A social game of poker is one of my true joys. By “social”, I mean a game among friends, and friends of friends, where the stakes are set in advance so everyone can be comfortable should they lose a certain amount of money. I first started playing in high school when I would have my friends over after my parents took the rest of the family to Cape Cod for a vacation. We would have a big vat of coffee since playing all night was our goal. Most recently, I played in a garage with neighbors where we had a fire pit going to ward off the autumn chill and lots of cold beer which had the opposite effect. In between I played with plenty of different people in different settings, but learned one indelible lesson. You can tell a great deal about someone from the way they conduct themselves at a poker table. Every now and then there would be a real jerk. One memorable one was the guy who tried to win by betting as much as he could as often as he could so the less well-off players would fold. In last night’s debate, Mitt Romney revealed himself to be that guy. He is a rich jerk.
In a vignette that will undoubtedly be the most repeated one of the debate, Romney offered Rick Perry a $10,000 wager to support his view that Perry was wrong about something. The substance of Perry’s claim doesn’t matter. He has made the same point in prior debates and when he said it this time I thought to myself, “Doesn’t this guy have anything else to say?” Perry has demonstrated during these debates that he has one skill. For some reason, he is remarkably adept at getting under Romney’s skin, and Romney unfailingly rises to the bait. Perhaps Romney has been looking for his Reaganesque “I paid for this microphone” moment, but this effort could well have the opposite effect. A $10,000 bet? That is walking around money for Mitt Romney? It seems that with every passing day in this campaign Romney’s public utterances are making him smaller and smaller.
It was Newt Gingrich we were watching to see if he would implode. The current front-runner in every early state save New Hampshire, however, came across as fully in command and willing to engage on any subject. A couple of times he even winked at someone in the audience while Romney was speaking, as if to say “we got him where we want him.” He deftly handled the “values” question intended to get at his three marriages and adultery by saying he had made mistakes, and that his character is a legitimate area of inquiry. As for being the career politician that is one of Romney’s attack lines, he observed that the only reason Romney was not a career politician was that he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994.
In one of the most interesting exchanges of the evening, Romney and Gingrich debated Gingrich’s early statement that Palestinians are an “invented people.” As Newt the historian pointed out, the Ottoman Empire did not include a nation known as Palestine, so its recognition is not based in history or fact. How this view by a President of the United States is going to further the cause of peace in the mid-East is beyond me, and Romney correctly took Gingrich to task for bomb-throwing. The two then engaged in a battle of who knew Benjamin Netanyahu the longest, and who could be the most subservient to the policies of “Bibi” – as he was called.
The candidates at the bottom of the polling pack each took their shots at the two front-runners. Rick Perry’s most notable contribution, other than irritating Romney, was commenting that a candidate who cheats on his wife could also be expected to cheat on his “business partner.” He drew what may have been the biggest applause of the night in blasting Barack Obama for neither destroying the drone captured by Iran, nor attempting to recover it. No one asked him if the first were possible or how he would do the second. Michele Bachmann had one of her strongest debate performances since early June and came up with the clever (I thought) phrase “Newt Romney.” Rick Santorum had a typical Santorum performance, meaning he didn’t say much that was memorable.
Then there is Ron Paul. He is polling about where Romney is in Iowa, and unlike both Romney and Gingrich, he will not be attacked for pandering. On the issue of Palestine being “invented,” he observed that Israel was not a nation in the Ottoman Empire either. On the individual mandate for health insurance (which he opposes as he does any mandate), he pithily observed that we don’t have a choice on paying Medicare taxes either.
All in all, these Republican debates are doing an excellent job of revealing the candidates. In this one, Newt Gingrich did nothing to hurt his status as the front-runner, but Mitt Romney’s camp has got to be plenty worried about the state of his candidacy. We may soon start hearing about the “non-Newt” candidate.
The next debate, the Jon Huntsman/Newt Gingrich “Lincoln-Douglas debate,” is scheduled for Monday at 4:00 pm, but there is no word yet on where it wil be broadcast.