Here’s a quick scorecard to last night’s debate at the University of South Florida.
NEWT GINGRICH: C
He is not a good front-runner.
Newt’s flattest debate performances have come when he’s leading in the polls, and last night was such a time.
There wasn’t any pep or joy to his voice; it was like Ansel Adams without the waterfalls. And even when Newt’s bombastic, he often gets a twinkle in his eye. Well, there was neither bombast nor twinkle last night, which didn’t leave a whole lot left.
My theory? He wants to prove that he can be self-disciplined, but self-discipline isn’t about being reserved and measured. That’s just called being Mitt Romney. Self-discipline is about allowing your personality to flourish within what are actually pretty broad parameters. On that score, he did badly.
Newt fell into another trap.
He believed his own hype -- that he’s actually the front-runner and can stay above the fray. But here’s the problem: he is a very new, very weak front-runner, and when it’s 92-90 with two minutes left in the game, you can’t afford to empty the bench.
Granted, he offered spirited defenses of himself, but he didn’t follow up by hammering Romney about something like RomneyCare. (And, yes, Newt also supported the mandate at one point, but he’s repented. Romney hasn’t).
As a piece of legislation, as a philosophical rumination, as two words bunched up unnaturally, RomneyCare is still one of the most despised things around. In fact, you could name apple pie “RomneyCare”, and conservatives would arm orange groves with tanks and missiles to help destroy apple orchards in the never-ending battle to be The-fruit-that-guys-can-wear-as-a-cologne-and-still-sort-of-get-away-with-it.
But Newt shrank away from attacking Mitt on any of the innumerable things Romney is vulnerable to.
The problem is that all the Newt vs. Mitt spars were on Romney’s home field – they were about Freddie Mac or Newt’s time as Speaker. Gingrich defended, yes, but he didn’t turn that into offense (vital, as any good ping-pong player could tell you… and yes, I prefer to reference ping-pong as a metaphor than “hit a home run”, “spiked a football”, or “dropped a punt in overtime that cost you a trip to the Super Bowl.”).
Gingrich also was hurt by the fact that the audience was deader than dead. Caps-lock fell off reporters’ keyboards, Korn decided to rename itself “Corn”, and Apple came up with its first post-Steve Jobs innovation – the iBurst, which rescues you from debate-induced comas, and is a simple puff of air to the eyes that's kind of like when the optometrist tests you for glaucoma.
Newt does best when the audience is alive, and life was missing last night.
And quick digression -- there’ve been a few debate crowds this cycle that have been demonized as “rowdy”, “hickish”, and ill-suited for a serious discussion of the issues. But that’s wrong: a boisterous crowd makes for a fun debate. We all want our politics to be the last twenty minutes of A Few Good Men or a John Williams soundtrack. We follow Charlie Rose on Twitter, but we actually LIST Charlie Sheen (etc., etc.,)
Unfortunately, politicians become dull if audiences do. Who knew.
So Gingrich was definitely hurt by the fact that no one who showed up in the audience actually showed up. But he did begin the debate with a defense that he should use even more. As you know, he’s been getting hit by the Romney surrogates awfully hard on his leadership and, generally, erratic behavior at times in his life.
His answer to the charge was brilliant.
“They’re not sending somebody to Washington manage the decay. They’re sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who’s prepared to be controversial, when necessary.”
That is money. “Controversial when necessary.”
That’s why, to many, Newt is sort of like the perfect antidote to Romney. Mitt is never controversial; he is always safe.
But conservatives want someone who’s willing to be called “controversial” when they say something others are shocked by. They want someone who’s willing to say that Alec Baldwin is just as ideologically extreme as Glenn Beck (see Adam Carolla here), which is totally true and why Carolla’s received such a hero’s welcome in the conservative movement – not because he agrees with them all the time, but because he’s willing to be “controversial.”
Newt gets that. He’s tapped in.
Romney, either because he’s tone-deaf or too timid, doesn’t seem to understand that being controversial can also make you president. Reagan was supremely controversial. Even Kermit, while usually a calming influence, can be controversial, at times. He’s in love with a pig.
MITT ROMNEY: B
He dirtied Gingrich up a bit with his Freddie Mac charges, and avoided absorbing any significant damage.
