Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arizona debate

Being a “Team Player” is No Dishonor

Rick Santorum’s defense of his vote in favor of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill was one of the low points of a dismal debate performance last night. His explanation that being a “team player” meant that sometimes you have to “take one for the team” was not exactly the sort of ringing defense of principle that wins applause from partisan crowds. In fact, it earned him some boos and allowed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to brand him as a political “insider” who is part of the problem in Washington rather than its solution.

To the extent that the bill was symbolic of the willingness of the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress in 2002 to spend the public’s money like drunken sailors or at least like Democrats, it is fair game for criticism of Santorum. However, the impulse to trash any rationale put forward for team play in Congress is more than a bit overblown. More to the point, the idea that any member of the House or Senate should be condemned for attempting to govern rather than merely spouting off purist declarations of principle in the manner of Ron Paul is not only unfair, it is a prescription for chaos. It should also be noted that Santorum’s regret about “No Child Behind” is no ex-post facto rationale. I happen to know his support for the bill was in fact quite reluctant.

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Rick Santorum’s defense of his vote in favor of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill was one of the low points of a dismal debate performance last night. His explanation that being a “team player” meant that sometimes you have to “take one for the team” was not exactly the sort of ringing defense of principle that wins applause from partisan crowds. In fact, it earned him some boos and allowed Mitt Romney and Ron Paul to brand him as a political “insider” who is part of the problem in Washington rather than its solution.

To the extent that the bill was symbolic of the willingness of the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress in 2002 to spend the public’s money like drunken sailors or at least like Democrats, it is fair game for criticism of Santorum. However, the impulse to trash any rationale put forward for team play in Congress is more than a bit overblown. More to the point, the idea that any member of the House or Senate should be condemned for attempting to govern rather than merely spouting off purist declarations of principle in the manner of Ron Paul is not only unfair, it is a prescription for chaos. It should also be noted that Santorum’s regret about “No Child Behind” is no ex-post facto rationale. I happen to know his support for the bill was in fact quite reluctant.

In 2001, just after the bill’s passage, I spoke with Santorum when he was in my office for a meeting with the editors of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia where I served as executive editor. I pressed him about “No Child Behind,” and his response was he had grave misgivings about the bill and would not have voted for it but for the importance the president placed upon its passage. He explained then as he did last night that being part of the Senate leadership imposed obligations on him that meant he could not always vote as he pleased. As lame as his defense of that decision may have seemed last night, there is no doubt about the honesty of his position.

To understand the vote is not necessarily to excuse it. But to treat his decision to honor his obligation to his party and his president as being a dishonest or even dishonorable act is to misunderstand the nature of politics in a democracy. For something to be accomplished in any legislature, someone needs to compromise–at least some of the time. And in order for a majority to function, its leaders must, as a matter of course, pull together or cause the entire enterprise to collapse. When a matter of conscience arises, legislators must oppose their party and accept the consequences, which means resignation from a leadership role. One can argue that Santorum should have done so over “No Child Left Behind.” But had he done so, that would have meant he would have lost the ability to influence the Senate on many other issues that were just as, if not more important, to him. Even the most principled of politicians cannot be expected to fall on their swords about every issue.

What the storm over Santorum’s “team player” remark reveals is not just the hypocrisy on this issue of men like Mitt Romney, who have in other contexts been quintessential “go along to get along” types of politicians. It is the way anger at Washington has discredited the entire concept of members of the House and Senate acting in concert with each other. Although one could disagree with Rick Santorum’s senatorial decisions, it is unfair to treat his obligations as a senator as a black mark against his record.

