Mitt’s Great Escape

Press declares Romney winner of last night’s punchless fight

Last night’s GOP primary debate at Saint Anselm College began something like an episode of Jeopardy!, with the contestants/candidates making quick, charming, innocuous introductions, like, “I’m Rick Santorum. I served twelve years representing Pennsylvania in the United States Senate, but I also have substantial executive experience making the tough decisions and balancing budgets and cutting spending. Karen and I are the parents of seven children.” Then the Jeopardy! theme continued, with candidates often giving their answers in the form of a question. (To be fair, this is equally a “presidential debate theme.”) Pressed on what would happen if he didn’t raise the debt ceiling, Mitt Romney, for instance, responded: “Well, what happens if we continue to spend time and time again, year and year again more money than we take in?”

And aside from CNN moderator John King’s “demi-syllabic blurts” every time a candidate babbled too far beyond the thirty seconds of allotted answer time, it was all about as genial as an episode of that old-school game show. It was less a debate really than a series of tiny stump speeches, all aimed not at anyone else on the stage, but at the big man himself, President Obama.

Two quick observations of the more theatrical nature. With so little back-and-forth, it was odd to see Rick Santorum looking so sweaty and nervous—as Ezra Klein described him on Twitter, “like he’s being played by Natalie Portman.” And Herman Cain might have done damage to his credibility/likability with a line you probably wouldn’t hear a contestant ever say on Jeopardy!. Discussing whether he would be comfortable with Muslims serving in his administration, Cain replied, “I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us.”

But enough of this forced analogy. What are those in the press saying about last night’s debate?

Well, given little to go with, they’re pretty much working from the same script. Romney did well by being both charming, strong, and by not being challenged. Bachmann did well by exceeding low expectations with some coherent answers, clever sound bites, and by using the stage to announce officially that she was running. Pawlenty did so-so, losing major points for not backing up his “Obamneycare” digs at Romney from Sunday. (Though, really, if you were the coiner of that phrase, wouldn’t you also want to look over your shoulder and pretend you never said it?)

Policy-wise, it was mostly unspecific outside of social issues, with the exception of Gingrich and Paul, who at times got too far into the weeds to easily follow. The general vagueness was a result both of clever candidate evasions and a typically constricted format that would have curtailed depth even if a candidate had wanted to try for it. Witness Paul rushing through his more complex answers to meet the non-binding time limit.

The Times’s Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny hit the general consensus on how the debate played in a front-page story today with the wonderfully Yoda-esque headline, “7 in G.O.P., Civil to Each Other, Hit at Obama Instead.” The reporters emphasized how little the debate was really a debate and offered the field the kind of faint praise usually reserved for a middle child playing foliage in the school play. (Our emphasis.)

Each of the contenders had serious moments and enlightening exchanges in a lively forum that ended without any noticeable gaffes or missteps.

Noteworthy is that Bachmann, who some imagined would draw a hefty amount of the debate coverage today with her announcement, is relegated to the fifteenth paragraph of the report, behind musings on candidates who didn’t even appear, like Sarah Palin and Jon Huntsman Jr. Still, the paper gave her a thumbs-up: “On Monday she seemed solid on her feet as she, for instance, criticized the United States’ role in the NATO intervention in Libya as failing to forward ‘any vital American interest.’” The focus was clearly on performance over any kind of substance.

The Washington Post’s big debate report, by Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker, similarly emphasized the group attack on Obama. But the Romney-heavy report ventured into fuller assessments of where the candidates stood going into the debate, and how they had performed in the so-far short campaign. It allowed for some useful context

It is a Republican field unlike any other in generations. None of the candidates has been able to establish himself or herself as an overwhelming favorite. In the normal order of things, Romney would hold that position, by virtue of his organization, his fundraising network and the exposure he received from his 2008 run for the nomination.

But although Romney holds a lead in most national surveys, it has been a narrow one, particularly in comparison with the double-digit advantage that the front-running GOP contender normally has at this point.

It’s horse race stuff, but these debates don’t allow for too much more.

Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman and Neil King Jr. frame their report as a look at the policy positions espoused during the debate, crowning the story with the headline, “Candidates Run Against Regulation.” It feels a far too generous assessment of a debate that pinpointed catchphrases more than actual policy. Here’s a sample of the story:

… each pressed for dramatic change to what Rep. Ron Paul called “a Keynesian bubble that’s been going on for 70 years.” Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who announced her presidential candidacy as the debate began, called for rolling back the Environmental Protection Agency, which she said should be renamed “the job killing organization of America.”

Former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty makes it clear during GOP debates 2011 that his administration would try and solve the mortgage lending crisis.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for de-funding the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Romney suggested the functions of agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency be handed to state governments, or if possible, the private sector.

And former Godfather’s Pizza Chief Executive Herman Cain embraced the privatization of Social Security.