Although, hold on. Can we just talk about “self-deportation”? Essentially, Romney – aided a bit by his policy, but mostly by his badly mangled rhetoric – said that our immigration policy should rely on illegal immigrants deporting themselves.
“Self-deportation”, as he called it.
Any fan of South Park immediately thought back to this episode from last season.
I know what Mitt was getting at, but using (inventing?) the phrase “self-deportation” is the kind of confused rhetoric that comes from a candidate who’s confused himself about what he believes (or, perhaps more accurately, what he thinks others want to believe about him).
But back to the dirtying up Gingrich part, which was the first half hour of the debate. Here’s a word he used three times in a single exchange – “disgrace.” As in: Newt Gingrich “had to resign in disgrace.”
Here’s the issue: Using that word, “disgrace”, is really inflammatory. Theoretically, how could you say that someone who had to resign from something – let alone Speaker of the House – in “disgrace” could ever be worthy of the presidency?
That is a serious word and a serious charge. Yet the establishment lets Romney repeat this and other accusations pretty glibly. When Mitt said last year that Rick Perry wanted to kill Social Security, the establishment was quiet, even though Democrats would’ve pounded Perry over and over with Mitt’s comments if Perry were the nominee.
And, stretching back to those conference calls where his surrogates essentially said Newt wasn’t qualified to be president, Romney has gotten away with saying anything he wants about anyone.
Yet when someone levels a serious charge against Romney, the accuser is supposedly “damaging the party.” There’s an assumption that because he’s the probable nominee, Romney is now the party, and therefore, to attack him is to attack the party.
That’s one of the reasons why the Republican primary electorate is nearing full-scale revolt right now – the grassroots resents John Sununu telling them whom to vote for.
Now, I have to defend Mitt on something.
Brian Williams turned a perfectly benign question over Romney’s tax returns into an odd quest to get Romney to reveal something dramatic about his tax returns.
It might have worked in last week’s debate -- when Romney was still talking about waiting until April to release his taxes -- but with Mitt’s promised Tuesday release, the issue just didn’t have much currency.
But Williams asked: “What’s in there that’s going to be controversial… what’s in there that you may find yourself defending?”
Romney gave a perfectly fine answer; then Williams had a follow-up. Again, Romney answered. Then Williams had another follow-up. Three questions in a presidential debate about returns that will be released the next day (It’s like Jim Nantz pulling Ravens coach John Harbaugh aside after Sunday’s loss and asking him if he knows that some people mistake ravens for crows, and is the team thinking about changing its mascot? Then… like asking that two more times, loudly, as he’s angling for position with other reporters).
As for what Mitt did well? He kept pounding Newt in the first 30 minutes (when everyone watches these things), then pivoted back to Steady Mitt in the later moments of the debate. Of all the candidates, he has the clearest game plan coming into debates.
Oh, I just have one thing to say – Romney had better get every single, last, solitary vote from anyone who’s ever worked at Staples.
I was getting ready to write about his negative attacks, but then he did something fairly unprecedented – he actually went positive nearly the entire debate.
Probably, his calculation was that with Newt and Mitt ripping each other apart, he could seem like the grownup by taking the high road, but here’s Santorum’s problem – he will never seem like the grownup. He just doesn’t have the gravitas.
If you put Santorum’s words on the podium, he probably won this debate. But you can’t distend the message from the messenger, and he didn't look any more electable than before.
RON PAUL: C+
Paul was Paul, and he’s too consistent from debate-to-debate to write anything new about, but his name does bring up a good point. Foreign policy, in this presidential primary, is only important in that it weeds Paul out of contention for the nomination. That’s it. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s it.
Basically, foreign policy doesn’t come up until the second half of debates, includes a question about Iran and Afghanistan, wherein three of the candidates say “tomato” in a different way, and one says “pothole” (Paul), and ultimately becomes a contest about who can say things everyone agrees with more vociferously to score points for strength and conviction.
Why does he score so low? Because a) he never says anything that can broaden his base and make himself a contender (that's the point of these debates, after all) and b) because I still have no idea what he's saying on foreign policy, except that he likes Iran and thinks the Strait of Hormuz should be Ahmadinejad's own personal Slip 'N Slide.