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GOP debate: 10 random thoughts

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Ten random thoughts after Repub debate No. (omg) 19.

Last debate until Feb. 22. My heart and oh my aching butt say “Yay.” We need a break. On the other hand, without the debates, the vast majority of the campaign messages come from 30-second half-truths paid for by a small number of rich contributors and, in the new world created by Citizens United, even most of those nastygrams are sponsored by SuperPACs so the candidates don’t even have to take direct responsibility. And, since those ad blitzes are state-by-state, they emphasize even more the vagaries of the primary and caucus schedule. Debates can also turn into drivel and gaffe-driven gong shows. And they emphasize many qualities that have little to do with the qualities that will make a good president (as if we knew what those are). But, on balance, a campaign driven by debates is better than one driven by ads. Churchill had it right: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” And he also had it right when he said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The applause was back. The last debate was the only one so far in which the sponsors asked the audience to keep quiet. That was better. This was worse. I have no evidence, but it seemed clear to me that Team Romney had done what it could to pack the room and instructed their fans to seize every opportunity to cheer and clap wildly for Mitt Romney who, notwithstanding other attributes, is not really gifted at emitting applause lines and has suffered for it in previous debates, especially as compared to Newt (they-always-love-it-when-I-bash-the-liberal-establishment-media) Gingrich.

Rick Santorum had the best night of the four contestants still in the pageant. The polls suggest that Santorum doesn’t matter much anymore, except to the degree that he continues to divide, with Newt Gingrich, the anybody-but-Romney (but not Ron Paul either) vote. Maybe so. But if you accept – as I do not — the Repub premise that Obamacare is the end of civilization, then Romney has a big problem because the program that he signed into law and implemented in Massachusetts is so similar in its approach. Romney has figured out how to talk at great length about what are mostly small technical differences between Romneycare and Obamacare, plus the fact that (duh) one is a state program and one is a federal program. In an extended exchange, Santorum pounded away on the Romneycare/Obamacare similarities. Although this has been done before (as what has not?), it seemed to me that Santorum stripped away the excuses and left Romney promising to repeal for the other 49 states what has been a good and successful program in Massachusetts.

On the other hand, Santorum hit Gingrich and Romney for “falling for the global warming hoax.”

The pundits agree that Gingrich had a bad night. He didn’t actually commit a major gaffe and certainly suffered no brain freeze moment (which is usually what makes for a bad night in Punditland, see Rick Perry, except you can’t see him anymore because he is gone and even Texans don’t like him much anymore). But Gingrich – whose co-frontrunner status was created by winning debates – needs the big debate moments to keep moving forward. The big “gotcha moment” that stung Gingrich was when Romney revealed (and it wasn’t even clear that Gingrich knew this about himself) that Gingrich owned mutual funds that profited from investments in Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. This was totally silly, of course. Very few investors pay attention to all of the holdings within mutual funds. But Gingrich had just finished making a big deal about the fact that Romney had profited from investments in Fannie and Freddie. But mostly, Gingrich’s weak night was less about his bad moments than his lack of good ones.

Personally, I respect Ron Paul for his willingness to say what he believes irrespective of strategic considerations or political correctness. For example, he would move the United States toward normal relations with Cuba and said so last night even though the position is not politically smart in Florida. In general, we’ve reached the point where Paul is starting to be treated as a joke. I noticed that in the post-game analysis, those who praised Paul’s performance all said he was funny. One comment by Paul, which no one seemed to notice, showed what can happen when someone is blunt about the Republican anti-government message. Paul, like the rest of them, thinks government interference explains what is wrong with U.S. health care. It often occurs to me that if that is how they feel, they need to explain why they don’t advocate for abolishing Medicare. Dr. Paul came pretty close last night, noting that when he first started practicing medicine in the early 1960s, “ there was no Medicare or Medicaid and no one was out in the streets without it. Now, people are suffering.” Hmmm. Gingrich (who, I am sad to speculate, does politically calculate what he says) seemed to associate himself with Paul’s rosy view of a world without Medicare.  Gingrich: “You look at medicine in the early ’60s, and you look at how communities solved problems, it was a fundamentally more flexible and less expensive system. And there’s a lot to be said for rethinking from the ground up, the entire approach to health care.”

I guess if televised debates are going to be this common, they are going to become more and more televisionized. (Yes, that’s a made-up word.) They used to be special events, done without commercial interruptions. Now there are commercials. But even worse, they’ve started using the same hideous pandering techniques to entice the audience to stay through the commercials that the 24-hour news channels use all day long, which is to tease the viewers that something really hot is coming up after the break. Somewhere around the third commercial break, Wolf Blitzer announced: “All right, gentleman stand by. Much more to discuss. I want to take a short break. We have many more topics to include — including this, we’ll get into this a little bit, what would your wife — why would your wife make the best first lady. I’ll ask these four candidates. Stay with us.” Then after three minutes of commercials, instead of resuming, we had that incredibly annoying deal where it looks like the show is resuming really, it’s just another plug for sitting through more commercials:  “I’m Wolf Blitzer. We’re here in Jacksonville for CNN’s Florida Republican presidential debate. Many of you are watching online, commenting on Twitter, Facebook, at CNN.com. We have many more questions for the candidates, including one that hits close to home. Stand by to find out why each man on this stage thinks his wife would be the best first lady.” Then three more minutes of commercials. When the big moment finally came, the “My wife is a wonderful woman” answers were as maudlin as you would expect. (Except Ron Paul’s, who went for humor.) And Gingrich who wasn’t willing to say that his wife would be the best first lady because he’s gotten to know the other wives, and they are great too.

In general, I didn’t care for Wolf Blitzer’s questions (although one sympathizes with the challenge he faced after so many prior debates). But Blitzer and the journalists back at CNN did account for one of my favorite moments. Blitzer asked about and Gingrich complained about a Romney radio ad that attacked Gingrich for supposedly referring to Spanish as “the language of the ghetto.” Romney started his response by suggesting that he wasn’t aware of the ad and wasn’t sure it was really his ad. (Presumably, he meant “his” ad, as opposed to an ad sponsored by the pro-Romney SuperPAC over which he regrets he has no control). During the commercial break, the CNN newsroom double-checked and sure enough, they found the ad and it was indeed sponsored by the Romney campaign, not the SuperPAC and, here’s the beauty part, ended with the required tag line, in Romney’s own voice or that of a very good Romney impersonator: “I’m Mitt Romney, and I approved this message.”

Yes, it was a gotcha moment, but led to another moment during CNN’s post-debate analysis. Alex Castellano (who was triply qualified to discuss this because he is Hispanic, Republican and a media consultant to political campaigns) was asked about the credibility of Romney’s claim that he was unaware of the ad. Castellano said that, indeed, most candidates don’t know what their ads say. The ad-makers have a canned tape of their candidate’s voice saying “I approved this message,” and they are authorized to stick it on any ad they choose to air. I suggest the legal requirement be changed to require the candidate to say “and I approved this message even though I don’t know what it says.”

The polls suggested before the debate that Romney had halted Gingrich’s post-South Carolina surge and was back in the lead in Florida. After last night, they all predicted that Romney would win Florida and have started restoring the old narrative of the all-but-inevitable Romney nomination. Considering that everyone who has tried to make predictions about this race has been proven, I kinda wish they would stop making predictions. But don’t hold your breath.

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