With the exception of Romney’s FEMA policy there, those are all bumper stickers. If you’re going to frame your report as “the candidates laid out their policies,” then it’s important to note that very few of them ventured anywhere near to explaining how they would achieve those policies. Roll back the EPA? Sure. But how? Why? And what would it cost? The piece is much stronger when discussing the stylistic differences between the candidates.

This is the focus of Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman’s Politico report on the debate. Their assessment fits the consensus—the lede reads, “Mitt Romney couldn’t have scripted an easier debate for himself….”— and homes in on specific Romney attack opportunities the former governor’s rivals missed. There is Pawlenty’s refusal to tie Romney’s health care policy to Obama’s, a day after the catchphrase from hell, and then Santorum’s refusal to hit Romney on his pro-choice to pro-life flip-flop.

Santorum, who made his political reputation as a social conservative stalwart, was asked point-blank whether he believed Romney’s conversion - to an anti-abortion position - was authentic. He dodged.

“I think an issue should be, in looking at any candidate, looking at the authenticity of any candidate,” Santorum said, alluding to his 2006 election defeat by claiming: “Not only have I been consistently pro-life … I’ve taken the bullets.”

Romney’s opponents will have to draw much more explicit and aggressive contrasts with the former Massachusetts governor if they hope to arrest his momentum in the 2012 campaign.

For those looking for pure horse-race stuff, Politico’s Roger Simon has actually ranked the performances last night from first to eighth—you’ll see why there’s an extra—and given each candidate a mark out of one hundred. Unsurprisingly, it’s Romney first and Bachmann second. Surprisingly, absentee potential candidate Sarah Palin comes in third.

The right-wing media’s response to the debate seems to fall pretty much in line with the mainstream media’s. Romney and Bachmann scored As, Pawlenty a solid C, and Cain was asked to repeat the year. And all noted that the debate was generally non-combative stuff. The Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas’s report, for example, comes with a headline that would have fit just as well above the Times report: “No Mitt Romney Feeding Frenzy; Pawlenty Refuses to Attack.”

At the website for The Weekly Standard, John McCormack was particularly taken with Bachmann’s performance and has a blog post up titled “Bachmann’s Strong Start.” “She began with a principled and personal defense of the right to life,” he writes. “And then she successfully dismissed the question without every directly answering it. Many have said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Don’t underestimate Michele Bachmann.”

Sigh. Let us all take a moment to rue the day that effective evasion became the mark of a candidate not to be underestimated. Oddly, McCormack later offers this so-faint-it’s-barely-there praise for Bachmann: “She seemed to outshine Herman Cain, the other Tea Party favorite, on both substance and style.”

Meanwhile, McCormack’s Standard boss, William Kristol, has chosen to consider how the debate affected the standings of seven potential candidates who chose not to plant themselves behind a lectern for Alec’s King’s questions. Here’s Kristol on congressman Paul Ryan:

As the repeated mentions of him last night reminded everyone, he’s at the center of gravity of the national political debate. And nothing we saw last night would convince his many admirers that he wouldn’t be better—substantively and politically—at advancing the core Republican position than those on stage last night.

Over at the Standard’s big rival, National Review, Rich Lowry declared the debate “Mitt’s Night,” noted Bachmann’s impressive turn, and called Cain “unbelievably vague.” But the most interesting Review commentary comes from Lowry’s colleague Mark Steyn, who chose to take his aim—like the candidates—at someone who wasn’t there to debate: not the president this time but the moderator, John King.

The trouble is it’s all “This or That”. As Newt pointed out, most of the questions posit ridiculous choices: Are you in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants or are you in favor of deporting 20 million people? Are you in favor of seizing private property in New Hampshire for a Hydro Qu├ębec power line or are you in favor of continued oil dependency on psychotic dictators? The remainder fall into cutesie-pie stuff that John King lacks the personality to pull off, and the last embodied in its perfect post-modern stupidity the awfulness of these “debates”: “What have you learned during the past two hours?”

Hmm. What I learned is that John King makes Tim Pawlenty look like Lady Gaga. Other than that, I also got the distimct [sic] impression that this season’s debates seem unlikely to be effective forums even for acknowledging the profound and existential crises facing the nation, never mind addressing them.

It would be easier to sympathize with Steyn’s POV had any of the candidates aside from Gingrich also complained about the question structure rather than completely dodging any part of the questions Steyn says were so ridiculous. The very reason they were framed as mostly “this or that”s was to try and corner the debaters into giving something which looked like an actual answer. That being said, as my colleague Clint Hendler argued, King might have been more assertive in demanding the candidates actually pick one of the this or thats he posited.

And while I am not sure what the Lady Gaga reference means, Steyn is probably right on his last point about the debates being an ineffective forum for addressing the nation’s problems. Though “this season’s” could have probably been removed.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , , ,