Predicting what the candidates will do is like trying to get your computer to work. The analysts said Newt Gingrich would tear into Mitt Romney on Saturday night, during the ABC-Yahoo debate. Newt didn’t, and the analysts offered up reasons why not: for instance, the need to preserve his speaker fees by not crippling the party’s soon-to-be nominee. Then, on Sunday morning, Newt let it rip at the NBC-Facebook debate, over on Meet the Press. So did the other candidates, in varying directions. How did this happen? The computer doesn’t work, then it does, and you have no idea why.
The fellows may just have had enough of being nice. Their nerves got frayed. Two debates back to back before the kickoff primary, and for the second one you have to go on air at nine in the morning. You’ve spent the night chewing over cheap shots and look-at-me moments perpetrated by your rivals. Your nerves and tolerance are coming unstuck, and with them your resolutions of good behavior. Modern-day television debates turn the contestants into backpackers at a youth hostel or freshmen during orientation week. They don’t present arguments; they try out lines and create moments. They have to keep jostling each other to make an impression, and just in itself that’s an irritating process—the posturing on all sides of you, and now New Hampshire is rolling up. On Tuesday the people vote and it’s make-or-break. You’re steamed anyway, so you find yourself lunging when you meant to hold back. Anyway, it’s a theory.
Fighting. The second debate’s set was a big American flag made of lit panels. Romney, when viewed on his own, was against the lower edge of the field of stars, so he had a blue background. Gingrich had red, from one of the stripes. The setting worked so well you had to wonder if NBC was giving us color-coded indications as to how to react: Romney, the Massachusetts (blue state) Republican; Gingrich, the mad dog with blood in his eye. Gingrich certainly came through.
The two debates had plenty of material for news clips, given that in the first Romney engaged in a comedy routine with George Stephanopoulos about contraception (“Contraception, it’s working just fine, just leave it alone”), and in the second Rick Perry managed to close an historic arc by naming the three departments he supposedly wants to axe. (“Is that your final answer?” called a quick-witted David Gregory, the show’s chief moderator.) Perry and Gingrich and Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum all bickered over various topics. Huntsman bickered with Romney too; they just seem to get on each others’ nerves. Huntsman has been on a crusade through the debates to show he knows more about trade issues with China than Romney does. On Saturday he broke through into speaking Chinese. It was a real college dorm moment, swanking not to win votes but just to put someone in his place.
But Gingrich generated the clip of clips. He did it with some help from Santorum. Post-Iowa speculation had been that the two of them would do a good-cop, bad-cop on Romney, with Gingrich as bad cop. Instead they did a one-two punch.
Called on by the moderator to put it to Romney, Santorum asked a very good question: “Well, if his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts why didn’t he run for reelection?… Why did you bail out?” Romney took flight into a beautiful mendacity: “Run again? That would be about me.” He and Santorum then tangled a bit about interrupting, the sort of thing that used to be a highlight clip back when Rick Perry was a going concern. “Hold, hold—wait,” Romney said in his wet-chicken way. “It’s still my—it’s still my time.”
The squawking was only a prelude. “Speaker Gingrich,” David Gregory said a few minutes down the road. Romney didn’t stop talking soon enough, so Newt said, or snarled, the following: “I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the front runner.” Then his snarl deepened; it showed that it had even more snarl on reserve. “But,” he said, “but can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” From there he dismantled Romney’s claim to have been a mere citizen called from retirement to the presidency. (“You were running for president while you were governor. You were gone all over the country.”) He treated Romney the way Obama’s people want Romney to be treated: as a man who everybody knows cannot be trusted. He did it on tape. “So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind,” Gingrich said, disgusted, “just level with the American people.”
From there it was not a far jump to calling Romney a liar because of his super-PAC ads, as Gingrich consented to do when Gregory asked. But first Gingrich had to snarl about baloney, and I think it was just because he couldn’t stand the sound of Romney’s voice as he postured about being a non-politician.
Rubble of empire. Perry made news Saturday night: “I would send troops back into Iraq, because I will tell you...” His rationale followed a little down the road: “We’re going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light.” None of the other candidates agreed with him, and nobody disagreed when Ron Paul described the country’s wars as “unwinnable.”
Huntsman, on the other hand, went further than the other candidates in making the case for getting out of Afghanistan. “I say we’ve got a lot to show for our efforts,” he began, and he listed the fall of the Taliban, the routing of al-Qaeda, free elections. “We have strengthened civil society,” he said. “We’ve helped the military. We’ve helped the police. I believe it’s time to come home.” A few minutes later, when bearing in on Romney: “Here’s what I think is around the corner in Afghanistan. I think civil war is around the corner in Afghanistan.”
In other words, we have done so well in Afghanistan that we had better get out of the way before the country falls on us. And none of the other candidates said Huntsman was wrong about the civil war.
Ron Paul on race. Saturday night, on being asked about his racist newsletters from a couple decades back, Ron Paul went hard to the left: “I’m the only one up here and the only one in the Democratic Party that understands true racism in this country is in the judicial system.” He tore into the drug war in terms that sounded unreal on network air. His wind-up: “How many times have you seen a white rich person get the electric chair or get, you know, execution?”