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Santorum Flops in the Debate Spotlight

After nine months on the periphery of the Republican race, tonight’s debate in Mesa, Arizona, was Rick Santorum’s opportunity to show he deserved to be considered a frontrunner. But instead of using the occasion to build on the surge that led him to the top of the national polls, the former senator flopped as Mitt Romney and Ron Paul pounded him unmercifully from the start of the evening to its finish. By the end of the night, the grim look on his face betrayed the effect of having to explain his stands on issues such as earmarks, being a “team player” in the Senate and his support for Arlen Specter and “No Child Left Behind.” Whereas in previous debates, he had been on the attack pointing out Romney’s inconsistencies, in Mesa, it was his turn to be on the defensive.

Though Romney was far from brilliant and took his own lumps over his own hypocritical positions on earmarks and healthcare, there was little question he emerged the victor if only because Santorum came across as both long-winded and surly. If recent polls in Michigan showed the Pennsylvanian’s momentum was slowing, this debate may have put a period on his brief moment in the lead. A good night for Santorum might have helped put him over the top in Michigan and maybe even in Arizona next week and done irreparable harm to Romney’s hopes. But we may look back at this night and say this moment was not only when Santorum began to fade but also when Romney salted away the nomination.

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After nine months on the periphery of the Republican race, tonight’s debate in Mesa, Arizona, was Rick Santorum’s opportunity to show he deserved to be considered a frontrunner. But instead of using the occasion to build on the surge that led him to the top of the national polls, the former senator flopped as Mitt Romney and Ron Paul pounded him unmercifully from the start of the evening to its finish. By the end of the night, the grim look on his face betrayed the effect of having to explain his stands on issues such as earmarks, being a “team player” in the Senate and his support for Arlen Specter and “No Child Left Behind.” Whereas in previous debates, he had been on the attack pointing out Romney’s inconsistencies, in Mesa, it was his turn to be on the defensive.

Though Romney was far from brilliant and took his own lumps over his own hypocritical positions on earmarks and healthcare, there was little question he emerged the victor if only because Santorum came across as both long-winded and surly. If recent polls in Michigan showed the Pennsylvanian’s momentum was slowing, this debate may have put a period on his brief moment in the lead. A good night for Santorum might have helped put him over the top in Michigan and maybe even in Arizona next week and done irreparable harm to Romney’s hopes. But we may look back at this night and say this moment was not only when Santorum began to fade but also when Romney salted away the nomination.

Ironically, it was on his weakest point — his position on contraception — that Santorum sounded the strongest when he parried a question on the issue and made the point that promiscuity and the breakdown of the family was doing great damage to society. No one on the stage disagreed with him on that.

Yet that was overshadowed by the way Santorum found himself getting buried on his Senate record of voting for spending bills and earmarks. Romney’s attack on this was, as Santorum pointed out, deeply hypocritical since he relied on congressional earmarks to fund the 2002 Winter Olympics that he led. But whatever good he did with that retort was lost by his angry replies to attacks on his record, especially the way he went along with the Senate leadership on a number of issues. Santorum was clearly exasperated by having to defend himself in this manner and it showed. He discovered it is a lot harder to score points in a debate when you are wearing the bull’s eye on your back that goes with being in the lead.

Santorum’s failure once again should allow Romney to vault back into the lead. It will also give him the momentum that may allow him to hold onto Michigan after falling behind there.

Newt Gingrich was back in strong debate form and even managed to do so while avoiding joining in the gang tackle of Santorum. Ron Paul also had a strong night belaboring Santorum on government spending from a purist point of view though whatever advantage he gained in the battle to avoid last place was lost by his attempt to rationalize Iran’s nuclear quest at the same time as the other three Republicans were uniting to blast President Obama’s failure to stop the Islamist regime.

But the only real winner was Romney, who was repeatedly able to take down the man who is leading him in Michigan. Rick Santorum had one shot at solidifying his status as a frontrunner but failed. The ripple effect of this defeat will be felt in every state where he hoped to compete.

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Live Blog: The GOP Debate

The debate ends. Winners: Romney Important victory for him. Gingrich does well. Loser: Santorum. A terrible night for him that may put an end to his surge.

