GOP debate: From moderators to candidates, more sure-footed

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich chatting at the conclusion of Thursday's debate.
REUTERS/Jim Young
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich chatting at the conclusion of Thursday’s debate.

Well the Repubs debated again last night, for (according to unofficial estimates) the 13th time. If you’re sick of it, stop watching. Me, I have to watch, so have some compassion.

I thought it was the “best” debate yet, which by a strange twist made it the least entertaining, since we are generally most entertained by the big gaffes and meltdowns and catfights. This crop of candidates has become much more sure-footed.

The Fox News moderators also did the best of any panels that have handled that task. Against all medical advice, I’m becoming an admirer of Fox anchor Bret Baier. And, in one of the better exchanges and one that was long overdue, Chris Wallace led Mitt Romney through a calmer, fuller-than-usual discussion of exactly on which issues he acknowledges a change of position during his political life (basically he conceded some truth to the awful sin of changing on abortion but claims that his position on gay rights has been steadfast, namely equal rights for gays on everything except the right to marry).

On something like that, in the modern age, the story is never finally told. Romney switch-watchers will continue to evidence of chameleon-ism and he will continue to try to explain it and fact-check journalists will continue to have work.

The punditocracy seems to think the horserace development of the evening is that Newt Gingrich’s recent astonishing rise has halted and Romney’s comeback may have begun. That may be right, although as Walter Shapiro notes in the New Republic this morning, the pundit consensus has turned out to be wrong about 20 times already this year and plenty of times in the past.

Bachmann vs. Gingrich
If Gingrich did have a bad night, it was mostly thanks to Michele Bachmann, who put him on the defensive over the already-famous $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Gingrich continues to assert that he never lobbied for Fannie, Freddie or anyone else.

“You don’t need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence-peddling with senior Republicans in Washington, D.C., to get them to do your bidding,” Bachmann replied, in what seemed like her best moment over the last many debates.

Gingrich hasn’t given a clear, believable explanation of what he did for the untouchable public/private/bailed-out mortgage giants that was worth that much money if it wasn’t influence peddling.

Rep. Michele Bachmann speaking during Thursday's Republican Party presidential debate.
REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool
Rep. Michele Bachmann speaking during Thursday’s Republican Party presidential debate.

But here, as in so many similar instances of debate lore, no new information changed hands; it was just a matter of Bachmann using strong language to denounce Gingrich while the former speaker had to appear on camera looking annoyed and waiting for a chance to repeat his already-familiar non-denial denials. The pundits think this hurt him and the next round of polling will either momentarily confirm or rebut that analysis.

On a different matter, dealing with late-term abortion procedures, Bachmann attacked Gingrich and then took umbrage at Gingrich’s outrageous suggestion that she doesn’t always get her facts right. And on one more Bachmann matter, she once again asserted that if she had been president at the time of the debt ceiling crisis, she would have insisted that Congress immediately and permanently balance the budget without tax increases. As she never has, she once again came nowhere near specifying  the more than $1 trillion worth of immediate spending cuts that that would require.

The recent Gingrich rise is still pretty amazing. But there is also so much potential attack material to be used against him – on style, substance, character, ethics, personal conduct and everything else – that it’s hard to know how many of his recent converts will stick. Sooner or later, the anybody-but-Romney has to stick with someone. Or do they?

Few attacks
Other than the Bachmann-Gingrich exchange, the candidates mostly avoided tough attacks. The pre-debate hype suggested that Romney would have to attack Gingrich, but he didn’t and may have prospered anyway. I heard Frank Luntz say on the Fox post-debate analysis that Republican voters don’t like to see nastiness within the family.

Ron Paul continues to make things interesting, especially on foreign and war policy stuff. While all the others were blasting President Obama for not getting tougher with the Iranians over the U.S. drone that they captured, Paul asks what we are doing flying drones over Iran (Pakistan too) without being in a state of congressionally declared war against either of those nations, and he asks how the United States would feel if other nations tried to do that stuff to us.

What a card. He also said that, unlike all recent presidents and president wanna-bes, “I don’t want to run the world… and I don’t want to run the economy.”

Rick Perry had – and we’re grading on a steep curve here – his best debate performance, although his memorable line was to compare himself to Denver Bronco Quarterback Tim Tebow, and declare: “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucuses.” If you don’t get that, ask a football fan.

