Remarkably, the whole cast looked buoyant and came off rather well. Even Rick Perry looked focused and quite in command of himself. That kind of performance earlier could have made for a different race. But now, I’m afraid, he is simply keeping the pieces from being reassembled among the candidates.
In that vein, the choreographic set was noticeably altered: Rick Santorum was no longer put at the far wing. He was now in the center, taking the main place with Mitt and Newt, and to use a line of Henry James, he “grasped his warrant.” He spoke with more confidence and assertiveness, and threw the charges back in Ron Paul’s face when Paul offered his implausible rendering of Santorum’s record as a spender and a “lobbyist.” Mitt was hit at different times, but came through unfazed, not jarred from his good temper. And he took care to make the special point that, quite apart from all of the details for wonks, the election was going to center on the question of the American soul or the American character: Were we going in the direction of Europe, with a welfare state consuming a vastly larger portion of the economy, squeezing out even national defense? Or would we return to the scheme of cutting back notably the reach of the government, giving room and freedom for Americans to be inventive, create jobs, and yes — gasp! — make money.
Romney’s second-best moment came when Rick Santorum opined that experience as an executive in business was not apt preparation to be commander-in-chief. A president couldn’t simply give directions to Congress, or to many independent agencies. He had to persuade and “inspire.” It fell to Romney to point out that “managers” in private business, in a free economy, have to spend their lives trying to satisfy and persuade, to draw customers and employees in a productive way. Executives in business must indeed draw on the same arts as executives in politics.
But there were two other highlights here for me. George Stephanopoulos tried to set a trap for Rick Santorum by asking Romney whether states have the constitutional authority to ban contraception. Romney thought the question odd because no state, he said, has shown an interest in doing that. But of course they haven’t shown an interest in doing that, because the Supreme Court began to bar that kind of restriction in 1965 with the famous case of Griswold v. Connecticut.
Stephanopoulos was about to display his knowledge of constitutional law by recalling that the Supreme Court had found a right to privacy in the Constitution, a right that covered contraception. But Stephanopoulos did not know much beyond that slogan. The Court in that case emphasized a right of contraception for married couples. The liberal justice Byron White concurred, but he left open the possibility that the state could plausibly bar contraception as part of a policy to discourage “promiscuous or illicit sexual relationship[s], be they premarital or extramarital.” It may still be an open question whether a state may act to bar the sale of contraceptives to adolescents. And in dramatic contrast, there has been much talk of late of having local governments mandate the use of contraceptives for actors appearing in pornographic films or men having sex with strangers in bathhouses and clubs. The magic word “privacy” has not put contraception beyond the reach of the law and regulation. Rick Santorum has many good comebacks here, which he should master if the question comes back again. And it’s likely to come back, precisely because the Diane Sawyers and George Stephanopouloses know their constitutional law as something just short of messages read in fortune cookies.
Mitt Romney went out of his way, though, to take the question on contraception as a moment for insisting that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, and that he would seek its overruling. Those words were not strictly needed or useful in appealing to his usual constituency in the Northeast. His move here might be ascribed to his willingness to show that he is really holding to his pro-life position — and perhaps laying the groundwork for South Carolina. I’ve had my reservations in the past on Mitt’s moves and positions, and I know that there’s been something at work making voters hold back from him. But I have met him, and I must confess that, in his steadiness and good temper in these debates, I do find him quite likable. It would be a mistake to discount that asset in him in a run against Obama.
But the best line of the evening came from Newt. Diane Sawyer and another interviewer were offering, as a melancholy problem, the situation of married, same-sex couples in New Hampshire who were seeking to adopt children. If same-sex marriage were repealed or barred, would these people be deprived of the chance to raise children, given up by their natural parents? I despaired of anyone sailing in the premises of the question until Newt broke in at the end.
He pointed up the unexamined screening done here by the people in the media framing the questions. They professed to feel deeply over the children who might not be adopted if gays and lesbians were denied the right to marry. But they curiously failed to notice the telling instances in which organizations like Catholic Charities in Boston have been barred from continuing their service in adoptions precisely because they could not accept gay and lesbian couples as “married.” Newt pointed up, quite rightly and forcefully, the attack on the Church in this mini-war on Christian institutions that do not accept the rightness of the homosexual life. With all the posturing over children not adopted, the Left would sooner see agencies of adoption closed, and children go unadopted, if any person or institution will not accept the new orthodoxy and affirm the rightness of the homosexual life.