A good debate that reminds us by now that all that was to be said has already been said.
Romney was Romney: He didn’t do any damage to either Gingrich or Perry, nor did any candidate draw blood from him. Pundits can assess whether his continual tortoise-like slow and steady consistency is winning the race as the other hares race ahead only to fade. I think his strategy now is still to seem staid, sober, and judicious, and to outsource attacking Gingrich to hundreds of critics who far better are pointing out the latter’s contradictions that are not limited to the past, but seem to grow organically. Romney does best when he is not on the attack, but is explaining the private sector and faulting Obama. He is now getting much better at explaining away his two vulnerabilities — the flip-flopping charge and the Massachusetts health-care plan. We have arrived at a weird state in which we would rather listen to and cringe at an exciting and sometimes loose-cannon Gingrich than to a more reliable Romney. My sense is that Gingrich surges ahead each debate, then like the tide falls back as yet another op-ed points out yet another past or present contradiction.
Gingrich has the flair for the melodramatic moment, as in “The first thing I would do as president would be to . . .” and usually some good things follow, like an executive order withholding federal funds to sanctuary cities that flout federal law. But just when the audience appreciates that forthrightness (sort of a professorial version of Perry’s Texism), Gingrich turns to the utterly impracticable, like dressing down (or worse) federal judges (he will quietly drop all that soon, I think, despite all his allusions to his past judicial criticism). His academic mode can become condescending, especially in his pat-on-the-head-like dismissals of Bachmann. He can’t quite deal with the Freddie Mac charges, and needs to admit that his fee was as unwise as the Pelosi commercials or the recent Bain left-wing critique. Gingrich doesn’t deal well with criticism or with practical implementation — but 90 percent of his ideas are impressive and weighty. The other 10 percent are better unsaid.
Perry is now coming off more statesmanlike, as a Sam Houston, ramrod-straight, simplifying issues into a matter of tough Texan yes or no. He is much better than before, but, and unfairly so, each little slide into something different — like his initial Tebow reference or turning the Congress into a part-time legislature — brings memories of past strangeness instead of offering levity or creativity. One gets the impression that when Perry does well, like tonight, it still is not enough, which suggests his earlier disastrous debates in the end have not have mattered all that much.
Santorum and Bachmann are now resembling each other: Both are the most consistently conservative, especially on social issues, and they are factual and may be the best informed. But because they are still far behind in the polls, they find themselves in perpetual attack-dog mode, which I don’t think is comfortable for either. Both have to fight for air time to spotlight themselves and their records. “I,” “me,” and “my” are more common in their retorts, as if they must cram everything but the kitchen sink into their small sound bites. They seem aware of the dilemma that they are not naturally self-referential or in-your-face attackers, but cannot afford at this point to do much differently. If we were to read transcripts of the debate and not watch or listen to TV, both would be at or near the top.
Huntsman is fluent in his commentary and has facts at his fingertips, but he strangely suffers from the impression that he somehow is not very conservative when in fact everything he says usually is. Is the problem his preppie image that makes it hard for a John Lindsay or Charles Percy look-alike to come off like a Reagan? Somehow he defines almost every issue — from immigration to foreign policy — in terms of a weak economy: true, but also a debating cop-out. At times, Huntsman seems to know that if he expands too much further on an answer, he will move leftward, and he might turn off his conservative audience — and so wisely stops while ahead.
Ron Paul’s isolationism got a little eerie tonight; he seemed to fault the U.S. for radical Islamic terrorism on the rise in the Middle East, especially in the context of Iran. Fairly or not, he always seems to cite the U.S. as a causal agent for radical Islamic violence, which is not borne out by the facts. In short, Paul seems oblivious that he ends up parroting the Muslim world’s critique against America. Paul doesn’t remember 1962 very well, since Kennedy practiced brinkmanship, not, as he implied, dialogue with Khrushchev. (In this regard, Huntsman citing George Kennan for a wrongheaded sort of unthinking Cold War containment that haunts us today is ahistorical; Keenan was a reluctant Cold War warrior who seemed to become ever less so as he aged and argued for flexibility in response.) Paul has a strange ability at once to sound eminently sensible in his critiques of the present mess and yet bizarre in his remedies for the problems he so ably defined. I think he marginalized himself tonight more than usual. Why is it that Paul seems to act as if attacks against him reflect some larger sort of unfairness?