On Tuesday evening, eight Republican Party candidates vying for their party’s nomination for the right to challenge Barack Obama in 2012 went for each other – but mostly at Mitt Romney – in an effort to slow down his now steady advance towards the nomination. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
In this most recent debate, held on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the would-be nominees sat around a circular table, all friendly and intimate like they were at supper together, along with veteran talk show host and moderator Charlie Rose and a reporter each from the Washington Post and Bloomberg Business News, co-sponsors of the event.
New Hampshire will – presumably – still be the state with the first actual primary in early January 2012, unless Florida jumps ahead of the queue to claim the first date with votes that matter. Analysts were busy arguing that this New Hampshire debate marks the beginning of the real horse race, even though the would-be candidates have already been jousting for months and months. There are still innumerable debates to watch on television, but from now on, the candidates will be zigzagging across New Hampshire in earnest, speaking obsessively in town hall meetings and in private homes over coffee and cake, and shaking hands in front of factory gates at sunrise in the midst of the New England winter. No one conscious will be able to escape this onslaught as television, radio, internet and social media will be inundated with attack ads – and ads attacking the other, earlier attack ads.
But during this past Tuesday’s debate, the discussion was supposed to be limited to the economy and government budget issues. From all the repetition by candidates of their preplanned talking points and sometimes off-target zingers from the candidates against each other, some things are now clear. The first is that Mitt Romney’s slow but steady march forward has opened up a gap between himself and the rest of the horde. It’s true he is never going to be the enchanted prince for dyed-in-the-wool social or economic conservatives and miscellaneous Tea Party types, but it is growing clearer and clearer that at some point, they will have to hold their noses and line up behind him. As part of this movement, the party’s “establishment” has already begun to line up behind him – just as New Jersey Governor Christie did, just before the debate began, thereby doing what Republicans almost always do – line up behind the man who is next in line for the nomination. (The contrast with the style of Democrats is astonishing: Dems, when they don’t have an incumbent president, they usually resort to circular firing squads to determine who their candidate will be.)
As for Texas Governor Rick Perry, despite his taking more time to prep for this debate (and following advice to get more sleep so he doesn’t look quite so much like the student who was partying too hard to do the readings) still is not-yet-ready-for-prime-time in the rough-and-tumble of a national campaign. On Tuesday night, for Perry, odd ramblings about energy independence became his all-purpose answer to virtually everything that came his way – even health care and the tax code.
Then there was businessman (and newest great hope of the Tea Party wing) Herman Cain and his “9-9-9” tax plan. This has been a clever marketing tool and it has helped propel him to second place in the polls among likely Republican primary voters. But this mix of flat 9% corporate income tax, 9% personal income tax and a 9% national sales tax rates is so thin on detail that even Cain is hard-pressed to explain how it will work, let alone get it passed by Congress or supported by voters obviously reluctant to add taxes to the lower end of the income spectrum. By the end of the night, 9-9-9 had become the butt of jokes about whether it was the price of a take-out pizza or the so-called Book of Revelations’ sign of the beast, 6-6-6, but just written upside down to confuse the gullible.
Michele Bachmann had her trademark confusion over reality and make-believe over the meaning of the debt ceiling debate; Ron Paul insisted that America’s original sin was the evil Federal Reserve Bank and the even eviler Ben Bernanke; Rick Santorum ended with a homily on the Greek origins of the word economics in the word for “home”; while Jon Huntsman kept weighing in with jokes that didn’t parse – or even make sense. Curiously Newt Gingrich had the finest patter, but it was virtually impossible to figure out what he actually was in favour of this night. And, oh yes, all eight of these people really, really think government is the enemy – or at least say so. But this leaves begging the questions: if it is really the enemy, why, precisely do they want to be in charge of it? What do they want to do with all this money and power?
In fact, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the candidates were onto chanting the devil’s many devious names – Barack Obama, Beelzebub, Tim Geithner, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Ben Bernanke, El Diablo, Aeshmã Daevã, Barney Frank, Abaddon, Aldormanndiobla, Apollyon, Belial, Berith, Chris Dodd, Demogorgon, Eblis, Ebru Labadon, Ordog, Hiisi, Supay, Velnias and Velns. (In case you weren’t sure about some of these, Congressman Barney Frank and former Senator Chris Dodd are supposedly responsible for forcing the banks to issue all those sub-prime mortagages that helped bring on the financial crisis of 2008.) Watching this display of deep fervour, one kept waiting to see the eight would-be nominees break out their silver crosses and garlic cloves every time any one of them uttered those dreaded names or the words, “federal government”.
To this watcher, it still seems virtually incomprehensible how this group of adults can continue to excoriate the national government, even as they muddy the waters by fiercely defending Medicare (a big, big federal program passed as an element of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” welfare initiative) as an integral part of the American dream even as they berate “Obamacare”. This is especially true since Medicare is a classic government, single-payer socialised medicine program while “Obamacare” works through those private insurance companies. Maybe it doesn’t really matter: Perry was too busy explaining how energy independence will put everyone back to work, Romney was explaining how his health care plan in Massachusetts was the same and very different for health insurance from Obama’s plan; Bachmann was busy explaining that the debt ceiling was a license to steal for Obama, while the rest of them were occupied with still quirkier theories about the nature of the universe.
Watching this debate, however, just about drove this writer – at three in the morning local time, mind you – to hunt down his copy of the transcriptions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates from their Illinois Senate contest in 1858, and read that instead of staying with the broadcast. Those two men had had head-to-head public debates across their state where each of them would speak for an hour a piece, develop finely honed arguments, quote Scripture, Locke, Burke, Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, and then give each other the full brunt of their rhetoric and intellect – on slavery, constitutional issues and public morality. The resulting texts are still read as models of the form.
While no one is going to read this debate’s transcript a 150 years, or even 150 hours from now, interested readers can read the wildly funny, as-it-happened blog by Time magazine correspondent Michael Scherer to see exactly what they missed by not staying up all night. But one thing is clear – unless someone discovers a scandal in the Mitt Romney family saga that is worse than his long-haul vacation drive with his pet mutt strapped to the roof of the family station wagon – the ex-Massachusetts governor and serial policy flip-flopper, the same man who knows how to create jobs the way he did with Bain and Co. when he laid off hundreds, the man who has been running for president since about 2006, that that man is going to be the Republican Party’s candidate in 2012. This is increasingly clear, even if the Tea Party true believers have to be bludgeoned into some sort of tepid enthusiasm by the less than rapturous Republican Party elders. When that happens, there will finally be a debate worth watching: Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Now that will be worth staying up for. DM
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