Wednesday, October 12, 2011

'Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas'

That's how The Huffington Post sarcastically described the three-ring circus that masqueraded as a GOP presidential debate on the economy last night at Dartmouth College. That much was painfully, laughably obvious. The elegant simplicity of the seminal 1858 debates between two champion American orators was a far cry from the latest knucklehead convention of eight presidential hopefuls, all of them speaking fiction to power, one more artfully than others.

In the end, what happened in Hanover, N.H., was less of the same we've come to expect from the current GOP field. A lot less.

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Herman Cain, the radio talk-show host, author and pizza Godfather, pledged to have a balanced budget his first year in office, and doubled down again on his 9-9-9 tax reform plan, but didn't offer any more specifics about his throng of financial advisers and "economists," only one of which he bothered to name.

Michele Bachmann, the toweringly loony congresswoman from Minnesota, revived the old "death panels" figment, alleging that under "Obamacare," there would be 15 bureaucrats to make health-care decisions for 300 million Americans, despite the fact that no such shadowy, black-helicoptered force will ever exist under the health-care law.

Newt Gingrich, intellectual light of the right, disgraced former House Speaker and Tiffany's 10-K line item, called for the imprisonment of a former member of Congress (former Sen. Chris Dodd) and a current one (Rep. Barney Frank) for the financial reform law that bears their name.

And oh yeah, Texas Gov. Rick Perry showed up at this economics-focused debate without a semblance of an economic plan.

Some have said the Bloomberg/Washington Post-sponsored debate didn't move the needle appreciably in terms of giving voters new perceptions of the candidates. For some of those candidates — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — that was true. But looking at them collectively, including all the others, we learned something: Until last night we never knew just how much of a live-action cartoon cavalcade the field of Republican presidential contenders really is.

What also emerged was the basis for the growing sense that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may be solidifying his unspoken but increasingly obvious presumptive claim to the Republican nomination, months before the primaries begin — and doing it not by winning hearts and minds among rank-and-file Republicans, not by winning in the debates, but by not losing. Which is not exactly the same thing.

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Romney, in his second run for the presidency, was clearly comfortable last night, jousting almost amiably with his challengers, deflecting their criticism, rhetorically intensifying his focus on President Obama as a prospective opponent, and generally floating above the fray of the debate while the other, less experienced candidates flamed out. He made no big gaffes; there won't be much from last night with Romney's name on it to be part of a debate blooper reel.

By virtue of his temperament and his campaign strategy, Mitt Romney is quietly positioning himself to be characterized as the adult in the room. The business and government bona fides he brings to the table, and his previous time on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, combine to make him the definite presumed frontrunner, something of an elder statesman among presidential aspirants this year.

But let's face it, with a field this comically thin, it's not that hard to be the adult in the room. Romney understands this, knows that the rhetorical and intellectual shortage within the current field of candidates plays to his advantage. Or at least it does on paper. Some papers, anyway.

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Other papers aren't so accommodating. If Mitt Romney has been privately savoring the idea of being the presumptive nominee, if there was any hope of finalizing clarity from last night's debate, that went out the window preemptively with Monday's release of the latest NBC News/Marist poll.

In that sampling of Iowa Tea Party Republicans' preference, Herman Cain placed first with 31 percent, followed by frontrunner Mitt Romney, with 15 percent. Perry maintained his lock on third place; Bachmann surges from the back of the pack with 11 percent.

And a few hours ago, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll canvassing Republican voters nationally after the debate found similar results: Cain in first place with 27 percent, Romney in second with 23 percent, Perry the Third, 16 percent, and Ron Paul with 11 percent. The rest of the field? Statistical crickets.

And there in those polls, and others in recent days and weeks, is Romney's dilemma: His eyes are on the prize of Carnegie Hall while he's still hunting up an audience in Washington Square Park; his meme, his message and his demeanor are aimed at a general national electorate, but there's no guarantee he'll get out of the primaries alive. The Tea Party partisans for whom Romney is anathema form no small block of the Republican party loyalists he'll need to win. The location of that NBC/Marist poll is significant: Iowa. Romney needs Iowa not just to stay viable but also to cement the public confidence in him as a frontrunner for the nomination. That poll suggests he's got work to do.

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But a hell of a lot less work than anyone else who showed up at Dartmouth last night. From Cain (whose 9-9-9 plan sounds more like a jingle or an outline than a means of reviving the economy) to Bachmann (who confused her own history as an elected official with life in the private sector, and jabbered about inverting the numbers of Cain's plan [6-6-6] before wisecracking "the devil's in the details") to Gingrich (his majesty, calling for the imprisonment of lawfully elected officials fulfilling the duties of their oath) to Perry (who went to a frat party after the debate and spoke about the United States' origins in the 16th century), the cache of Republican hopefuls for the presidency in 2012 is a sorry-ass lot.

Romney may have some workable ideas for basic changes in the economy, and for putting 14 million unemployed Americans on the road to economic recovery, with jobs. Never mind detail; rather than a slogan or an idea on a cocktail napkin — or no plan at all — Romney's hundreds-pages economic plan has the virtue of even existing as a real plan in the first place. That's more than the other candidates, or half of Congress, can say.

He's gaining traction with voters. He may have what it takes to convince the rest of his country. All he has to do first is convince the rest of his party.

The devil is in the details.

Image credits: Cain: Associated Press. Romney: Reuters.

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