The best performance in last night’s Republican debate was turned in by Brian Williams of NBC, who somehow managed to avoid having Newt Gingrich jump all over him. Deprived of his usual strawman–the stupid press–Gingrich had to direct his fire at his opponents, especially Mitt Romney, and, as in past debates, that fire was muted. It was, in fact, so muted that Gingrich seemed in danger of fizzling at first. Over time, though, as Romney launched attack after attack, it became apparent that Gingrich was trying out a new debate strategy: acting like a grownup.
It was sort of successful. Romney never got Newt’s goat. Gingrich’s body language was all…now, now, it’s too bad you’re so desperate, but we know why you’re doing this–you’re tanking, friend. This enabled to Gingrich to tacitly address the greatest obstacle he faces now: the perception that he is unstable, grandiose, immature. And there were times when he was deft enough to turn Romney’s attacks to his advantage. When Romney attacked him for lobbying in favor of the Medicare prescription drug plan, Gingrich immediately copped to it–as a citizen, he believed the plan was a good idea. (As a candidate, of course, he was aware that the Medicare prescription drug plan was extremely popular in Florida.)
For his part, Romney leveled the attacks without seeming unhinged. He was persistent without seeming persnickity. And almost all the charges he leveled against Gingrich had a basis in truth–Newt did sign a contract with the lobbying arm of Freddie Mac, he did get kicked out as Speaker by his Republican caucus, he did do the famous cap-and-trade sofa ad with Nancy Pelosi, he has been something less than a model of consistency.
Romney’s trouble came, as always, when he had to talk about himself. He had trouble with his taxes, yet again. And now that we’ve seen the returns, the old Dorothy Parker line comes to mind: “The first million dollars is hard work, the next million is inevitable.” Romney’s $20 million annual income represents a less than 10% return on a fortune of upwards of $200 million. He has become a poster-child for unfairness of the 15% capital gains rate, at least for those over a certain income. The argument is that a lower capital gains rate encourages investment. This might be true in some cases, but what else is a fellow like Romney going to do with his fortune–hide it under his mattress? Indeed, Romney tacitly acknowledges the unfairness of the current system by limiting the capital gains tax reductions in his economic plan to those with incomes less than $250,000.
Romney also had trouble answering Williams’ question about what he’d done to build the conservative movement. “I had a family,” he said, gears clearly spinning. “I built a business…” Eventually, he got around to his record as governor of Massachusetts–which most conservatives see as not very. Gingrich’s response–that he worked 20 years to build a Republican majority in the house–was far more convincing and had the virtue of being accurate…and the additional virtue of discipline: he didn’t use the opportunity to go after Romney. He didn’t need to. Which was, in the end, the real story of this debate: Gingrich is showing signs of being an official grownup. If he can sustain such demeanor, he may actually be able to win the nomination.