The GOP’s High School Debate: The cool kid vs. the valedictorian

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Here’s one thing you need to know about John McCain. He’s always been the coolest kid in school. He was the brat who racked up demerits at the Naval Academy. He was the hot dog pilot who went back to the skies weeks after almost dying in a fire on the U.S.S. Forrestal. His first wife was a model. His second wife was a rich girl, 17 years his junior. He kept himself together during years of North Vietnamese torture and solitary confinement. When he sits in the back of his campaign bus, we reporters gather like kids in the cafeteria huddling around the star quarterback. We ask him tough questions, and we try to make him slip up, but almost inevitably we come around to admiring him. He wants the challenge. He likes the give and take. He is, to put it simply, cooler than us.

Now here’s the thing you need to know about Mitt Romney. He is the overachiever, the do-gooder, the kid in class who always does everything right. All his life he has outperformed, as a Mormon missionary in France, as a corporate takeover consultant, as the guy who saved the Winter Olympics from financial ruin. He works crazy hours and apologizes after he makes a joke, because he is worried you won’t understand his meaning. He is the one who takes endless notes in every class and has a little plastic container inside his locker for all of his mechanical pencils. He will probably be the valedictorian, and he will surely disappoint you at graduation by giving a bland speech that all the parents just love. “Isn’t that boy so sweet,” say all the moms.

So here is the situation that Republicans in New Hampshire face on Tuesday: Do we elect the jock or the overachiever? Do we go with cool and confident, or cautious and competent?

This distinction was on stark display Saturday night, as Republicans debated at St. Anselm College. McCain kept calling out Romney, then leaning back in his chair, with that cool kid smile, and a chuckle. “I just wanted to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change,” McCain said, referring to all of Romney’s shifting positions. Of course, McCain had a point. And of course, Romney wasn’t ready to take on McCain in person, even though he has spent a large fortune attacking McCain in mailings and television spots. Romney would rather talk about the details of his health care plan and the Z visa. He doesn’t want any of the mothers to know that he plays hardball too. “Senator, is there a way to have this about issues and not about personal attacks?” Romney told McCain.

So who won? It depends whom you liked in high school. Did you want to park with the jock? Or did you admire the smart kid who volunteered Sundays at the foodbank? It’s your call.

POSTSCRIPT: A single blog post can only contain so much, but if you are wondering, Mike Huckabee also fits in my mythical high school typology. He is the class clown with the weight problem everyone likes, who always seemed to have his heart in the right place. When he runs for class president, you are tempted to vote for him if only because you just know he would make the weekly assemblies more fun. He also wants a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion, and he thinks gay marriage will destroy civilization.