I’m one of those idiots who’ve watched every publicized debate of the Republican primaries thus far. I’m a liberal. I’m very liberal. But I’ve watched the debates because — as I teach my students — it’s my duty as a citizen to be an informed voter. While I won’t be voting in my state’s Republican primary, one of these gentlemen will be running in the general election, and I want to know as much about them as possible.
The debates aren’t the only place to learn about them, of course. I could visit their election websites and read up on their positions; I could track down their records to find out how they’ve actually voted on the issues; I could read their books to analyze what kinds of minds they have; etc.
But the debates are perhaps the only time we’ll see these men gathered in a room, forced to confront someone else who’s interest runs into conflict with their own: they all want that seat in the Oval Office, and they don’t want any of their fellow Republicans (let alone the President) to stand in their way. Between the heat of their opponents and the heat of the television cameras, the debates give us the best opportunity to see how these candidates hold up under fire.
It’s not just about “fire” though. The debates also show us how these candidates think on their feet.
That might be the most disappointing thing about Governor Mitt Romney. At almost every moment, it’s possible to see behind his rhetoric to the political machination that drives his speech. The narrative on Governor Romney is that, much like Senator John Kerry in 2004, his sense of humanity is robotic; he has, as they say, an empathy problem, one that probably stems from being incredibly rich.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way his political ambition looms larger than anything he says on stage. Where the debates are supposed to show us how the politicians think on their feet, with Governor Romney, all we get are the words and phrases that will get him closer to his goal.
The best example of this was his response to the final question in last week’s debate in Arizona. The CNN moderator asked the candidates to explain what the public’s biggest misconception about them might be. Congressman Paul believed the misconception was the media’s insistence that he could not win in a general election, despite a recent poll showing that Paul is the only Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in November. Speaker Gingrich said he wished people understood how much work went into his achievements as Speaker of the House (a balanced Federal budget, welfare reform, low unemployment, etc.). Senator Santorum gave an answer similar to Congressman Paul’s, except his argument did not rest on a poll; rather, it spoke to the fact that the election against the President will be much like his primary race against Governor Romney: he’ll have to “do a lot with a little” in order to defeat an opponent who has the support of the media and a seemingly unlimited treasure of funds.
Governor Romney, however, decided to give a concluding statement rather than answer the question. About twenty seconds into his answer, the moderator reminded him that the question had to do with the people’s misconception about him, but the governor responded, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers that I want.” And then he continued to give what sounded like the final paragraph from his stump speech.
It reminded me of the argumentative technique he displayed in his encounter with an AP reporter who doubted his words in a campaign stop at Staples. Instead of debating the reporter on the grounds of the argument, the governor just repeated the same phrase over and over again.
What these events revealed was that Governor Romney doesn’t actually “think on his feet.” He has a thing he needs to say, and he says it, again and again, regardless of what the person across from him says in his response.
Between those two interactions, it’s easy to see the man who once drove from Massachusetts to Canada with a dog strapped to the roof of his car, and it’s even easier to understand why most polls have President Obama defeating the governor by between five and ten points.
Weirdly enough, with his wins in Arizona and Michigan last night, Romney is close to clinching the nomination. He still has to make it through Super Tuesday, when half of the required delegates go up for grabs, but with last night’s victories, the momentum is his to lose. His only real competitor at this point is Senator Rick Santorum, and though I might be a liberal, if I were a member of the Republican base, Senator Santorum would be the only candidate who would speak to me.
Here’s the thing about the senator. You have to give him some credit for being a man of his convictions. Even on the issue that gave him the most trouble at the Arizona debates — his vote for No Child Left Behind coupled with his promise to repeal No Child Left Behind — you could see his conviction at work. On that particular issue, the conviction that held sway in his decision was not that parents and local communities should be in charge of their schools, but that members of a party should support their leader. While he admits to making a mistake in voting for No Child Left Behind, he makes a reasonable argument for why he voted against his conscious.
Don’t get me wrong. President Santorum would be a horrible thing for this country. Not only would we be at war with Iran within the first eighteen months of his administration (something that may be true for the other candidates as well, excepting Congressman Paul), but we’d also see some of the most “severely conservative” judges being placed on the nation’s benches (not just Supreme Court judges either). If you add on a Republican majority in the House and Senate, who would most likely support the majority of the paleoconservative president’s agenda, then you start to see how scary a Santorum Administration could be.
But I say all that as a liberal. If I were a member of the Republican base, then a Santorum Administration would be a wet dream of conservative policies.
The other two candidates — Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul — are merely also-rans at this point. I think a Gingrich Administration would be an interesting one, and I fear it a lot less than I fear a Santorum Administration. The Speaker is as much a Washington insider as one could be, and while I wouldn’t agree with most of his policies, I do think his idea on reforming the government based on modern management theory could be interesting (despite the fact I’m not 100% sure what he means). And I get somewhat excited by his combination of ridiculously wacky/ambitious ideas with his proven ability to get things done in Washington. The things he’d want to get done — I’d disagree with probably 98% of it — but there’d at least be some major reforms, even if not in a direction I’d like. His presidency would probably suck for the country, but at least it’d be interesting.
A Paul Administration, on the other hand, would be impotent. They’d have a million ideas on how to change things, but the backing of zero members of Congress would ensure that none of it would get done. He’d be fighting not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.
So that’s the field: an openly-ambitious politician who exudes zero empathy with the middle class; a principled paleoconservative who scares moderates (not to mention a majority of women; in Michigan’s primary, the senator lost “every category of women polled… including working women, single women, and married women”); a self-proclaimed grandiose thinker whose career contains almost as many scandals as his former rival, President Clinton; and a radical libertarian whose various policies offend three hallmarks of the Republican base: defense hawks, the business class, and social conservatives.
As Molly Ball wrote this week in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Can’t The GOP Race Settle Down“:
In Reagan’s day, the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party.
Zero-sum competition requires a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their zero-sum struggle will probably result in the nomination of Governor Romney: a zero man who stands for nothing but his own victory. And that kind of candidate will not win in November.