Friday, January 27, 2012   A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2007

NBC's Monday night debate from Tampa, the Sedate Debate, as I called it three days ago, gave way inevitably to more of the same cage-match, smack-down, elimination television that we have become accustomed to in this election cycle.

For Floridians, whose voting sensibilities look less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like the work of Hieronymus Bosch, this seems par for the peninsula course. Thus Thursday night's live hand-to-hand combat on the campus of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville was the norm, not the exception: the Sunshine State pays good money to watch roadside attraction monkeys hurling their excrement.

How many formal TV debates have Republicans had in the last six months? Even the experts have lost count, but my informal, handwritten notes list at least 28 since July 2011. At least a half dozen debates were held in Iowa alone, and, before that, a sort of rolling circus driving tour of Florida with events in St. Petersburg, Orlando and Daytona.

And though the predictions seemed overstated and overwrought a couple of months ago back when it looked like Mitt Romney's only real challenge might come from Herman Cain, the rift between GOP regulars (party elites, as Gingrich would put it) and the insurrectionists movements on the right (Tea Partiers, evangelicals, Christian conservatives and just plain anti-Obama types) seems now a genuine civil war.

A paradox of our primary and caucus system is that when seeking the nomination of their party candidates must say things and do things on the campaign trail--as a direct appeal to the party base--which must be explained away or dissembled later to facilitate outreach to the (often undecided) majority. Goldwater could not run as Goldwater, nor could Mondale run as Mondale.

And, everyone within the party must agree to be friends again by convention time. Everyone must stand as a family on the stage, around the glowing ordained nominee, and wave to the cheering crowds. There are handshakes, hugs, clasped hands held high for the cameras. Failure to do so is interpreted instantly by the media as a sign of potential political implosion.
Ted Kennedy was reluctant to shake Jimmy Carter's hand as the confetti fell and balloons popped in 1980--bygones were not bygones, and the narrative started in that television instant. Conversely, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush overlooked the family nastiness of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, and became a famous political marriage. The photograph of their hands held high on that stage became their official campaign portrait. More recently, the family feud between the camps of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reached epic proportions in 2008. Yet the Democrats had a dazzling show of unity by the time they reached the convention in Denver.

So now Republicans bloody themselves with left jabs and kicks to the groin as they move along this path. Is the current ultimate fighting a healthy debate about the soul of the GOP? Or is this a reality show highway to Armageddon in November?

Floridians have a developed a high tolerance (some would say they have become numb) to the brutalities of national politics when the road show comes to their state. The marvel is that on Monday in Tampa NBC managed to stage a debate of such remarkable boredom. Three rows behind Brian Williams a man appeared to be asleep. Even some of the candidates complained. The subdued format made all four candidates seem "presidential," especially Newt Gingrich, but the former speaker may have lost traction statewide. Gingrich is no fun unless he can be Gingrich.

So on Wednesday Gingrich announced he would no longer participate in any forum in which audience applause or crowd interaction was forbidden. Then, on Friday, the morning after the CNN debate in Jacksonville, he reversed himself, protesting that Romney had packed the room with loud-mouthed, pro-Romney hooligans.

So where do the Republicans stand with only a few days left before the primary? Romney appears to have scored the "win" in the CNN debate, but the conventional wisdom in the minutes and hours in the aftermath was that all the candidates had shown strength.

The head bashing and bruising began early. When CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer brought up the issues of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, one of the albatrosses around Gingrich's neck, Gingrich sought to redirect, attempting to turn the matter back on Romney.

"We discovered to our shock," Gingrich explained dramatically, "that Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that. Governor Romney has an investment in Goldman-Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians. So maybe Governor Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he's made from how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments."

But Romney was quick on his feet, explaining that his investments are in a blind trust, managed by others. Romney went on to explain that his investments in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are lumped into mutual funds along with hundreds of other investments, none of them in the form of direct shares. And then Romney went on the attack.

"Have you checked your own investments?" Romney asked Gingrich. "You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac." This seemed to throw Gingrich back on his heels for a moment, and he was unable to respond with more than a shrug.

So Blitzer turned the question over to Texas Representative Ron Paul, who said with humor that "that subject doesn't really interest me!" The room erupted with cheers. Paul brushed aside the personal bickering between Romney and Gingrich and said the real question is what should be done about the two mortgage giants, adding that the companies should "have been auctioned off right after the crash."

