Before I say anything else, let me note that the crowd at tonight’s GOP event cheering the execution of 234 Texas death row inmates was one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen in a long time. Even if you’re for the death penalty, you shouldn’t cheer the taking of a human life. At best the death penalty is a necessary evil. Putting even the worst criminal to death, even if he bloody well deserves it (as most of them do) is always a defeat for humanity, and something to be undertaken with sobriety, not bloodlust. What a repulsive display of stupidity and cruelty. Is this what the Republican Party is for?

My big takeaway of the evening is that Rick Perry emerged (barely) as the winner, if “winner” is a word that can properly describe this crew. Perry seemed sure of himself most of the time, and projected gravitas, except for some stumbles that may not look like stumbles (more on which later). Romney seemed strangely insubstantial next to him. Why on earth didn’t Romney go after Perry more? Santorum, Paul, and Bachmann all pummeled Perry on the HPV vaccine issue, and then Romney, when invited in to finish him off, chastised the others for being mean to ol’ Rick, and reminded them all that the enemy is Obama. Romney apparently still thinks he’s running against Obama, not Rick Perry.

I’m thinking I’d better get used to Perry, because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him. I’m not a fan, to be perfectly clear, but he seems to embody this unsettling moment on the Right better than anybody else. To me, his strongest portion of the night was when he didn’t back down on his description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, which it absolutely is. Doesn’t mean we don’t need to have it, or something like it, in place, but by calling it a Ponzi scheme, Perry is making the perfectly sound point that as it is currently configured, Social Security is a fraud. It was great to hear a major American politician say boldly that it’s a lie to pretend that it’s okay. The thing is, what does Perry or anybody else propose to do about it?

Perry flat-out ducked the question about whether or not Bush was mistaken to go into Iraq. His line critical of “military adventurism” was certainly welcome, but without any specifics on the table, it’s nothing more than rhetoric. It’s meaningless to say that we should only engage in military action when there are clear American interests at stake. Every president who sends in troops tells himself and others that there were clear American interests at stake. It would be hard to get more pro-empire than Santorum, though.

People need to know that Perry’s remarks about how “very thoughtful” the Texas justice system is when it comes to handling capital punishment is really flim-flam. Ever hear of Sharon Keller, head judge of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, who won international infamy when, in 2007, she refused to extend office hours past 5 so a death row inmate’s lawyers, who had been having computer problems, could file papers for a last-minute appeal? The man was executed that night. Far more significant is what the Cameron Todd Willingham case reveals about the way Texas treats executions. I don’t really expect the governor of Texas, especially Perry, who threw roadblocks in front of the official review of the Willingham execution, to denounce his state’s own system. But it’s absurd to defend its soundness as Perry did.

It’s also very, very weak to brag about Texas’s air quality, as Perry did tonight. I’m sure my old colleagues at the Dallas Morning News editorial board, who made a point to crusade for cleaner air in the Lone Star State, nearly choked when Perry started down that route. They once described Perry’s policy as “a three-pronged approach to environmental regulations: deny, deflect, pout.”

I wish I could say more for Ron Paul, but he seemed all over the map tonight. Gingrich — you know, the only thing I think of when I see him is, “I’ve been looking at you for too long, Mister.” Santorum came across as jittery and very Doug Neidermeyer tonight. Cain? Meh. Bachmann was more serious than I expected her to be, but she was so heavily made up that she looks like she’s running for Fox News chief anchor, not president.

This was the first time I saw Huntsman, and I liked him well enough. He came off as serious and presidential, though he offered no breakthrough proposals or lines. (To be fair to all of these candidates: there’s hardly any way for any of them to say anything of detail and substance in such a format.) I share his exasperation with the GOP on climate change and evolution, but alas, he’s not on as solid ground as he thinks saying that the Republicans can’t get elected if they “run against science.” Pew Research finds between 40 and 50 percent of Americans believe the Biblical account of creation. Also, Gallup found earlier this year that 43 percent of Americans believe that climate change fears are exaggerated, and the percentage of Americans who say they worry about climate change is at its second-lowest measure in history. I happen to believe that Huntsman is correct, but he is out of touch with political reality.

Overall, though, I heard lots of platitudes, but nothing that made me think any of the candidates on that stage tonight had the faintest idea what to do about the economic crisis. That puts them on par with Obama, I suppose, but that hardly settles one’s mind. Perry didn’t do himself any favors tonight, but because he didn’t blow it, and because nobody else really laid a glove on him, he’ll probably keep his lead in the GOP field. Bachmann will fade. This is a Romney-Perry race now. Pick your poison.

OK, one more thing. I know it’s impossible to expect Republican candidates debating at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library not to name-check the Gipper at every possible opportunity. But you know, it’s time to stop. Reagan left office in 1989, which is 22 years ago. This is like Democrats running for the 1968 presidential nomination dropping FDR’s name at every opportunity. Meaning no disrespect to President Reagan, but this kind of thing is kitschy nostalgia, and a sign of a lack of seriousness.

UPDATE:  Doing a quick scan of the morning posts reacting to the debate, I seem to be the only person in America who cheered for Rick Perry’s remarks on Social Security. I didn’t read him as saying, “It’s a Ponzi scheme AND THEREFORE should be ended,” but it’s probably true that most people will understand his position like that. And maybe I’m wrong about that. I was encouraged that finally a major politician is saying that a system that depends on ever-fewer workers to support ever-greater numbers of retirees (in the short run) is fraudulent and unsustainable, no matter how cherished it is. My own view is that we do need Social Security, but a seriously reformed version (e.g., means-tested), which is currently politically impossible. Anyway, this might well be one of those cases in which an observer hears something he really likes and identifies with, and misreads it as a hit when it was actually a miss. Andrew Sullivan was woo-hoo’ing Huntsman’s remark about how Republicans can’t win if they “run against science.” However much Andrew might want that to be true, it’s probably not going to help Huntsman win votes. Likewise with my approval of Perry’s Social Security statement.

Also, the general consensus, at least insofar as I’ve been able to pick up one this morning, is that Perry was unimpressive and Romney won the evening. Is that how you saw it, if you saw it? I’m more inclined to back Romney, if I have to choose between those two, which is why I was disappointed that Romney seemed so bland compared to Perry.

UPDATE.2: I think Chait nails why Perry “won” this thing. Excerpt:

The media seems to consider Romney the winner. Pardon the condescension, but they’re not thinking like Republican base voters. Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security?  We can have reasons or we can have results. His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match.

In this way Perry eerily apes the style of George W. Bush, who was also mocked for his intellectually vapid debating style, but who succeeded in rallying Republicans behind him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I suspect the Bush-Perry debating style broadcasts a subliminal message of strong leadership.

Yes. Perry appeals to the gut.