It was less a spirited political debate than a high-class college symposium. Or perhaps a Vulcan mind meld. Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich came together Saturday night at a sprawling golf resort here for what was billed as a debate over entitlements. But to call it a debate was a misnomer. The Republican rivals for the presidential nomination are good friends; there was nary a disagreement to be heard.
Despite the fact that Cain, former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, is known for his wit and ease onstage, it was Gingrich, the former history professor and House speaker, who was truly in his element. Denied the opportunity to hold forth at length in regular televised debates, which offer 30-second sound bites and instant rebuttals, Gingrich was expansive, funny and erudite, as he and Cain batted around ideas for reforming Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
They both embraced rooting out the Medicare fraud and waste that costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year; giving federal money to states in the form of block grants to administer Medicaid as they see fit; and offering citizens personal retirement accounts in order to have a say over how their retirement dollars are invested.
Cain seemed ill at ease; he deferred frequently to Gingrich on complex aspects of federal programs. When one of the two moderators, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), asked about defined benefits, Cain gave a halting answer. “A defined.... You go first, Newt.”
Gingrich seamlessly stepped into the breach, as he did virtually all evening at the Houston-area gathering, a fundraiser for the Texas Tea Party Patriots PAC.
When the conversation turned to Social Security and Medicare, Gingrich hit on a favorite theme: that technology has improved the lives of millions of Americans, but has passed the federal government by.
“How many of you have ever gotten money at an ATM outside the United States?” Gingrich asked, before extolling the almost magical process by which it is possible to receive local currency in a matter of seconds. The administrators of Medicare, the government’s health insurance program for seniors, and Medicaid, its health insurance program for the poor and disabled, still rely on paper, Gingrich said.
“The reason you have so much fraud,” he said, “is you have a crook with an iPad competing with a bureaucrat who went home at 5 who’s using paper.”
Later, he offered a proposal to use delivery services like UPS or FedEx, which both have sophisticated online tracking mechanisms, to help find illegal immigrants. “One of my proposals is, in order to find everyone who is here illegally,” Gingrich said, “we send them a package.”
As the audience howled, he said, “It’s funny, but it’s making a profound point about where we are.”
Many in the crowd of several hundred said they were amazed by Gingrich. “The command of the issues, the experience, the knowledge — it’s incredible,” said Houston attorney Monica Brashear.
Cain, of course, had faced a distracting week, beginning last Sunday when Politico broke a story about sexual harassment allegations from when he ran the National Restaurant Assn. in the late 1990s. The evolving story dominated the week’s political news, but the subject did not come up at all during the 90-minute debate.
It did, however, come up at a post-debate news conference when a reporter started to ask about the charges.
“Don’t even go there,” Cain snapped. “Where’s my chief of staff?”
“Right here,” Mark Block said.
“Please send him the journalistic code of ethics,” Cain said.
Block has been emailing reporters the code, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists, whose first rule is “Seek truth and report it.”
The debate itself ended on a light note, when each candidate asked the other a question.
Gingrich asked Cain what had surprised him most about running for president.
“The nitpickiness of the media,” replied Cain, whose response got a standing ovation. “I expected to have to work hard, I expected to have to study hard, but I did not realize the flyspecking nature of the media.”
Then it was Cain’s turn: “Mr. Speaker, if you were vice president of the United States, what would you want the president to assign you to do first?”
Gingrich did not miss a beat: “Having studied my friend Dick Cheney,” he said, “I would not go hunting.”