In the Arena

Romney Unscathed in Twin New Hampshire Debates

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Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney participate in the NBC News Facebook Debate on 'Meet the Press,' January 8, 2012, at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, New Hampshire.

Well, Mitt Romney won the weekend and, most likely, the Republican nomination. No one really laid a glove on him, not even in the NBC debate on Sunday morning, which was far sharper and more substantive than the ABC debate last night. There was a reason for Romney’s success–and it pains me to disclose it: he was well-prepped by his consultants. His answers were clear, concise, declarative sentences. None of the other candidates seemed to have been prepped at all.  They had their moments, but their sentences were clumsy, loaded with jargon and dependent clauses. Their message was garbled, their attacks muddy. They seemed amateurs. Romney is a professional. You have to work at being a good debater, a good candidate, and he has clearly done his homework.

The importance of Romney’s consultants pains me because I wrote a book called Politics Lost a few years ago, in which I laid much of the blame for the gaseous banality and negativity of modern American politics on consultants, pollsters and assorted marketers. I assumed when I wrote it that most legitimate candidates for President could figure out why they were running and why they were better than their opponents on their own and say so clearly. That was an assumption too far.

A few months ago, I asked Rick Santorum why Romney shouldn’t be the nominee. He answered the question directly, with extreme precision: “He created a mandatory health care system in Massachusetts exactly like Obama’s. He favored the Wall Street bailout. That takes two of the most important Republican issues off the table. People are really upset about Obamacare–and Romney can’t talk about it.”

Compare that with his attempt to make the same argument in the ABC debate:

“I was not ever for an individual mandate. I wasn’t for a top-down, government-run health care system. I wasn’t for the big bank of Wall Street bailout, as Governor Romney was…We’re looking for someone who can win this race, who can win this race on the economy and on the core issues of this election.”

Not bad, but not very effective, either–starting with the assumption that most voters know what an individual mandate is, which they don’t. A better way to answer would have been to address Romney directly: “Mitt, you created a state-run health care system in Massachusetts which forced people to participate. It’s just like ObamaCare. Conservatives hate Obamacare. You also supported the Wall Street bailouts. Conservatives hate that, too…So let me ask you, how are you going to confront the President on these basic issues when you support the same things he does?”

Romney probably would have had an answer to that–he’s an excellent, spontaneous debater. But he’s clearly gotten better over the past four years and I credit his consultants with teaching him the parameters of effective technique. He’s learned to pare his sentences to the bone. He’s learned that the attacks against you are much less successful if you don’t act flustered. He hasn’t been perfect, but who is?

Romney’s mastery, and his opponents’ weakness, was evident in their responses to the excellent question from the Manchester Union-Leader reporter, John DiStaso, about cutbacks in federal aid to help pay for heating oil for the poor.

Huntsman went first. He acknowledged that we had to help those people in the short-term–he was the only candidate to do so, which tells you a great deal about this crop of Republicans–but then he got all tangled up in the long-term solution, which was to break the national dependence on oil. “You have a distribution monopoly that favors one product–that product is oil,” he said. (He might have put it this way: “We have to break the oil monopoly. Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner. We need to give people choices and then prices will come down.”)

Ron Paul went next and started off clearly: “Subsidies are bad economic and moral policy.” But instead of explaining that, he went off into an abstruse discourse about how currency policy affects commodity prices.

And then Romney: “We don’t need the federal government to do it. That sort of program should bundled with other entitlements–food stamps, housing vouchers, medicaid…and sent back to the states.” He went on to mention the money lost in creating duplicative federal bureaucracies to deal with state problems. It was a clear statement of not only his philosophy, but also of conservative Republican philosophy. It helped achieve his larger purpose: to convince conservatives that he sees the world the same way they do.

I should take a minute to explore the effectiveness of DiStaso’s question, which added to the sum of our knowledge about the Republican contenders…and the ineffectiveness of so many of the other questions asked by the moderators in these debates. It was specific: poor people are going to freeze this winter because the government is cutting back on heating oil subsidies. What would you do about that? This was an immediate test of the candidates’ compassion (they weren’t very)–but it also enabled them to expand their answers into a general statement of their governing philosophy. (In Romney’s case, a radical devolution of federal anti-poverty programs.)

It was the exact opposite of a gotcha question. I would have liked to have seen similar questions asked about the Wall Street bailout, the “too big to fail” banks, the proper federal role when it comes to infrastructure development. DiStaso asked another good question about New Hampshire being the “tailpipe” for air pollution from other states. This was a direct challenge to those candidates, like Newt Gingrich, who want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. The reason why we need a federal EPA is because pollution doesn’t abide by state borders. If David Gregory, the lead moderator had wished, Romney and Gingrich could have been challenged: Is environmental safety one of those programs you’d send back to the states? What is the federal responsibility here? Where do we draw the line?

Given all the radical talk this year, it’s important to find out just how far these Republicans want to go. (That’s one reason why George Stephanopoulos’s much-derided question about the Supreme Court contraception decision, the Griswold v. Connecticut case was legitimate–if a bit peripheral.)

Romney handled the Griswold question neatly. He handled everything thrown at him neatly. He has established himself as the only candidate on the stage who looks and sounds consistently presidential. I suspect that, if nominated, he’ll give Barack Obama quite a tussle in the fall.