It has been a busy week in politics with the South Carolina primary, two Republican debates and Barack Obama’s election year State of the Union speech in a space of just six days. In this political year six days can be a lifetime — just ask Newt Gingrich. He went from a trouncing of Mitt Romney in the Palmetto State, becoming a very possible GOP nominee, to potential road kill based on two poor debate performances. Since debating is his supposed strong point — particularly according to him — what happened?
If you believe the great one’s advisers, his Monday and Thursday debate performances were not so hot because in the first one, moderator Brian Williams instructed the audience to behave themselves, and in the second, according to The Huffington Post, Mitt Romney packed the house. So a “transformational figure” in history, as well as the challenger to debate Barack Obama in seven “Lincoln-Douglas” debates was derailed because he could not hand-pick the audience?
It was clear from the start of the Monday event that Mitt Romney had brought his A-game, such as it is. He went after Gingrich for his “work” for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, accusing him of being a lobbyist, not the historian that Gingrich had claimed was the basis for the contract. Gingrich’s lame response was that he was being paid for “strategic advice based in part on the history of Washington.” I guess if he were an anthropologist he would have given advice on the culture of Washington, and as a biologist it would have been the intelligent design of Washington. Romney accused the former House speaker of influence peddling for his work on behalf of health companies in advocating for changes in the law. Against these attacks, Gingrich was left to complain that Romney had used the same approach in 2008 against John McCain (now a Romney supporter) and Mike Huckabee.
Early in the debate Gingrich responded to an attack from Romney by saying, in essence, “I don’t want to waste time chasing his misinformation,” and that voters could check out his web site for the correct information. Four days later, I could not find anything at newt.org that corrected Romney’s supposed distortions, but was delighted to find “Callista’s Canvas,” a feature of the site that takes up an inordinate amount of space.
In the second debate, Gingrich was repeatedly back on his heels attempting to respond to Romney. Indeed, Romney was so effective in counterpunching, there are almost too many instances to mention. When a Romney ad quoting Newt as saying Spanish was the “language of the ghetto” was a topic, Gingrich ended up saying weakly that the quote was “out of context.” I’m still trying to figure out what a good context would be. When Wolf Blitzer queried Gingrich on his ads attacking Romney for having Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts, he attempted to duck saying that this was a national forum at which such comments should not be discussed. My personal favorite, however, was a portion devoted to Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon [sic]. Romney said that if an executive came to him with a proposal to spend a trillion dollars building colonies on the moon, his response would have been, “You’re fired.”
Romney, for his part, was much better prepared than he had been in earlier debates. He was quite conversant with Gingrich’s positions on a number of issues and seemed to actually set up the former Speaker for devastating follow-up questions, much like a skilled litigator. Nonetheless, he has an amazing capacity for appearing that he is lying. On the “Spanish is the language of the ghetto” ad, he disavowed knowing about it. News reports today indicate that he approved it. Similarly, he denied knowing that he had invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, stating that his assets were in a blind trust. It turns out that the investments were listed specifically on disclosure forms he had submitted. He also appears to back down readily when challenged. When Brian Williams, referring to the Romney super-PAC “Restoring our Greatness” asked Romney when we were last great, he responded by saying, we are “still great.” I guess the super-PAC has succeeded.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have been the fifth and sixth wheels this week. Santorum continues to be a very effective debater, and is undoubtedly going on with his campaign in the expectation that Gingrich will implode. Not that bad a strategy. He does, however, continue to make bizarre statements. In the Thursday debate, he asserted that Barack Obama sides with the leftists in Latin America such as Castro and Chavez and warned of the growing Islamist threat in the region.
Ron Paul continues to be the voice of reason on many issues, although he doesn’t have much competition for that honor. In Monday’s debate, he criticized his opponents for their willingness to cut Food Stamps, but not the overseas military budget. On Newt’s proposal to colonize the moon, he suggested sending politicians there.
All in all, I think it was an excellent week for Barack Obama who, in addition, had Navy SEALS successfully complete another daring raid. Although his State of the Union was criticized in some quarters for either lacking in substance, or missing major issues, or both, to me it was a brilliant political maneuver. It is almost as if an adviser was tracking everything Republicans have said about him for three years and came up with an answer to each one of them. He even hit the birthers by describing his grandfather’s service in World War II. Also, he adopted one of Rick Santorum’s issues by advocating lower tax rates for manufacturers who stay in this country. When you are picking up on Santorum’s issues not related to religion, you are leaving no stone unturned.
I think this election is going to be about — as Newt Gingrich would say — a profound and fundamental view of America. One key component of that strategy will be tax fairness. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo observed, what was Mitt Romney thinking when he released his tax returns on the day of this speech? Is the Republican nominee for President becoming the poster child for why we need tax reform a positive? I actually heard an elected GOP official complain about the speech on NPR by saying that this fairness discussion was class warfare. Obama hit that criticism out of the park — it’s what most Americans would call common sense.
So the President laid out his campaign in full view. I’m not sure there was a single thing he said that will appear in Republican ads in the fall. Unlike, of course, the ongoing GOP donnybrook. By the way, the next GOP debate is not until the end of February.