Who knew the only Mormon on the stage would turn out to be a betting man?
The ABC debate opened with questions about how many jobs each candidate would promise to create, and by what date. Only Mitt Romney took the bait, promising to create 11.5 million jobs in four years. That’s an impossible promise to fulfill; the other candidates rightly took the opportunity to speak on their own plans, and Rick Santorum finally rejected the gotcha question outright.
The line of the night came just before the half hour mark, when Newt Gingrich tightened up a grin on his face and described his work for Freddie Mac as “private sector.” He made $1.6 million as the government sponsored enterprise’s “historian.” He piled on top of that, saying that he wasn’t a lobbyist, he “offered strategic advice.” So he was an unregistered lobbyist. He only obtained that work because of his political influence. Let’s be charitable and call Gingrich’s characterization of that work as “private sector” as laughable.
Michele Bachmann attempted to marry up the two front-runners, repeatedly calling them “Newt Romney” while linking their similar policy positions. She earned blowback when Gingrich responded by saying that much of what she says simply isn’t true.
Rick Perry started off a little slow but hit one over the fence when he went after both Romney and Gingrich for supporting the individual mandate. Romney’s response was weak, essentially: “I didn’t do what my record clearly says I did.” Newt let off another howler, claiming that most conservatives supported the individual mandate as a way of stopping HillaryCare. The Heritage Foundation did, as did some Beltway Republicans. Conservatives out here in flyover country, not so much. The mandate was never a popular idea with the base, and Santorum did well to bring that up.
Perry and Romney argued over the content of Romney’s book (the first, unedited edition) and Romney offered a $10,000 bet over it. Way to show you’re a man of the people, Mr. Moneybags. That’s a few months’ salary to most Americans that you’re laying on the line. Perry didn’t take the bait. Romney’s first book edition does insinuate that his Massachusetts health care reform, which included an individual mandate to purchase insurance or face fines, could be a model for the rest of the nation. The paperback edition omits that.
After a break, the debate turned to family values. This issue area is not Gingrich’s fortress, to say the least. First question went to Perry, who noted that his vow wasn’t just with his wife but also with God, and then said it’s fair to wonder whether someone who has cheated on his wife would cheat on their business partners or the voters. Santorum, next up, said pretty much the same thing. Paul won applause for tying vows to the oaths of office that elected officials take, declaring that if our elected officials actually stuck to their oaths, we would have “80 percent less government” along with sound money, more prosperity, no world police actions, and no Patriot Act. Romney delivered a forgettable answer. Bachmann referred to the Federalist Papers, in which she said the founders looked to character first. All of this was arranged to tee up Newt Gingrich’s answer to the question of character. As he answered and said he had made mistakes, ABC chose to cut away to his third wife, Callista. Gingrich said that it’s a valid issue and the voters have the right to “ask every question.”
The debate moved to immigration, and Gingrich reiterated his position that we should set up draft board-style reviews to deal withe the “hard cases,” people who have been here for 25 years. That’s an interesting timeline to use. Twenty-five years ago takes us to 1986, when Gingrich voted for the last major amnesty for illegal aliens. Many aliens here at the time did not make the grade for amnesty and were left out. If they stuck around all these 25 years, Gingrich would give them another bite at the apple. The 1986 amnesty was supposed to fix the problem of having about 3 million illegal aliens residing in the U.S. There are now nearly 20 million. Romney’s answer was better, just enforce the law without favoritism toward those who have evaded the law the longest, and Perry’s answer was stronger still — none of these discussions matter until the border is truly secured first. Enforce the laws currently on the books, then it may be possible to answer the hard but statistically marginal questions that Sawyer put at the front of her questioning.
Turning to foreign policy, George Stephanopolous asked Ron Paul if Newt Gingrich was right or wise to describe the Palestinians as an “invented people,” as he did today. No, said Ron Paul. Gingrich stood by it and detailed the eliminationist rhetoric of Hamas and Fatah. Romney said Gingrich was mostly right but should not have called the Palestinians “invented.” Gingrich refused to back down, noting that the term “Palestinian” was not in common usage until 1977. Romney called Gingrich a “bomb thrower.” Gingrich capped the exchange by noting that Reagan went around his foreign policy establishment to tell the truth about the USSR, and Newt would do the same regarding the Middle East. The exchange drew out a real difference between Romney and Gingrich. Romney would seek “consensus” while Gingrich would lead on truth and from the gut. Perry said the “invented” controversy itself was essentially invented, and went on to hammer President Obama’s weak foreign policy. “This president is the problem,” noted Perry, “not something Newt Gingrich said.” Deserved applause ensued.
After a break, Diane Sawyer fired a Twitter question at the candidates regarding when was the last time any of them had to cut back on personal expenses. This was a question straight from the Occupy movement. Everyone knows that politics, like major media, is a rich person’s game. Of course none of the candidates have had to cut back on their own expenses recently. The business of politics is booming like never before. Such a question will not be asked in a Democratic debate. Sawyer should be required to answer such a question herself. Perry answered by noting that he grew up poor. Romney noted that he didn’t, but his father did, and his parents made sure he didn’t spend needlessly (wonder what she would make of that $10,000 bet) and knew to have concern for others.
The moderators tonight were often low key to the point of boring, and neither brought much unexpected or interesting to the debate. The toughest questions all came from the left. The candidates were all well prepared, and Gingrich was clearly ready to play defense much of the night. He withstood the heat well, but the two mischaracterizations of his work for Freddie Mac may haunt him. Romney’s inexplicable bet offer may haunt him. If Rick Santorum had been a governor and could present himself as less sour, he might be at or near the top instead of the bottom of the pack. Michele Bachmann had one of her strongest nights but her obvious panders to Herman Cain’s supporters felt desperate. Ron Paul was fortunate that foreign policy and 9-11 did not play a greater role in the questioning. A single question about his views of 9-11 could well sink him, but debate moderators never ask him about it. Rick Perry had his strongest debate to date. Being less of a target may have loosened him up. When the moderators asked the candidates to name something that they have learned from their competitors, Perry said he learned about the Fed from Paul, but more importantly learned that wherever he goes, the American people deeply want to get the country back on track. It was his most Reaganesque moment since his announcement speech in August.
Mitt Romney ended up taking every bit as much heat as Newt Gingrich. Neither is likely to profit much from tonight’s debate, which is a net win for Gingrich. It remains to be seen whether Perry or Bachmann or Paul have it in them to overtake either of them.