Wednesday night’s debate on CNN was Number 20 (although I don’t know how one could keep track) and no more are scheduled. It had been almost a month since the last one, and the race had entered another significant moment with Rick Santorum taking the lead in national polls. Despite the stakes and the time since the last one, this event could only be described as desultory. It may be that there are only so many ways of asking the same questions, or perhaps it is because the candidates’ responses are so wearingly predictable, but I cannot say I will miss them if this indeed was the end.
What stands out from this event? I think the comment that may have the longest shelf life is Mitt Romney’s assertion that he opposes all earmarks. Romney has the unsettling habit of both not caring about the truth, including on matters that can come back to haunt him, and being quite inept at the ad-lib remarks. He was once the governor of a state that, unlike the federal government, not only permits line item vetoes, but also permits a veto of an earmark within a line item. Does he not think that no one will go back and look at all the budgets he signed while Governor and count all the earmarks he approved?
A two-hour debate with only one easily disproved statement by Romney would be a milestone for him. But we also had misstatng his position on requiring contraception in Massachusetts and his whopper that President Obama realized Romney was right on the bailout of the auto industry that Romney opposed and Obama implemented effectively.
Rick Santorum did not help his candidacy by sounding like John Kerry in explaining his votes on various issues during the George W. Bush presidency, at one time even saying he was being a “team player.” That’s not necessarily such a bad thing — at least among rational people — but when your candidacy is based on adhering strictly to bedrock principles it is hard to see how this is not a self-inflicted wound with the current GOP base.
Newt Gingrich was praised in many circles by avoiding his trademark inflammatory rhetoric. Let’s see. He said Obama paid off the UAW in the auto bail-out bill, voted to “legalize infanticide” when he was a state senator, and said that when government is the central provider of services, “you move to tyranny.” Oh, and if Obama is reelected he will begin a war against Catholics on the first day of his new administration.
As always — and I mean “always” when discussing these debates — Ron Paul was the sole voice of reason. He is the only one not rushing to enter a war with Iran, pointing out there is no evidence they have a nuclear weapon. (Gingrich, by contrast, actually said that if Israel believes they have such weapons “you have to act.”)
If these debates are over, I think they have served a very useful purpose in illuminating the character and policies of all the candidates who have participated. They are perhaps one of the significant reasons that the Republican “brand” is suffering, and that Mitt Romney has seen a precipitous decline in his favorability numbers. And those would be the reasons why the Romney campaign has not committed to any more of these events.