Jon Huntsman gave his pretty eloquent “two deficits” homily (in addition to fiscal deficits, America has a deficit of trust in all its major institutions and he will fix that), but, as usual, no one was listening.

Rick Santorum said again that he not only has been a steadfast conservative but has a record of accomplishments from his Senate days to show that he can get it done. But apparently no one cares.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Cecil North on 12/16/2011 - 01:26 pm.

    I don’t have much time in the evening to watch TV, and didn’t catch any of the previous debates live. I have to say, I was astonished at the extent to which the selection of candidates for the highest office in our country has been reduced to something akin to a game show, complete with a panel of “judges” at the commercial breaks.

    I could only take about a half hour of it, mostly during the foriegn policy segment. It’s pretty shocking to know that the candidates’ collective intelligence on this subject is limited to increasing the size of our military (no word on how we pay for that) and starting new wars in the mideast (no word on how we’ll pay for that either). Bachmann can’t even figure out why we’d want to wind things down in Iraq.

    So, there you have it. The GOP: all wars, all the time. Praise Jesus.

  2. Submitted by Cecil North on 12/16/2011 - 01:28 pm.

    In fairness, Ron Paul gave a pretty good rebuttal to the chicken hawks. And was booed for his efforts.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/16/2011 - 02:18 pm.

    Until enough people wake up to the insult to human dignity that abortion represents, there isn’t a whole lot any President can do about it, other than to defund abortion mills, so that isn’t an issue I hold candidate’s feet to the fire on..

    That being said, I do judge a person’s character on the issue, and do aver that anyone that makes apologies for the absolutely barbaric ritual of “partial birth” abortion is a non-starter for me. Newt has done that.

    I don’t expect much from Romney, which isn’t necessarilly a knock. I don’t want much from the government and am never so comfortable as when we have gridlock.

  4. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 12/16/2011 - 05:20 pm.

    Eric, you have my sympathy! I have enough trouble listening to Joe Scarborough bloviate on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” (The ff button comes in handy.)

    Some of those folks will at least sell a few more of their books, but I sure hope they don’t sell any of their messages to the voters.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/16/2011 - 06:26 pm.

    Then perhaps you might consider Mr. Swift getting government out of a doctors office and leave abortion alone.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/16/2011 - 08:22 pm.

    Can’t they give the nomination to Romney already? I had fun with the first debates, but lately, I find that I know the talking points by heart.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/16/2011 - 08:35 pm.

    Meet you halfway, jody. Let’s start by getting every type of government subsidy out of the abortionist’s office and I’ll advocate leaving you all to your butchery until the population re-discovers it’s inherent human dignity…deal?

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/17/2011 - 07:13 am.

    @7

    Does the state have the right to coerce one person to sacrifice their body for another?

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/17/2011 - 10:22 am.

    Never served in the military, did you Richard?

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/17/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    As usual, Mr. Swift knows not whereof he speaks.

    I just can’t bring myself to watch the current crop of “candidates” appear in what Cecil North quite accurately describes as a game-show format. I know it’s part of your job, Eric, but I couldn’t do it. Maybe, at some future time in a future election, there will be real candidates of some intelligence and articulateness who will have actual ideas of their own instead of RNC/Grover Norquist agitprop. The closest we’ve come to that is the duo that no one listens to: Ron Paul and John Huntsman.

    It’s not a debate in any sense of the word except the most superficial. Everybody gets a chance to deliver a sound byte for the 10 o’clock news, or the next day’s 5 o’clock show, but there’s no exploration or explanation of anything from Mrs. Bachmann’s latest “crazy lady” statement to why Mitt Romney changed his mind… about anything.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/17/2011 - 06:32 pm.

    It’s fun watching the debates when you realize that one of those republicans on that stage is going to be the next president of the united states.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/17/2011 - 07:31 pm.

    Was that a yes or no Tom?

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/18/2011 - 10:34 am.

    You avoid the question Tom. Does the state have the right to coerce one person to sacrifice their body for another?

    The military is ‘pro-choice’ in as much as they discontinued the draft in the early 70’s. At which time they moved to an all-volunteer military force, thus there is no “coerced” draft. Folks have the liberty and freedom to sign up using their free will.

    (As an aside, I support a draft which I believe would lead to better foreign policy decisions.)

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