I missed the last two debates because I was travelling. While I tried to watch tapes on an iPad, that turned out to be a frustrating and time-consuming effort. After finally seeing the entire first debate, I do not think I missed much. I never watched the second one.
The event last night, however, was quite revealing. For once, Mitt Romney did not stand out from the crowd, and again demonstrated some of his weaknesses as a candidate. Newt Gingrich finally connected with an audience, feeding them all the red meat they could eat. At one point he actually got a standing ovation – for bashing the poor (and, at least inferentially, blacks) and going with his theme of Barack Obama being a “Food Stamp President.”
The debate, sponsored by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, was the first since Jon Huntsman dropped from the race. While Huntsman at times demonstrated some sophistication and common-sense on the issues, his weak showing in New Hampshire – a state on which he staked his candidacy – doomed his effort. He was also a weird candidate (not a unique characteristic in this group) with his odd sense of humor and speaking Chinese during a debate.
The next to go should be Rick Perry. Although his debate performances have improved markedly from his earlier efforts, he remains a slogan-filled lightweight who thinks tough talk and simplistic solutions will hide his rather apparent lack of knowledge or insight on any topic within the public realm.
Ron Paul, in spite of having the most ardent base and consistently polling in the top three, is generally ignored by the cognoscenti and punditocracy. Nonetheless, he has articulated views on foreign policy, government spending and individual liberty that one would think would deserve an airing in a party that prides itself on being conservative and a bulwark of freedom. But in last night’s testosterone fest on the South Carolina shore, the loudest applause was reserved for those who most enthusiastically and quickly asserted their desire to kill our enemies. Paul’s weakest points in all of these debates have been his disagreement with the killing of Osama bin Laden. He was getting nowhere with that tack in last night’s crowd.
If there is a poster child for how far the contemporary Republican Party has strayed from adherence to personal freedom and liberty, it would have to be Rick Santorum. In the January 7 debate, he came out against contraception. In last night’s event, he made a statement that I have not seen in any other commentary, but it should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who thinks the government should stay out of our personal lives. When asked what special steps he would take to alleviate the high level of poverty among African-Americans (it was, after all, Martin Luther King Day), Santorum cited a study showing that working, a high school education, and marrying before having children were the key to avoiding poverty. He then proceeded to blast the Obama Administration because it does not allow non-profit organizations assisting young women to tell their clients what “the good choice is” – i.e., marriage. This comment was perhaps overlooked because it was just the prelude for Newt Gingrich’s working the crowd into a fevered pitch with his denunciation of the poor and the “Food Stamp President.”
Gingrich was in his glory working this crowd. If this debate were the defining moment in the South Carolina primary, then the winner will be Gingrich. We do not know, however, whether this crowd was representative of the South Carolina electorate or how many voters watched it. There is another one Thursday night [sic], and it will be interesting to see if the Newtster has picked up significant momentum.
Going back to the January 7 debate, there was one exchange with Gingrich I found to be particularly revealing. In the lead-up to that debate in New Hampshire, the expectation that Gingrich would confront Romney about the latter’s super-PAC ads targeting Gingrich that are viewed widely as causing Newt’s precipitous drop in the polls and a poor finish in the Iowa caucuses. Between Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich was described as being on the war path, and he made some rather unflattering remarks about the former Massachusetts governor. The debate moderators, not willing to miss a blow-up between the two, gave Gingrich his chance early on to directly take on Romney for the ads. Gingrich folded like a cheap suitcase. Instead of repeating his own criticisms, the guy who has made a career of blasting the elite media hid behind the sheets of The New York Times, and, in one instance, attributed his own comments to the Times. This was not the first time that the smartest person in the Western world – and someone who purportedly salivates at the idea of debating Barack Obama – meekly walked away without a fight. He did it in last night’s debate when Romney questioned him directly about the illegality of coordinating with a super-PAC. You had no trouble hearing him when he was blasting the poor, but his concurrence with Romney’s challenge was barely audible.
Speaking of super-PAC’s, two of the more memorable exchanges involving Romney last night centered on ads being run by the super-PAC’s. (For those not familiar with this latest blight on the political landscape, a super-PAC is an entity that is separate from a campaign, and cannot legally coordinate with the campaign. It is funded without regard to the campaign finance limitations applicable to candidate’s campaigns. While the presumed rationale for this distinction is that the super-PAC’s are issue-oriented, not candidate-oriented, the reality is that the super-PAC running “issue” ads against Gingrich in Iowa is composed of Romney fundraisers and former close associates. Gingrich has his own super-PAC of “related parties.”)
In New Hampshire, it was Romney’s super-PAC attacking Gingrich that was the buzz. In South Carolina, it is Gingrich’s super-PAC going after Romney and his record at Bain Capital. Romney has made his Bain experience the centerpiece of his campaign, asserting that it shows that he knows how to create jobs in contrast to the bumbler in the White House who is in over his head. In his earliest iteration of this claim, Romney claimed that he had created over 100,000 new jobs, “net” of any job losses that may have resulted from companies that did not succeed. Of course, as with so many of Romney’s claims, this one did not withstand much scrutiny. It is quite difficult to come up with a reliable number on net jobs created by Bain Capital. Part of this is because Romney may not have access to their records. Part of it is because how do you account for job increases at Staples without accounting for job losses at competitors? And part of it is because Bain Capital did not care about job creation. They cared about maximizing profits for Bain’s partners and investors. While there may be nothing wrong with that, job creation – if it occurred – was of no concern.
It was no surprise, then, that in last night’s debate the opening question was to Romney about Bain. He said nothing of interest, but did not raise the “net job increase” issue. Perry then received a question, allowing him to use his “vulture capitalism” line (perhaps the only real contribution of his campaign). In response to a follow-up, Perry – who may have been put on this earth to irritate Romney – called for Romney to release his tax returns. Romney did not respond, but was not so lucky when one of the panelists addressed it later on. While Romney is best known as an entrepreneur and governor, he is also a lawyer, and his response reflected that training. He said he was not opposed to the release, but used the curious phrase “time will tell,” but then said he would “probably” release them in mid-April.
The other super-PAC ad that was featured prominently was one of Romney’s, this time attacking Santorum for favoring voting rights for felons. Santorum’s view is that felons who have served their time, completed probation or parole, can then reapply to have their voting rights reinstated. The ad, however, created the impression that those who had not completed their full sentence could vote. Santorum called Romney on this. Romney professed not to know about the ad since, of course, his campaign cannot have connections to the super-PAC. Romney is trying to be too-cute-by-a-half about this. I knew about the ad, because it was discussed on Politico.com that morning. Are you trying to tell me that Romney, who is incredibly well-briefed about everything did not know about an ad being run by his super-PAC and that I did? There are many things that I think are going to come back and bite him, and this studied ignorance is one of them. In any event, Santorum asked him if he favored such a policy, and when Romney demurred, Santorum told him that Massachusetts had a law more liberal than Santorum’s policy. Romney then said that he favored a policy that violent felons could not vote again, but his state disagreed. I’m going to take a wild guess that he pulled that one out of thin air, and there will be no record of his ever advocating such a policy in Massachusetts. Again, certain attributes (once again, lying) will come back to bite you.
One final point about Romney. He has acquired a reputation for being tone deaf and saying impolitic things, some of which, admittedly, have been taken out of context. So after a week in which you have been battered for bankrupting companies and forcing families into losing their homes, why would you say the following in a debate: “Bankruptcy can be good.” This is their electable candidate?