Finally, Rick Santorum was offered a chance to weigh in. In one of the former Senator's best debate moments (in a series of exceptional debate performances), a frustrated Santorum also attempted to bat aside the whole nasty argument between Gingrich and Romney.

"Can we set aside," Santorum said, "that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies. And that's not the worst thing in the world. And that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he's worked harder on his investments. And you guys [the media] should leave that alone, and focus on the issues!" Santorum may have drawn the loudest applause of the night with that challenge to the process and to the methods of reporters.

Later, Blitzer directed the debate toward the proliferation of negative comments. Blitzer quoted Gingrich from an interview two days earlier in which Gingrich said that Romney "lives in a world of Swiss banks and Cayman Island bank accounts." Gingrich sought to dodge the questions, but Blitzer would not back down. Finally, Gingrich admitted he made the remark, but said the context was in an interview format, and a debate being televised nationally. Still, Blitzer did not back away. There was a burst of boos from the auditorium, presumably directed at CNN and its moderator. Gingrich waved his hand to Santorum and said only "do you want to try again?" Then, there followed a moment of awkward silence.

Romney seized the empty air. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations someplace else that they weren't willing to defend here?" This forced Gingrich back into the conversation. At the end of the exchange Romney said that it is time to set aside the issue of his success and his money.

"Let's get Republicans to say: you know what, what you've accomplished in your life shouldn't been seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America."

When the debate turned toward immigration, an issue with huge ramifications to Floridians, the eye-gouging fight between Romney and Gingrich got even nastier. When the issue turned to the recent Gingrich ads accusing Romney with being the most anti-immigrant candidate of the Republican field, a thirty second stink bomb thrown specifically for the heavily Latino audience in the TV markets of south Florida statewide, Romney bristled with indignation. Gingrich said the statement was fair.

"That's simply inexcusable," Romney said, "and actually Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate. Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico; my wife's father was born in Wales. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive."

Then, in what was surely the most confusing and confounding exchanges about the negative advertising being lobbed back and forth, Blitzer confronted Romney with a quote from one of Romney's own anti-Gingrich ads. The ad suggests that Gingrich has called Spanish "the language of the ghetto." To which Romney pleaded no contest; he said he had not seen all the ads being run on his behalf.

When Romney seemed to turn the question back to Blitzer or to Gingrich, Gingrich simply said he had never said the word "Spanish" in the original quote. "My point," Gingrich said, "was that no one should be trapped in a linguistic situation where they can't go out and get a job, and they can't work. So I would say that though Governor Romney doesn't particularly like my use of language, I found his use of language and his deliberate distortions equally offensive."

Romney said he doubted that was his ad, but he said he would look into it, which turned the arcane box-within-a-box questions of who said what, in what context, and in which ads, and who pays for the ads, into an Alice in Wonderland moment. Did it really matter which monkeys began to sling the first fist full of excrement? And did it matter whose excrement was in question? Many viewers were lost.

Ron Paul kept his sense of humor and his footing even when asked, gently, by Wolf Blitzer about his age: if elected Paul would become the oldest President ever to take the oath of office. Would Paul release his medical records? Paul said yes, but it would be short and boring--less than one page. Then Paul said he would challenge any of the other three candidates to a 25 mile bicycle ride in the Texas heat.

The overall opinion by most analysts seemed consistent: Romney had one of his best debate nights. But Romney also suffered a setback or two of his own, most notably in a long exchange with Rick Santorum over comparisons of the health care systems of Massachusetts and President Obama. Santorum was unyielding: he would not let Romney off the hook for creating a system with a mandate, nor was the former Pennsylvania Senator going to let Romney wiggle away from a direct comparison.

"In Massachusetts," Santorum said, "everybody is mandated, as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, to buy health insurance." Romney scoffed at this statement, and disputed Santorum's claim that recent studies had shown "free-ridership" had experienced a fivefold increase in Romney's state.

As the argument advanced into the arcane points surrounding a mandate, drawing some of Santorum's most passionate facial tics and body language, Romney said "first of all, it's not worth getting angry about." Some might have seen this as Romney's way of saying "calm down, Rick." But many others saw it as an arrogant dismissal of an issue with deep emotional connection to millions of Americans, and a wave-of-the-hand directed especially to Tea Partiers, the subset of Republicans with the largest cache of anti-Obama energy.