***

Paul claims its a myth he can’t win. Dream on libertarians. Romney ignores question about misconceptions and sticks to his stump speech. Santorum ends with his main points but the smile is gone.

***

Paul slaughters Santorum on the idea of his being a “team player” while in the Senate leadership. Santorum is right but it sounds terrible. Another bad moment for Santorum.

***

Question about “No Child Left Behind” another bad moment for Santorum who is forced to apologize again for his vote on it. Romney takes shot at teacher’s unions and says he is for school choice. Gingrich tearing into educational system. Another strong moment for him. Paul: no reason for the federal govt. to be involved in education. He’s right about that.

***

Paul blames talk about stopping Assad on “neoconservatives.” Always comfortable bringing up conspiracy theories.

***

Santorum blasts Obama’s timidity on Syria. Blames it on  his fear of Iran. Gingrich says dependence on foreign oil is part of the problem and blames Obama for stopping drilling. Says we should have our allies covertly knock off Assad. Gingrich: under Obama, as long as you’re an enemy of the U.S., you’re safe. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all agree on Syria and Obama’s weakness.

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The debate ends. Winners: Romney Important victory for him. Gingrich does well. Loser: Santorum. A terrible night for him that may put an end to his surge.

***

Paul claims its a myth he can’t win. Dream on libertarians. Romney ignores question about misconceptions and sticks to his stump speech. Santorum ends with his main points but the smile is gone.

***

Paul slaughters Santorum on the idea of his being a “team player” while in the Senate leadership. Santorum is right but it sounds terrible. Another bad moment for Santorum.

***

Question about “No Child Left Behind” another bad moment for Santorum who is forced to apologize again for his vote on it. Romney takes shot at teacher’s unions and says he is for school choice. Gingrich tearing into educational system. Another strong moment for him. Paul: no reason for the federal govt. to be involved in education. He’s right about that.

***

Paul blames talk about stopping Assad on “neoconservatives.” Always comfortable bringing up conspiracy theories.

***

Santorum blasts Obama’s timidity on Syria. Blames it on  his fear of Iran. Gingrich says dependence on foreign oil is part of the problem and blames Obama for stopping drilling. Says we should have our allies covertly knock off Assad. Gingrich: under Obama, as long as you’re an enemy of the U.S., you’re safe. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all agree on Syria and Obama’s weakness.

***

John King poses question about Iran by saying do you agree with Netanyahu or Joint Chiefs. Gingrich rightly says that Pentagon was crazy to refer to think Iran is a rational actor. Gingrich presents a strong argument for preempting nuclear Iran. Romney says a nuclear Iran is a bigger danger than rising gas prices. Romney then says Iran has been Obama’s biggest failure. Gives laundry list of Obama’s record on Iran. Strong moment for Romney. Santorum says he was early to get in on the issue. Cites Biden’s opposition. If you want to know what to do on foreign policy, find out what Biden says and do the opposite. Talks about failure to promote democracy in Iran. Ron Paul defends appeasement of Iran. Shameful.

***

Romney seems to be supporting women in combat. Pivots to criticize Obama on defense cuts. Gingrich says ask the military about role of women, not the social engineers. Says there are no more front lines in an age of terror. Good answer. Santorum sounds defensive about his “concerns” about the issue.

***

One word bios: Paul: consistent: Santorum: courage; Romney: resolute; Gingrich: cheerful.

At the second break, it’s clear that Santorum has been put on the defensive and isn’t enjoying it. He could use some humor but instead has responded to attacks with his characteristic long-winded defensiveness. So far, Romney’s the clear winner.

***

Gingrich parries question about Rubio’s concerns about GOP baiting Hispanics by saying that Obama has been a demagogue on the issue.

***

Romney endorses Arizona approach to immigration. Santorum says states should be allowed to enforce the law against illegals.

