Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mitt Romney Clinched The Republican Nomination

Michael Barone - At about 10:28pm tonight, as Mitt Romney pivoted from a question on tax loopholes and started in with, “the real issue is vision,” I had recorded this thought in my notes, “He just clinched the nomination.”
Romney said, as he often has, that Barack Obama has put America on the road to decline and is trying to make America more like Europe. He made reference to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as he often has—which helps to explain why he polls about as well with supporters of the tea party movement, who revered and often reference the Founding documents, as with non-supporters—and proclaimed that the question in this election was whether America was going to remain “a unique nation”and whether it would “return to the principles on which it was founded.” To which Newt Gingrich then meekly concurred, adding some caveats.
The only things following were an interchange between Jon Huntsman and Romney on how we should deal with China, in which Romney held his own and then, after the commercial break, the silly question about what you’d be doing on Saturday night if you weren’t running for president and debating.
Romney’s performance throughout showed discipline, preparation and also the ability to adapt to circumstances in a way that was superior to that of any other candidate. The only exception was his astonished reaction to George Stephanopoulos’s attempt to get the candidates to join Rick Santorum’s urge to relitigate the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case which, on ridiculously spurious constitutional grounds, overturned that state’s unenforced law (Massachusetts still had a similar one on the books) purporting to ban the sale of contraceptives. Stephanopoulos, who otherwise has made an almost Russert-like transition from partisan operative to fair-minded journalist, seemed to be trying to get the Republican candidates in trouble; the audience’s boos were an indication that many people were onto this (uncharacteristic, for him) partisan gameplaying.
Romney was prepared at the beginning to attack Barack Obama as a job-destroyer, to proclaim that he was not just a manager, as Rick Santorum claimed, but a leader, to come out with a claim (which I had not seen him make earlier) that his work in private equity created, net, 100,000 jobs. Perhaps that will be debunked by others, and you can quibble about whether he deserves credit for job growth in firms he created or helped run after they had been sold to others; but if it can be defended (as I suspect it can) it’s impressive: how many other private citizens have played key roles in creating 100,000 jobs? Romney mostly (I think entirely) avoided attacking other candidates and wasn’t on the receiving end of many attacks after he parried Rick Santorum’s attempt to dismiss him as a manager.
What else went on? Some of the candidates in the battle for second place in New Hampshire bloodied each other up in the first half of the debate. Newt Gingrich defended himself against Ron Paul’s charge that he was a chicken hawk at some length; Paul persisted in his claim, citing his own military service (without noting that the doctor draft law resulted in the draft of married men, unlike the general draft law: I know because it sent my father, a physician, to Korea in January 1953 at the age of 32 and with thre children).
Paul went after Santorum, as pro-Paul ads have, as a big government conservative and big spender who voted to raise the debt ceiling and worked for lobbyists after he involuntarily left the Senate. Santorum defended himself competently, but that consumed more of his air time than he surely liked. Paul was irritated that the questioners brought up his old newsletters and whether he would run as a third party candidate; he seemed to make it pretty clear that he wouldn’t. Rick Perry took a shot at Paul too, hoping to limit his upward potential or send his numbers downward.
Rick Santorum, having spoken at more than a dozen New Hampshire events since his virtual tie for first place in the Iowa caucuses, didn’t get a chance to speak at anything like that length. My sense is that he was far less able than Romney—less adroit in changing the subject perhaps—to pivot into presenting the positive case for his candidacy and was willing, as he so often is, to expatiate at length on issues which are peripheral to most voters and on which his views, while intellectually defensible, do not necessarily pitch him forward with voters.
Newt Gingrich didn’t show the angriness that he did on Iowa caucus night, which many have argued have helped propel his numbers downward. Many of his answers were fascinating—I didn’t know about the Northern Passage issue about whether (I’m guessing a bit here) high-tension lines sending electricity from Quebec Hydro from Canada to New Hampshire and the Boston area should be above or below ground—and he sketched out a grand vision on infrastructure (Romney basically said government has to keep bridges and roads in decent shape).
Jon Huntsman was given a chance to show his wares and did so with varying effectiveness. In the ridiculous interchange on contraception—there really is no reason for Stephanopoulos to have brought this forward than to hurt the Republican candidates—he notes wryly and with the further elaboration that none of us were seeking that he had seven children: good for him (and the Huntsman girls we’ve seen on the campaign trail do seem to be really intelligent and nice).
As for Rick Perry, he was as good as he has been in these debates and, his New Hampshire office having been shuttered this week, he aimed his comments straight at Republican voters in South Carolina, just as he shot that coyote that was threatening his dog. I have to say that if I had made that horrifying 53 second brain freeze I would be reluctant ever to appear in public again; give Perry credit for doing so readily, often, with good humor, and improving his game as he went forward. That says something significantly positive about him. He hit Ron Paul on earmarks, made the point that he has commanded 20,000 troops, took on what he called (with some justification, I think) the Obama administration’s war against religion and against religious service providers, called forthrightly for renegotiating with the Iraqi government and sending troops back into Iraq (though he didn’t state it in that order). When asked at the end where he’d be on Saturday night if he were not running, he said, “At the shooting range.” South Carolina, here we come.
Bottom line: Romney advanced his standing. Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and Huntsman probably didn’t. Perry kept himself in the race for South Carolina, where if none of those four guys exceed expectations (Huntsman’s metric) in New Hampshire he might turn out to be Romney’s most vocal if not most widely supported opponent.