Simi Valley, Calif. — If you needed any proof that politics can sometimes be a bit cutthroat, you could find it in the Spin Room after the Republican presidential debate here at the Reagan Library Thursday night. Not in the stuff people said for the cameras and the microphones, but in what they said in whispered tones.
“McCain looked like something out of The Shining, that part where Jack Nicholson goes GGGRRRRRR!” confided one adviser from a rival campaign.
“McCain looked like that guy down the street who yells at you to get off his lawn,” said one reporter.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Sen. John McCain’s surrogates in the Spin Room, preferred the word “passionate.” But the fact is, McCain did look a little overeager, or maybe overcaffeinated, at the beginning of the debate. But he was overeager and overcaffeinated in favor of tracking down Osama bin Laden, a position which, given that bin Laden is still at large more than five years after 9/11, seems unlikely to meet with much disapproval.
“He’s responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans,” McCain said of bin Laden. “He’s now orchestrating other attacks on the United States of America. We will do whatever is necessary. We will track him down. We will capture him. We will bring him to justice, and I will follow him to the gates of hell.”
Reading the transcript of the debate, the answer seems both solid and catchy. But the transcript does not show the strange little smile McCain made after he said “gates of hell.” Maybe he was relishing the prospect of getting bin Laden. Maybe he just liked saying “gates of hell” in a nationally televised political debate. In any event, like much of McCain’s performance Thursday night, it looked better in print than on TV.
McCain’s answer was in reaction to a flip-flop by Mitt Romney on the bin Laden question. A few weeks ago, the former Massachusetts governor told the Associated Press, “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” (That one person would be bin Laden.) Instead, Romney argued, the United States should have a broader policy targeting Islamic terrorists.
At the Reagan Library, Romney took a different approach. It’s obviously possible to go after bin Laden and have a broad-based policy against Islamic jihadists, and when he was asked about the AP quote Thursday night, Romney seemed to get it. “Of course we get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go, and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted upon America,” Romney said.
“Can we move heaven and earth to do it?” asked moderator Chris Matthews.
“We’ll move everything to get him,” Romney answered. “But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another…This is a global effort we’re going to have to lead to overcome this jihadist effort. It’s more than Osama bin Laden. But he is going to pay, and he will die.”
If Romney had said that to the Associated Press, he wouldn’t have had to explain himself at the debate. Afterwards, his advocates argued that what Romney said onstage was no different from what he has been saying all along. “I think Gov. Romney’s answer on that bin Laden question was far more thoughtful and far more insightful about the true nature of the war on terror than the people who were simply cheerleaders for getting bin Laden,” said Romney policy chief Vin Weber. “He didn’t try to simply go for a cheap applause line on Osama bin Laden.”
“Are you saying that someone who pledged to, say, follow bin Laden to the gates of hell was going after a cheap applause line?”
“No, I’m not saying that,” Weber answered — with a smile.
Romney’s bin Laden backtrack was perhaps the only misstep in an otherwise strong performance. Romney sometimes turns off people by looking too polished and too perfect — the man who looks like the man for the job — but on Thursday night, he knew his stuff.
So two of the top three candidates — Romney and McCain — gave generally strong performances. The third — Rudy Giuliani — did not. The former New York mayor botched a question on abortion so badly that it’s unclear whether he will ever learn how to discuss the issue in the context of Republican presidential politics — a significant handicap for someone running for the Republican presidential nomination.
It started when host Matthews asked a simple question. “Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?” The other candidates made quick work of the answer.
“Absolutely,” said Romney.
“A glorious day of human liberty and freedom,” said Sen. Sam Brownback.
“Yes, it was wrongly decided,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
“Most certainly,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“Yes,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter.
Then the question came to Giuliani. “It would be O.K.,” he said.
“O.K. to repeal?” asked Matthews.
“It would be O.K. to repeal,” Giuliani said. “It would be also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent and I think a judge has to make that decision.”
“Would it be O.K. if they didn’t repeal it?” Matthews pressed.
“I think the court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it. We’re a federalist system of government and states can make their own decisions.”
That exchange boiled down to Giuliani saying, It’s O.K. if Roe is overturned, and it’s O.K. if it’s not. Later, in the Spin Room, Giuliani adviser Bill Simon was asked if that constituted a solid position on the issue.
“I think what he was saying was that the fact that Roe v. Wade was overruled or not overruled, it could happen either way,” Simon answered. “What he’s in favor of is appointing strict constructionist judges.” Such judges, Simon explained, might overturn Roe, or they might not.
But is that a position on the issue?
“I don’t think he was wishy-washy at all,” Simon continued. “In fact, he has a very well thought-through position. It’s very nuanced. It’s not something that you can say in one sound bite in 15 seconds.”
A few moments later, Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime made much the same argument. But the fact is, Giuliani’s answer virtually screamed out that he is not comfortable talking about the topic before Republican audiences. Pollsters estimate that single-issue voters on abortion make up between nine and 13 percent of the electorate, and most of them are on the pro-life side. Giuliani has not found a way to tell them that he disagrees with them but still respects them and will not work against them as president. He has not been able to say, “I am what I am, but my other strengths are such that you should still support me.” That would clearly be a gamble, but it’s the best hope Giuliani has. As it is now, his answer Thursday night gave no hint that he’ll handle the question any better the next time — and there will be lots of next times when the issue is abortion.
On the other hand, Giuliani spent much of the evening playing to his strength, which is his pre-9/11 record in New York. In addition, he deftly handled a gotcha question on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. But the abortion issue is such a festering sore in his campaign that he simply has to find a better way to handle it.
Of course, there were ten candidates on the stage Thursday night, a stage oddly positioned near the rear landing gear of Ronald Reagan’s old 707 Air Force One in a hangar-like building near the main library. Of the non-Big Three, the candidate who helped himself the most was former Gov. Huckabee. Early in the debate, he gave a simple and straightforward account of some of George W. Bush’s mistakes in Iraq, starting with the question of whether he would have fired former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
“I think I would’ve done that before the election,” Huckabee answered. “I certainly wouldn’t have said that we are not going to do it and then, right after the election, done so. But that’s the president’s call.”
“Clearly there was a real error in judgment, and that primarily had to do with listening to a lot of folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties and not listening enough to the generals with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chest. Those generals told us, early on, it would take 300,000 troops to successfully go in and stabilize Iraq. Instead we gave them a limited number of troops and a budget and said, you have to do it with this.”
Huckabee could have said a lot more, but in his answer lay a glimpse of what the candidates will have to do in coming months to show the voters they can think critically, and for themselves, on the issue of Iraq, as well as other aspects of the Bush presidency. They’ll have to be diplomatic, but they’ll have to be clear: Vote for me and we’ll move past the Bush years. That might not be enough to win, given the headwind against Republican candidates these days. But on the stage at the Reagan Library Thursday night, there were several men who could do it.