***

Paul attacks Santorum for voting for appropriation bills that included other vital measures. Absolutist stand putting Santorum on defensive. Romney nails Santorum as hypocrite on contraception funding. Santorum pivots and reminds everyone that the whole issue came up because of Romneycare that led to Obamacare. Romney blames Santorum for Obamacare because he supported Arlen Specter in 2004. Santorum answers saying Specter ensured nomination of Alito and Roberts to Supreme Court.

***

Romney cites his record defending the Catholic Church on adoptions. Gingrich attacks Romney on his record on forcing the church to pay for contraception.

***

Santorum asked about his views about contraception. He answers by citing Charles Murray and the impact of promiscuity and children having children on society. Says the family is fracturing. His views on birth control are extreme but this is a powerful answer and speaks to a real issue. Says the difference between him and the left is that just because he’s talking about a problem doesn’t mean he wants a govt. program to fix it. Paul says don’t blame the problem on the pills. Romney agrees with Santorum.

***

Crowd boos John King for asking a question about birth control. Newt seizes control of the moment by attacking media for never asking Obama in 2008 about infanticide. Romney chimes in by saying the question came up because of Obama’s attack on the church. Says the issue is religious freedom.

***

At the first break, it’s clear that Romney is doing his best to pound Santorum. Santorum holding his own but just barely. Romney ahead so far on points but not by much. Gingrich sounds okay but the format and his subdued attitude tonight making it hard for him to rev up the crowd as he has done in the past.

***

Santorum says bailout of airlines after 9/11 was not comparable to Wall Street bailout or the auto industry. Gingrich chimes in with Romney to say that auto bailout was a gift to the UAW.

***

Santorum states the conservative case against bailouts. Lucky for him, he wasn’t in the Senate in 2008 to vote for TARP. Romney defends his record of opposing auto bailouts but supporting TARP because it was the responsible thing to do.

***

Gingrich says Congress needs to reserve the right to hamstring the president, especially if he’s named Obama. Agrees that Romney is being a hypocrite on this issue. Paul defends earmarks because if they are gone, the executive gets more power.

***

Santorum has a losing hand defending earmarks on any ground no matter how transparent the process. Romney’s being very aggressive.

***

Santorum talks about the earmarks that helped put the 2002 Olympics in the black. Defends the idea that there are good earmarks and bad ones. Says earmark saved vital defense project under Bush41. Good answer but he went on too long.

***

Gingrich looks subdued. Claims he and Paul are close in terms of their desire for change. A reminder of the fact that the pair are fighting to avoid last place.

***

Romney tries to explain why he was a “severely conservative” governor of Mass. Silly phrase and also a bit disingenuous because we know that being a conservative in Mass. means being a liberal in red states.

***

Santorum says he had the most conservative record on spending in the Senate and notes it was harder to do it while serving Pennsylvania.

***

Paul calls Santorum a fake. Santorum striving to keep his patience. So far succeeding.

***

Romney attacks Santorum for spending in Congress and for voting to raise the debt ceiling. Santorum answers that Romney was in favor of voting to raise the debt ceiling last summer because government has to pay its bills. Strong rejoinder. Also says he never voted to raise taxes. Romney shoots back that he only favored the increase in the debt ceiling under certain conditions which were not met.

***

Santorum answers a question about the debt by talking about entitlements and Obamacare. Says he’s the one who has the experience to deal with the problem. Claims if you think the defense budget is the problem, you need a class in remedial math. Differentiates himself from Paul Ryan by saying he will tackle entitlements now not in the future.

***

Santorum starts off the evening smiling. He’s going to need to keep that upbeat mood to survive the evening. Romney quotes a Seinfeld character and Gingrich gets applause about not bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia.

***

We’re just a few moments away from the start of the Arizona GOP debate. Santorum, and Romney all have a lot to prove tonight with the polls showing them neck and neck in the next crucial Michigan and Arizona primaries. Gingrich is hoping to get back in the battle and Ron Paul will still be there advocating his extreme libertarian beliefs. Let’s see what happens.

