My thanks to Rich for the back-up. It’s always nervous making to disagree with Charles Krauthammer about anything.
Here’s my own theory, for what it’s worth, for why that interview went south for Romney. I think he was poorly served by his staff. As many around here know, Special Report launched a new segment recently called “Center Seat.” Each of the GOP candidates is invited to sit with the “All Star Panel” and subject themselves to a grilling like the old-school Meet the Press format (which, as a side note, I think Meet the Press should return to).
All of the candidates agreed to appear on Center Seat, except for Romney. Having read the whole transcript of the interview, I believe that Romney had no idea that his staff rejected the invitation. Baier (who is just about the most fair and diligent major journalist working today in my opinion) came to the interview with the good faith intention of asking exactly the sort of broad spectrum and fundamental questions about Romney’s candidacy that all of the other candidates have been subjected to. For whatever reason, Romney didn’t expect that, which is why he was taken aback and was visibly annoyed. Remember this isn’t the first time he’s been caught politically flatfooted. Remember when his campaign put him in an Issue 2/Issue3 Republican call center in Ohio and he dodged taking a side on either question? If that’s his stance, why’d his staff put him in that room?).
That said, there’s absolutely no excuse for Romney to be so flat-footed in his responses. Romney complained that he’s answered questions about his flip-flops and Romneycare “hundreds” of times. That’s true. But it’s also all the more reason he should have had better answers. Instead he insisted that Baier had his facts wrong (he didn’t) and that all of the answers are in his book (which he plugged incessantly). As Rich notes, his body language was awful. The worst moment on this score, by my lights, came when Baier asked him a softball human interest question:
BAIER: What was the last book you read or are reading?
ROMNEY: I’m reading sort of a fun one right now, so I’ll skip that. But I just read “Decision Points” by President Bush.
Ugh. This highlights one of Romney’s biggest problems: He’s a stiff who doesn’t really understand how he’s perceived. Of all the candidates, he’s the one who needs to tell people about the “fun” book he’s reading! It would have helped him enormously if he said John Grisham or Brad Thor’s latest thriller. Instead he seemed to search for the “right book” for the question according to the algorithm or subroutine in his head: and spit out “Decision Points.”
Moving on, he tried to distinguish himself from Newt Gingrich on immigration and failed utterly. As Charles rightly noted, he tried to turn the flip-flopping charge into his advantage by touting his steadfastness on Romneycare while subtly highlighting the fact that Newt has flip-flopped more than once and, in effect, gotten away with it. I don’t think that worked for him in the interview and I don’t think it’s persuasive on the merits (though there is an over-emphasis and double standard on his flip-flops). Romney can’t abandon Romneycare whole hog because it would gut his record in Massachusetts and, more importantly, cement his reputation as a flip-flopper. (For the record, I think most conservatives are wrong about Romneycare hurting him in the general election. It would be an asset for reasons we can discuss later.)
No doubt there are other factors in play as well. Romney is obviously feeling the heat from the Gingrich surge. Many Romney supporters I’ve talked to think Fox is biased against him. But at the end of the day the simple fact is he had a bad interview. All candidates do, and I hardly think this is anything like a fatal moment in his campaign.