In the Arena

Newt’s FullaBluster

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Charleston, South Carolina

Debates, like life, just ain’t fair. Newt Gingrich “won” the debate last night with an opening 5-minute tirade against  CNN’s John King, ABC News and the liberal media who–I love this part–“protect Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.” King’s crime was to raise the accusations that Newt’s ex-wife Marianne made against him on ABC News last night. Gingrich “won” because his were the most passionate, red-meat sound bites on the news this morning, his attack was the headline–We the Media just can’t resist navel-gazing when a politician goes ballistic on us. Interesting thing, though: the rest of the debate wasn’t all that good for Gingrich.He had his moments, but Rick Santorum mounted the most successful sustained attack on Gingrich we’ve seen so far at one of these:

  I will give Newt Gingrich his due on grandiose ideas and grandiose projects.  I will not give him his — his — his due on executing thoseprojects, which is exactly what the president of the United States is supposed to do. Four years into his speakership, he was thrown out by the conservatives.  It was a coup against him in ‘03.  I served with him.  I was there.  I knew what the problems were going on in the House of Representatives when Newt Gingrich was leading this — leading there.  It was an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together.

Gingrich responded with a paean to the American ability to think “grandiose” thoughts. It was the first time I’d seen Gingrich misuse the English language during these debates–a simple “grand” would have sufficed. He was, I thought, rattled.

In fact, if life were fair, Santorum would have gotten a lot more credit for his performance in Charleston last night. He’s a former prosecutor and for the first time his prosecutorial abilities were apparent, as he went after both Romney and Gingrich directly and on matters of substance and character. This was in sharp contrast to Gingrich whose best bullyragging moments always come at the expense of debate moderators, who are constrained by their roles and unprepared to respond in any case. In fact, Gingrich has gone flaccid almost every time an opportunity to attack a fellow candidate has presented itself. It reminded me of something: Gingrich was all bluster about his ability to take down Bill Clinton, but when they got into a small room and fought over the government shutdown in 1995, Clinton took him to the cleaners.

But back to Santorum. Isn’t it amazing that this politician, one of the more extreme members of his party, has emerged as the average-guy voice of consistency in these debates? He had a lovely moment when asked about releasing his taxes. He said he did his taxes himself. They were on the computer back home. He’d release them when he got home. Compare that to Romney’s embarrassing prevarications–and Newt’s Tiffany cruise ship lifestyle. Santorum summarized his attack on Gingrich with this:

“I’m not the most flamboyant and I don’t get the biggest applause lines here, but I’m steady. I’m solid. I’m not going to go out and do things that you’re going to worry about.”

Santorum’s attack on Gingrich’s character was more successful than his attack on Romney’s and Gingrich’s support for a mandated health insurance delivery system. Romney defended his Massachusetts mandate well enough–in fact, he acquitted himself well enough across the board, much better than in the last debate, with the exception of his continued, and decidedly mysterious, evasion of the tax return question. He had a really terrible moment when King asked if he would release the last 12 years of his returns, as his father, George Romney, had. “Maybe,” Romney said–in an attempt, I thought, to ape Gingrich’s acerbic successes–and was booed by the audience.

But Romney clearly got the memo on passion. He turned Newt’s rather lame attack on his record at Bain Capital into an attack on the President:

“I know we’re going to get hit hard [on Bain] from President Obama, but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.”

 Capitalism and freedom is not, of course, the issue. The rapacious style of capitalism that has dominated the marketplace over the past 30 years is the issue. Bain was one of the more responsible practitioners, but what about the overall affect of a business plan that (a)skyrocketed executive compensation and (b)traded equity for ballooning debt and (c)emphasized short-term results over long-term development? Was that good for the country? That’s the question I hope Obama will ask when the time comes.

In fact, after a full immersion in these Republican candidates, I’m really looking forward to a strong dose of Obama when he delivers the State of the Union message on Tuesday. It will interesting to see how fresh, how compelling and convincing his message is.