It would be going too far to say that Mitt Romney “won” last night’s Fox News debate. Anytime something you said appears in an ad for the other side within 24 hours, you did not exactly “win” and Romney’s prolix attempt to set up one of his answers included these unfortunate words, already in a Democratic ad, “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me,” which were unfortunate and on-tape. That is why these debates live after themselves in a YouTube age.
Nonetheless, compared to the rest of the field, Romney had a good night. His main competition at this point comes from Gov. Rick Perry who had two really bad moments, both of which were inescapable. When confronted with opposition to his passing a Texas version of the DREAM Act, allowing the children of undocumented workers to attend Texas public schools at in-state tuition rates, he defended his position soundly, noting that the alternative would be denying these children their future, pointing out that they were in no way responsible for the decisions made for them by their parents, and that to do otherwise would be “heartless.” True on all counts, but by stating these simple truths, Perry angered a large part of the GOP base which is as truculent on the issue of immigration as they are on the issue of higher taxes. And, calling one’s base “heartless” is not the way to win their support.
The second really bad moment for the governor came in response to an admittedly flawed question, albeit a foreseeable one. He was asked what he would do if, awakened to the news at 3 a.m., he was informed that the Pakistani government had lost control of its nuclear arsenal. This question was foreseeable because it was the centerpiece of an attack ad by Hillary Clinton when she was trying to question whether or not Barack Obama had the experience in foreign policy necessary to be president. Perry should have seen the question coming, and he didn’t. His answer demonstrated no awareness of Pakistan, no awareness of nuclear threats, indeed, he looked a bit clueless.
The question, of course, is a silly one. No matter who gets that 3 a.m. call, we know that the person making it would be the National Security Advisor. And, any chief executive worth his salt would respond to such bad news with two questions: What do you recommend? When can we assemble the team? Had Perry started his reply by pointing this out, and then said something vague about Pakistan, the focus would be on good executive decision-making and not on his evident ignorance about Pakistan. And, let’s be honest: There are no good answers about what to do about Pakistan.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann did not make any major mistake but she also did not have the kind of “wow” moment she needs if she is going to jump start her now flagging campaign. Former Governor Huntsman seems so uncomfortable on stage and so unhappy about having to constrict his answers to sound bites: In an earlier day, his demeanor and his moderation would have served him well, but with thousands of Tea Partyers screaming for blood in the auditorium, he seems terribly out of place. Herman Cain did what Herman Cain does: sound bites. He could be selling pizza rather than policy – wait a minute, that makes more sense than I realized when I was merely thinking of alliteration with “policy.” Sen. Rick Santorum is at his best when he appears angry, but that never comes across as well on TV as it does in the hall. Congressman Ron Paul missed a great opportunity to win the room early in the debate. He was asked a question about the 10th amendment via videoclip. His answer as succinct: “Well obviously, it would take more than one individual, but the responsibility of the president would be to veto every single bill that violates the 10th Amendment. That would be the solution.” There was a pause and silence at which point Chris Wallace pointed out that Paul had more time and invited the congressman to elaborate, which he did. But, Cong. Paul missed the chance to say, “See, there is the problem – you think every problem has to have a long, complicated solution, and take a long time to explain. I shouldn’t fill up my allotted time with jibberish just because the time is there just as the federal government shouldn’t spend our money just because they can.” But, as I say, he did not seize the moment.
Again, I find myself thinking that Newt Gingrich is the person benefiting the most from these encounters. He is obviously the smartest and most widely read person on the stage. He takes “gotcha” questions, like the first question to him of the evening about a statement he made regarding unemployment insurance, and completing turned the question on its head and gave a detailed, intelligible answer. But, unlike the others, he also declines to take potshots at his rivals on the stage. I think he is setting himself up to be every GOP voter’s second choice, and that may be the best place to be. Before the debate, Chris Matthews interviewed a Tea Party leader who trashed Romney, not quite willing to say he would never vote for him in a general election, but close. I can see Tea Party folk growing disenchanted with Perry and re-examining Bachmann or turning to Gingrich who, far better than Romney, can bridge the gap between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party base.
Was anyone else shocked that none of the candidates rose to the defense of a gay soldier after the crowd boo'd him? Every debate so far as highlighted the audience - they cheer death and they boo a soldier who is gay. Nice.
These debates serve a purpose - the differences between the candidates are becoming obvious on certain issues, and we are gaining some measure of them as people. How do they handle pressure? Can they think on their feet? Do they have a real grasp of complex issues? But, the biggest question of all - who can both win the GOP nomination and be sane enough to beat President Obama? - that question remains unanswered.