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Live Blogging the GOP Debate

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Mesa, Arizona. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again in their first gathering in nearly a month and the last debate before the crucial Arizona and Michigan primaries next week.

Join us tonight as senior online editor Jonathan S. Tobin live blogs the Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Mesa, Arizona. So tune in to CNN at 8 pm and then log on to Commentarymagazine.com for live insights as the final four candidates have at it once again in their first gathering in nearly a month and the last debate before the crucial Arizona and Michigan primaries next week.

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Which Rick Shows Up Tonight in Arizona?

Tonight’s presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona, is rightly be touted as a crucial moment in the Republican race. Much has changed in the weeks since the GOP candidates were brought together in front of the television cameras. Rick Santorum, whose strong showings in the Florida debates were not thought to signify any real hope of his being the nominee, is now leading in the national polls. Mitt Romney, who was hoping to create an aura of inevitability, is now struggling to stay ahead of Santorum in his home state of Michigan, and Newt Gingrich has sunk to last place in some surveys and must fight the belief he no longer has a ghost of a chance of victory.

But while Santorum will enjoy being in the center of the stage rather, as up until now he has been relegated to the sides, he will also have to cope with being the object of attacks from both Romney and Gingrich in a way that he has never had to deal with in the many debates that have preceded this one. While all the participants, save Ron Paul, have something to prove tonight, the outcome may turn largely on one question: which Rick Santorum shows up in Mesa? Will it be the confident, relaxed and personable Santorum who has done so well in the previous encounters and whose image is as a caring father and clean politician who is not willing to engage in mudslinging? Or will it be the angry culture warrior whose obsessions with gays, contraception and abortion have become the liberal caricature of conservatism in the last week?

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Tonight’s presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona, is rightly be touted as a crucial moment in the Republican race. Much has changed in the weeks since the GOP candidates were brought together in front of the television cameras. Rick Santorum, whose strong showings in the Florida debates were not thought to signify any real hope of his being the nominee, is now leading in the national polls. Mitt Romney, who was hoping to create an aura of inevitability, is now struggling to stay ahead of Santorum in his home state of Michigan, and Newt Gingrich has sunk to last place in some surveys and must fight the belief he no longer has a ghost of a chance of victory.

But while Santorum will enjoy being in the center of the stage rather, as up until now he has been relegated to the sides, he will also have to cope with being the object of attacks from both Romney and Gingrich in a way that he has never had to deal with in the many debates that have preceded this one. While all the participants, save Ron Paul, have something to prove tonight, the outcome may turn largely on one question: which Rick Santorum shows up in Mesa? Will it be the confident, relaxed and personable Santorum who has done so well in the previous encounters and whose image is as a caring father and clean politician who is not willing to engage in mudslinging? Or will it be the angry culture warrior whose obsessions with gays, contraception and abortion have become the liberal caricature of conservatism in the last week?

Santorum will likely be pressed tonight to explain his views on all these issues as well as his views of Satan’s role in public life. The trick for him will be whether he can stick to his views on social issues without coming across as the sort of person whom mainstream America fears will impose his personal beliefs on the nation. Conservatives want a candidate who shares their values, but most Republicans understand the last thing their party needs is to allow the 2012 election to be a referendum on the culture war about sex rather than on President Obama’s failed record on the economy and foreign policy.

Until now, Santorum has had the luxury of being able to concentrate his energies on pointing out the hypocrisy of both Romney and Gingrich on Obamacare and highlighting the weaknesses in their stands on taxes and spending. Tonight it will be his turn to be the focus of attacks, and his reaction to this will be instructive. If he is able to avoid being sidetracked by attacks and to avoid sounding defensive, he can emerge even stronger and place himself in position for a sweep of both Arizona and Michigan.

But if he is goaded into showing us the less attractive side of his personality and comes across as the public scold who will provide Democrats with campaign fodder, it may signal the beginning of the end of his short stay at the top of the GOP race.

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