In the Arena

Armageddon for Newt

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One of the wonderful things about our bloated, endless, tedious, miraculous presidential campaigns is that sooner or later you find out just exactly who these pretenders are. Thursday night in Jacksonville, after 18 debates in which his bluster camouflaged a myriad of flaws, Newt Gingrich’s deficits–the sloppiness, the hyperbole, the demagoguery–were made plain. There were many difficult moments for Gingrich, mostly at the hand of a deft Mitt Romney. Let’s look at a few of them:

My personal favorite came when Gingrich seemed to nail Romney with an attack on his Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac bond holdings. The line of attack was an act of hubris, since Gingrich had been a paid consultant for Freddie Mac. Romney pointed out that Gingrich also held shares in mutual funds that invested in Fanny and Freddie. Guh.

My next favorite was Gingrich’s attempt–with things slipping south for him–to bully Wolf Blitzer, a former war correspondent who can be one tough dude when it’s called for. He called Blitzer’s attempt to draw him out on Romney’s tax returns a “nonsense” question. Blitzer calmly pointed out, despite boos and hisses from the audience, that Gingrich had been raising the issue all week. Romney chimed in that it would be nice if “people” who made charges “elsewhere” would be willing to make them “here,” in his presence. Gingrich then made a halfhearted effort to do so, to little effect. He’d been exposed as a one-trick bully: he’d tried to bash the press once too often. Guh.

Indeed, Romney had opened the debate with a full body slam on Gingrich’s Spanish language ad which had called Romney “anti-immigrant,” another typical example of Gingrichian hyperbole. Romney called it “repulsive” and noted that his father had been born in Mexico and his wife’s father had been born in Wales. Pressed, Newt lamely insisted that Romney was the most anti-immigrant candidate of the four on stage–and he had a point; Romney has taken a foolishly harsh stand against illegal immigrants–which only gave Romney the opportunity to bash him again. Guh.

And again, describing his reaction to an employee coming to him with the idea of establishing a colony on the moon. “You’re fired.” Another body blow. Guh.

Romney had such a strong debate that even his weak moments enabled him to make points. He denied knowledge of an ad that claimed Gingrich had called Spanish “the language of the ghetto” and was caught up by Blitzer, who said that the ad not only existed but had the tagline, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.” Romney turned to Gingrich and asked, “So, did you say it?” Gingrich replied, “It was taken out of context.” And Romney dropped the hammer, “So you said it.” (This last was drowned out by a roar from the audience, which was unfortunate for Romney–it was a moment of brisk toughness.)

From my point of view–which, to be sure, is different from your average Republican on this particular issue–Romney even got the better of Rick Santorum in the mini-debate over the individual mandate health care system that Romney had installed in Massachusetts and Barack Obama had emulated. To be sure, Romney remained ridiculously disingenuous on this issue. Romneycare is Obamacare, no matter how Mitt decides to cut it. (The big difference is that Romney was given the money to pay for it by the Bush Administration and Obama had to find the money to pay for the national plan, through higher fees and the elimination of the costly Medicare Advantage experiment.)

So how did Romney turn Santorum’s strong prosecutorial assault to his advantage? By defending the need for an individual mandate clearly and intelligently–if people who show up in hospital emergency rooms don’t have insurance, the rest of us pay for them. That’s not fair. (This is also why Gingrich supported an individual mandate for 20 years, as Santorum pointed out.) The real question here is: what’s Santorum’s answer for the free riders who game the system by ┬ánot purchasing health insurance? He clearly doesn’t have one–but he’s right: Romney won’t be able to make this case against Obama, since he agrees with Obama on the most basic point. It is a moral and civic responsibility for everyone to hold health insurance.

(Could I just add that there are two basic ways to save money on Medicare–change the eligibility rules or eliminate fee-for-service medicine and punitive malpractice suits that bloat the cost of health care. I could go on. Books have been written. But, so far, there is zero evidence that market-based options like Medicare Advantage save any money).

Anyway, a very good night for Romney, who has retaken control of the nomination fight. It says something that Romney didn’t melt into a pool of brown sugar after Gingrich routed him in South Carolina. It’s now Gingrich’s turn to show that he’s more than a playground bully who collapses when he’s confronted.