As the Republican Race Turns
Another day, another Republican debate. The race has taken on the shape of a reality TV show; the candidates have been whittled down to a final four who clearly have animosity towards each other. Romney and Gingrich seem to truly hate each other, and they both have a good point; both men are unlikable political hacks. The debates are no longer interesting from a substantive point of view. The log lines have been repeated ad nauseam, but it’s still interesting to watch the interpersonal dynamics. Coming off the tumultuous South Carolina primary there were a few notable differences.
For one, the audience was warned not to applaud. This is generally pro forma, but Gingrich saw this is as another encroachment by the liberal media. He thinks the networks are worried that the debate audience will side with candidates against moderators, as was the case vis a vis Juan Williams and John King. This may be the networks’ line of thinking, but as an impartial observer (ha!) I can attest that the cheering undercuts the gravitas of the event, turning it into a sort of WWE style contest, replete with hoots and hollering.
Speaker Gingrich, thrust into the role of front runner, toned down his attack dog style, instead preferring to remain magnanimous in the face of Romney’s onslaught. In contrast, it was Governor Romney who spent the night attacking.
Stripped of his front runner status, and with the veneer of his inevitably removed, Romney showed just how poor a candidate he truly is. He spent the night stuttering over his attacks on Mr. Gingrich. He seemed desperate, defensive, and callow. He agreed to release last year’s tax returns, but remained unwilling to release more than that. His refusal makes his claim that he has nothing to hide seem specious; everyone knows that Mr. Romney is rich, but he seems embarrassed by his massive wealth. For a man who has built his campaign around his ‘private sector experience’ he has had to be awfully defensive about said experience. Mr. Romney is right to think that his wealth will be distasteful to many Americans: it’s one thing to think of Mr. Romney’s wealth in an abstract way, but to put a hard number to it will illustrate just how much Romney differs from the common voter.
Romney’s attacks mostly fell flat, with Mr. Gingrich chastising him as a “bad historian” whenever he disagreed with Romney’s line of attack. One point where he scored points, in my opinion, was his attack about Gingrich’s lobbying for Medicare Part D. He forced Gingrich into a defense of Medicare Part D, and Mr. Gingrich gamely played the role of big government conservative, arguing that it was sensible for the government to provide some assistance, a line of reasoning that could undercut his attacks on Obamacare. Medicare Part D is immensely popular with seniors, who represent a sizable portion of the Florida Republican base. Gingrich was pandering to the audience, but it could come back to bite him when they get into their inevitable pissing match about who the true conservative is. All the candidates, excepting Ron Paul, pandered to the Floridian audience in response to a question about Fidel Castro and Cuba. They all seemed to be re-fighting the Cold War, with Gingrich going as far to say that he’d favor covert actions to undermine Fidel’s regime.
Gingrich seemed to try and widen his appeal in this debate. Besides his answer about Medicare Part D, he engaged in a strange flirtation with Mr. Paul. He pandered for his support by taking a hard line on the Fed, and expressed some support for the Gold Standard. All in all, Gingrich sharply changed his tone, and offered up less red meat to the Republican establishment. There is talk that they will turn to a heretofore unannounced candidate, if Romney seems incapable of stopping him.
Santorum and Paul were largely afterthoughts. Romney and Gingrich were allowed long stretches where they only spoke to each other. This makes sense, because they are clearly the two frontrunners, but one wonders whether that’s the case because of the media’s affirmation of them as the frontrunners. Gingrich and Romney are like Twain’s Duke and the Dauphin, two con men trying to convince the world and themselves that they aren’t who they appear to be. Gingrich fights the notion that he’s a career politician, an egomaniac, and the living embodiment of all that is wrong with Washington. Romney fights the perception that he’s a plutocratic, technocratic, soulless moderate. But that’s who they are. They’re charlatans, who’ve surged to the front of an extraordinarily weak Republican field. Gingrich is one of the most hated politicians in America, with ridiculously high negative favorability numbers, and Romney is an unskilled politician — precisely the kind of titan of industry America seems to hate right now, but in a Republican field crowded with the likes of Hermain Cain and Michelle Bachman, somehow they are the cream that’s risen to the top.
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