Talking to reporters shortly after the debate, Santorum said the issue of health care "was worth getting upset about." When reporters pressed him on Romney's attempt to swat away Santorum's passion, the former Senator said "that's a debate tactic. This is Mitt Romney, schooled debater, trying to divert attention away from the basic issue, which is that he supported something that the vast majority of Floridians--and probably a super majority of Republican Floridians--want nothing to do with."

"They don't want a candidate, I believe," Santorum added, "that will go up against Barack Obama and give away the most important issue in this election, which is freedom and economic liberty."

Overall Romney seemed to be at the top of his game. Gingrich had a slower night, though it was hardly a disaster for the former speaker. Ron Paul clearly delivered the best one-liners of the evening.

Rick Santorum may have had his best show yet, and even many analysts previously doubtful of Santorum's staying power gave him high marks for his performance. But it may not matter. GOP voters--in Florida specifically, and in many new national polls--seem to see their choice now as between the two: Gingrich versus Romney, angry insurrectionist versus the safe establishment-type. Santorum may remain, like Paul, stuck in the middle teens in terms of voter preference.

Ironically, Santorum had earlier chosen to bypass Florida, preferring instead to look ahead with his time and resources to the next series of contests, and betting--perhaps dangerously--on the southern and middle states primaries in late February and March, where his family-based rhetoric would surely receive even better reviews. By greatly exceeding expectations in the most recent Florida debates, he may have missed an opportunity to score a solid third in the Sunshine State, and perhaps exploit the breach, however small, of a slightly diminished Gingrich.

Conversely, Romney has nothing to gain from a Santorum withdrawal. As long as Santorum remains Gingrich's chief rival on the right within the culturally fractured GOP spectrum, Romney can continue to rebuild his once-solid reputation as the front-runner.

Romney has faced this challenge repeatedly now. Back when there were nine candidates, just months ago, Romney was forced to break out of his plastic, static position to deal with newcomer Ricky Perry, then a darling of the Tea Party and anti-establishment crowd. The Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney narrative instantly became the stuff of legend, and supplied comedians and Saturday Night Live with so much material that the joke became reality. Perry stumbled so badly though those debates that the damage became irreversible, but he drew Romney out--for better, and on occasion for worse. (Arguing about their books, Romney famously stepped off of his script to challenge to Perry to a ten thousand dollar bet).

Since then the challenges have come hard and fast through a series of pretenders--Jon Huntsman, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and eventually Gingrich and Santorum. Cain self-destructed, and Bachmann and Huntsman found little base of support after Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry had already slipped to the bottom of the polls on the day he withdrew and endorsed Newt Gingrich. And whatever happened to Gary Johnson?

So has the process been healthy for Romney, or has it forced Romney to engage in the sort of negativity and nastiness that will only serve to hurt the GOP's chances in November?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has said he will not make any endorsement at this time, warns that the mudslinging can backfire.

"I think there's a point," Bush told CNN's John King, "past which Republicans and independent voters get turned off by this fierce primary spilling over into personal attacks. I would hope that both Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich could stay away from that."

As for the debate itself, CNN seemed especially proud of the loose format and audience participation, which was in stark and even comical contrast to the sober, somber NBC debate seen on Rock Center on Monday from Tampa. The CNN format, now well entrenched and virtually hallowed, with its rotation of top caliber reporters and anchors--John King, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer--eclipses to a degree even the FOX News format perfected by Roger Ailes and team, a format which practically rewards emotional outbursts from the audience.

So once tactical questions are set aside, what happens strategically for Republicans and how do they find their path back to the White House? President Obama, whose job approval ratings had been in decline for many months, now seems on the rise again--if even tenuously. His state-of-the-union address has been followed by a tour of the country to sell his agenda for this year and his next term.

In his speech Tuesday he listed his recent accomplishments--the death of Osama bin Laden, the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, new jobs (finally), and his previous trophy of saving the auto industry from total collapse. But this still left him offering up the usual mea culpa for the setbacks and failures: an obstructionist Congress and petty political bickering.

Republicans face the challenge that the Democrats and Team Obama may have as much as one billion dollars to deploy in the general election; indeed, including PAC cash, more money could be spent this year than the expenditures of all of the presidential election cycles from 1960 through 1992 combined.

This raises the bar for the GOP. And it calls into the question the wisdom of live televised events in which the best and the brightest hurl concussion grenades and toss stink bombs.

Copyright 2012 Thursday Review