Commentary Magazine


Topic: Republican presidential debates

Romney’s Ability to Knock Rivals Off Stride

I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

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I concur with Jonathan’s analysis of last night’s debate. Newt Gingrich won based on the quality of the performance. Mitt Romney emerged from the evening in the strongest shape. And Rick Santorum did significant damage to his hopes of winning the GOP nomination. If Santorum was going to choose a night to have an off-debate, he chose the wrong one.

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that Governor Romney, whatever limitations he has as a candidate, possesses some impressive strengths. One of them is the ability to knock his chief rivals off stride, to make them react in ways that come across as thin-skinned and surly.

A case in point: The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports this:

Rick Santorum suspects something is up between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Santorum had a tough night at the 20th, and likely last, Republican debate, held here at the Mesa Arts Center. He took a lot of attacks from Romney and a few from Paul, and he noticed that Paul and Romney didn’t seem to go after each other. When it was all over, and Santorum met reporters, he didn’t try to hide what he was thinking.

“You have to ask Congressman Paul and Gov. Romney what they’ve got going together,” Santorum said. “Their commercials look a lot alike, and so do their attacks.”

“They’ve got something going on?” a reporter asked Santorum.

“You tell me,” Santorum said.

That’s an unfortunate thing for Santorum to say. The reason he did poorly was that fairly or not, Romney in particular nailed him to the “Washington Insider” mast, forcing Santorum to explain his votes on earmarks, Title X, No Child Left Behind, and his support for Arlen Specter. By the time the debate was done, Santorum came across as a typical rather than as a conviction politician. The post-debate hints of Romney-Paul coordination and conspiracy aren’t terribly credible — and even if they were, (a) it wouldn’t be inappropriate and (b) Santorum shouldn’t be the person dropping the hints.

We saw a slightly different version of this happen with Newt Gingrich, who was also pinned to the mat by Romney in a key couple of debates.

If the former Massachusetts governor is the Republican nominee, the ability to frustrate an opponent to the point that they slip up and begin to whine may well come in handy against President Obama in the fall, as Obama is unusually arrogant and thin skinned. If Mitt Romney can do to him what he’s succeeded in doing to Gingrich and Santorum, it can only help his chances of becoming our next president.

 

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The Debate Show Was Good for Democracy

Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

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Last night’s Republican dustup in Mesa, Arizona, was the 20th such event since last spring when the GOP presidential race was unofficially kicked off with a debate in South Carolina. But the 20th edition of what for a time seemed to be America’s favorite political reality show may well be the last of the series. A previously scheduled debate in Georgia has been cancelled due to lack of interest from most of the candidates, and another set to run on PBS from Portland, Oregon, in April is likely to meet the same fate. Because the ratings were down for last night’s affair when compared to previous debates, it’s likely the public has grown as tired of the genre as the contenders.

The GOP debates have come in for a great deal of criticism for the formats, lame questions, the mostly ineffective and foolish moderators, as well as the low level of discourse from most of the participants. All of this is true. Yet if, as some anticipate, the parties will limit the number of similar encounters during the next presidential election in 2016, then that would be a mistake. As much as they have infuriated and bored us at times, the debate show has served an important purpose. Though some are distrustful of the disproportionate impact they had on the process, it is through these sometimes interminable and not particularly inspiring episodes that we have gotten to know the candidates in a way that would not have been possible had there been fewer or no debates at all.

How else would we have known Tim Pawlenty was incapable of telling Mitt Romney to his face that his health care bill was the inspiration for Obamacare, had not the former Minnesota governor choked on the phrase “Obamaneycare” when offered the chance to say it in a debate?

Would we have caught on to Rick Perry’s superficial grasp of the issues and his inability to articulate his vision without being able to see his various “oops” moments? The same goes for Herman Cain and his simplistic tax plan that he never could explain to anyone’s satisfaction.

Without the debates, how would we have learned about Michele Bachmann’s penchant for foolish exaggerations such as her claims about Perry’s Texas inoculation program?

The ebb and flow between the final four during the last few months has also been instructive. The debates gave us the best illustration of Romney’s single-minded zeal to batter his opponents no matter how hypocritical his stances on the issues might be. They’ve also shown us the best and worst of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as well as providing the nation with more than enough proof Ron Paul is not the sort of person who ought to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

If it has not always been riveting and was sometimes repetitive, nonetheless, the series gave us a window into the minds of every candidate who stepped on the stage even if the questions they were asked were often foolish or off the point. If, as became apparent early on, the public’s view of the candidates was largely shaped by the debates, this was all to the good, because it was based not on campaign propaganda or spin but a real-time evaluation of their performances in a highly stressful environment.

The debates could have been spaced out a bit more, but their cumulative impact served to increase public accountability. That’s exactly what our democracy needs more of. Let’s hope that in 2016 we get more of the same on both sides of the aisle.

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