The More The GOP Contenders Debate, The More They Stay The Same
Once Wolf Blitzer had, remarkably, found a way to further insult the intelligence of his audience — asking the candidates why their wives would be the best First Lady* — I figured it was just about time for me to stop watching the debate and do any number of other things with my evening. Besides, I’d already seen the first hour or so (however long it was; it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re drinking, which, this being a GOP debate, I was) and witnessed Mitt Romney most definitively put an end to Newtmentum.
The whole debate went pretty terribly for Newt, but either this or the moment when he awkwardly tried to his attack-the-moderator shtick, to diminished returns, was the low point.
The amateur political scientist in me rebels at the idea of putting as much stock into the debates as I am, but I think it’s undeniable that Gingrich has lived (and died) almost entirely off of his debate performances. His appeal was a supposed ability to humiliate and silence President Obama during a series of “Lincoln-Douglas-styled” debates (eye-roll); and that ability was founded upon twin planks. One, he could defend himself against imagined but no doubt scurrilous attacks from the President (whom the South Carolina audience saw in Juan
Cole Williams ); and two, he’d be able to take it to Obama forcefully and unapologetically.
Well, in this back-and-forth with Mitt, he failed in both tasks. Not only did he wilt in the face of Mitt’s unctuous onslaught (probably to some degree out of surprise, but also because he’s a textbook bully), but he failed miserably in counter-attacking Romney, opting to take a high road that he had no right to claim on grounds temperamental or electoral (he was far from a prohibitive favorite in the Sunshine State). Topping it all off is the fact that as far as I could see, Newt almost never made eye contact with Romney — not when he was attacking him, nor when he himself was being attacked. We’re social creatures and as that cliché says, 90% of our communication is non-verbal. Voters are judging candidates as much (probably more) by what they look like as what they say.
So, yes, Newt did terribly and I think it’s fair to say — finally — that his candidacy is effectively over. He’ll notch a respectable number in Flordia, I imagine, and he’ll run some more cutthroat attack ads; he won’t go quietly into that good night. But he’s finished.
The flip-side of the narrative has become one about Romney somehow exploding out of his consistent pattern of mediocrity in these debates and flashing signs of a newborn and hard-won talent that could give the President real problems come fall. I’m not sold. I thought Romney did indeed come off as more of a human being than he usually does, but that’s because he was legitimately desperate. For the first time, he didn’t have that unbecoming air of smugness, that condescending, paternalistic smile. He was, for the first time, acting as if he believed he could lose. And it looked good on him.
But I think what’s mostly got people excited here is the thrill of the new. Romney had been so unwaveringly disciplined, such an automaton, that any slight divergence from his chosen path was bound to be well-received, especially by a press corps and commentariat that has long since become worn-out with these debates and with what has been in many ways a rather dull primary in general. A useful example, I think, is to remember those handful of moments every year during which the President supposedly flashes some anger and reveals some fire. People then, too, get all worked up, as if Obama had announced himself the next Jesse Jackson. It never happens.
Remember: these are extremely successful people; the likelihood that they’ll stop doing that which they believe has gotten them this far? Not high.
Another thing I’d keep in mind when analysis Romney’s performance is the fact that, interspersed
throughout his otherwise likable performance were still those clanging moments of intense inauthenticity and outright lying. His claim to not have seen his own ad — an ad from his campaign, not Super PAC, so it included the “I approve this message” boilerplate — was not only absurd and insulting, but it was a stupid move that he’s already tried (and failed) to pull off before! He had a similar slip into old habits in an exchange with Gingrich during which he tried to claim that, because his investments in Goldman, Sachs are part of a blind trust, he should not be held accountable:
Romney answered the charge this way: “First of all, my investments are not made by me. My investments for the last ten years have been in a blind trust, managed by a trustee. Secondly, the investments that they made, we learned about this, as we made our financial disclosure, had been in mutual funds and bonds. I don’t own stock in either. There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds.”
Now the problem — which, if you’re a follower of Romney, you can probably already guess — is that someone with a lot of credibility vis-à-vis high-end investment says that Romney’s wrong on this one. His name? Mitt Romney:
Mitt Romney defends his investments in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere on the grounds he can’t control money in a “blind trust.” But in 1994 Romney was attacking his opponent, Senator Ted Kennedy, over his blind trust’s investments, calling the move “an age-old ruse.”
*This, by the way, was a totally subtle and not at all sexist way for Blitzer to allow the Not Gingriches the opportunity to brag about their longstanding relationships, as if the solidity of one’s marriage is just another consumer activity, like investing in Goldman, Sachs, that an aspiring candidate must defend before the masses.