, except for the West Coast where the full debate will air on television.

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