10/19/2011 09:03 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2011

Sort the Fruit

The most important unresolved question of CNN's GOP debate in Las Vegas may be how to tell an apple from an orange. Herman Cain's use of a hackneyed metaphor actually helped him to avoid offering an explanation of how his nine percent national consumption tax doesn't double the sales tax of many states. That apple is rotten, though, and Cain, who was banged around early for his tax plan, and then largely ignored, has discovered what it's like when the luster fades from a bright, shiny political object.

Because he remains the lead dog of a snarling pack, Mitt Romney had to suffer flanking attacks on health care and immigration. When Rick Perry came after the GOP frontrunner for hiring a lawn care company that used undocumented workers. Romney's answer to Perry sounded petulant almost like a troubled rich man who has a hard time finding qualified domestic servants. His description of the conversation he had with the yard guy compounded Mitt's fumble. "I said, look, I'm running for office, I can't have illegals...." Does this suggest it would be okay if he weren't a candidate for governor when this happened? The moment was akin to Perry letting everyone know he can't be bought for $5000.

Romney scored serious body blows on Perry regarding immigration and jobs. The Texas governor keeps yammering about his experience dealing with the border but he has no real results to report. He has spent about $400 million on cameras and cops and patrols but just last week his hometown newspaper in Austin began running a series of reports about how a drug cartel was using the Texas capitol city as a location to trans ship narcotics to the north. The inflow of undocumented workers and contraband seems unabated. Cameras on poles are pretty easy to spot and walk around in the hundred mile gaps.

Michelle Bachmann's solution to this problem, though, is halogen-lit ignorance. A 1700-mile wall from San Diego to Boca Chica Beach in Brownsville is a preposterous concept in terms of cost, engineering, and effectiveness. On the border, the recurrent joke is that the only way the U.S. could ever afford to get it built would be if they got the labor from cheap undocumented workers. Can't be built without Mexicans. Cain's notion, which was first a joke and then a plan, of building a twenty-foot tall wall that is electrified and will kill transgressors, dismisses him as a serious candidate. It also brings to mind a great line from Texan Jason Stanford who said that, "The only thing a 20 foot wall does on the border is create a market for 21 foot ladders."

Border issues are complex far beyond the matter of simply shutting down the frontier. Rick Perry is fond of blaming Uncle Sam, who is supposed to protect the borders, but if Perry were as good at dealing with the issue as he claims, he would have shown some traction with reduced immigration and drugs. Nobody in the GOP has seemed even slightly interested in asking the people who live on the border what they think might work.

Perry and Romney might have appeared publicly in the debate to make peace on the question of faith but the issue won't die off. The Christian evangelicals supporting Perry will keep up their third party efforts to let everyone in their churches know that they ought not be voting for a Mormon. And Perry's campaign is doing a wink, wink, nudge, nudge approval. His super PAC can also be expected to help fund those communications. Romney, though, missed his chance to make Perry squirm. If he had forced the issue with a simple question, "Governor, do you think Mormons are Christians?" Perry would have been backed into a corner he does not have the political skill to escape. His honest answer would be no.

Romney was also right about Perry's letter to Obama urging the president to pass the TARP bailout. Anyone can read it on the Internet. Perry can talk about his intentions all he wants but he realized after he had issued the joint statement with the head of the Democratic Governors' Association that he was on shaky ground with the fevered souls who run his own party. He sent around a statement that was along the lines of "what the governor really meant to say was...." But the debate about TARP was distractingly humorous because the GOP field is wrapped up in whether it was a good idea to bail out Wall Street. TARP isn't exactly what got America into its present mess. The move that led us into the fire was the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which allowed Wall Street to devise a crazy clown car series of investment tools like collateralized debt obligations, bundling together bad mortgages. The Republican presidential hopefuls ignore that part of the story.

If anyone wanted to discern exactly what it means to be a conservative Republican by listening to this debate, they needed only to hear what Romney said about Nevada's record home foreclosures. He said they needed to "go forward," which is presumably his way of saying that businesses like banks need to right themselves and manage their books. This comment coming so closely after he'd expressed his support for Wall Street probably hurt him with Nevada voters. On TARP, Romney is as squishy as he is on every other issue ranging from abortion to gay marriage. He kinda sorta supported TARP but he has no problem saying where he stands on the home foreclosure matter; let them go forward. We can have the little guy in the streets but we can't have Wall Street investors walking to their two martini lunches.

The CNN debate was also notable for the fact that Newt Gingrich was not the grumpiest person in the room. Rick Santorum, who has nothing to lose, went after all of the lead dogs, whose rear ends he can barely see from where he is running. Santorum's "Pennsylvania strategy," though, was more silliness. He got elected twice to the US Senate from his home state but when he got voted out, he was really and truly and forcefully shown the door by an 18 percent margin. Pennsylvania isn't going to launch Santorum to the White House.

Sort through that and try to find an apple or an orange that isn't at least badly bruised or almost rotten to the core.

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