On Sunday, with the newsletters no longer a subject, Paul didn’t want to hear about groups: “I, in a way, don't like to use those terms─gay rights, women's rights, minority rights… religious rights. I think it causes─divisiveness, when we see people in groups. Because for too long we punished groups.” On Saturday night we were still punishing groups.
Culture Wars. Santorum, the cultural right’s candidate, was at pains to say that he did not think contraceptives should be banned, only that states had the right to do so. He and Romney also did what they could to shield themselves against claims of anti-gay bigotry. This was on Sunday, when both were asked about gay rights.
Romney took the legal and governmental tack: He appointed a gay cabinet member, gay judges, made it clear “we should not discriminate in hiring policies, in legal policies.” Santorum, the guy who said “man on dog,” stressed respect: “Just because you don't agree with someone's desire to change the law, doesn't mean you don't like them or you hate them or you want to discriminate against them.”
Pat Buchanan would never have said those words. You can tell the ground rules have changed a bit in 20 years. If gayness comes up and he’s outside a church, a politician’s first job is to show that he’s not a hater. Unless he’s solid on non-hatred of gays, he has a flank that’s vulnerable. Both Romney and Santorum scored their big moments on the gay front by hitting peaks of tolerance.
The moderator asked Romney when was the last time he stood up for gay rights. Romney (to applause): “Right now.” Santorum was asked what he would do if his son said he was gay. He was ready and waiting: “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it. And I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him as possible.” Santorum said this with a satisfied wiggle to his chin, and the audience applauded hard. Of course, his idea of being a good father might be to try to reprogram the kid, but the questioning didn’t get into that.
Santorum on class war. On Saturday, Santorum jabbed Huntsman for, of all things, using the term “middle class.” It got Santorum’s blood up: “There are no classes in America… There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we’re going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon.” A few sentences later, he was selling himself as someone who could “appeal to blue collar workers… deliver that message, that we care about you, too, not just about Wall Street and bailing them out,” and so on.
So, by Santorum’s standards, “middle class” is a Bolshevik term, but “workers” and “Wall Street bailouts” aren’t. Either that or going populist requires some elaborate cover if you’re a Republican.
The Curse of Mitt. As noted in past columns, candidates who make trouble for Romney wind up being mysteriously booby-trapped by their mouths. Their nerve fails when they have to speak up, or else they speak and chowder comes out. On Saturday night, the curse seemed to be in full operation. That made sense because the non-Romneys were jabbing at each other while the front-runner sailed to another of his balsa-wood pseudo-victories. But the next day all bets were off and everyone piled on him. Yet the curse somehow managed to keep its hold on the brain of Romney’s worst foe.
The curse’s workings were plain enough during the first debate. George Stephanopoulos, one of the moderators, couldn’t ask Romney whether he agreed with the Supreme Court that there was a right to privacy. He had to point up the discussion by raising specifically the matter of contraception and asking whether states could ban it. Romney treated him like a nut: “I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no, no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing, I think.” Stephanopoulos was reduced to trying to shout over the audience that Romney had gone to Harvard Law and knew the score. He got nowhere. Romney played the frazzled dad who can’t believe what he’s hearing. It’s the one role he comes closest to inhabiting, and Stephanopoulos may be the only opponent who can make Romney seem, in some diluted way, natural and at ease.
But Newt also wrong-footed himself. Asked about the film his super-PAC was putting out on Romney’s activities at Bain Capital (King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Comes to Town), Newt said he hadn’t seen it and that voters really had to decide for themselves what Romney the venture capitalist had been up to. Fair enough, since he was being demure, and he offered in passing a neat summing up that Democrats should study: “I’m very much for free enterprise… I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.” (Can Democrats say “workers”?)
But, very strangely, Gingrich insisted on pointing to a New York Times article and telling voters they should read it if they wanted more information. A lot of Republican voters despise the Times and consider it an outfit of liars. Romney took his opportunity: “Well, I─ I’m not surprised to have The New York Times try and put free enterprise on trial… It’s a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage.” The biggest surprise: The article was from Reuters. Newt substituted the Times¸ and did so again on Sunday (“But if you look at the New York Times article” and “That's the New York Times, that's not me”), as if in the grip of a citation demon.
My theory: “New York Times,” as a set of sounds, cuts a lot more sharply than “Reuters,” and Newt is a specialist in framing sentences with a sound that cuts. This strength was turned into a weakness: The curse used his word sense to worm its way into his brain.
Summing up. A “very personal” debate, said David Gregory in the aftermath of Sunday’s set-to. “More highly charged and personal than I’ve yet seen,” he continued. Of course, Gregory had been asking the candidates, in so many words, to say why Romney was disqualified to be president or nominee. But you can ask these things, and who knows if anything will happen? The night before, Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer had been calling on the candidates to stand by various mean things they had said about each other to the press. As noted, the candidates’ response had been spotty. Not on Sunday.
Gregory didn’t seem displeased, necessarily, but definitely reflective, and his makeup might have been better. He looked like a corpse shaking its claylike face at us over its black suit. But a thought brightened him. He recalled Perry’s small triumph, the listing of the three departments. Gregory broke into a grin. “And I said, ‘Is that your final answer’?”