The ABC News Des Moines Debate

Conventional wisdom had it that Newt Gingrich’s collegial treatment of the other GOP presidential candidates, hailing them as “rivals” while maintaining the only true “opponent” is Barack Obama, would make it difficult for the others to really tear into him once he became the front-runner.

Conventional wisdom struck out in Des Moines on Saturday night, as the debate, televised by ABC News, became a fairly brutal dogpile on Gingrich.  Mitt Romney pummeled him for spending too much time in Washington and having crazy ideas – including the establishment of mining colonies on the Moon, which was the first thing a clearly flat-footed Romney could think of, when quizzed about his policy differences with Gingrich.  Rick Perry questioned his character, as revealed in his troubled marital history.  Ron Paul called him a flip-flopper.  Michele Bachmann characterized him as one half of a nefarious Big Government mutant known as “Newt Romney,” lurching from a lavishly appointed secret hideout on K Street to impose lax immigration law and individual health care mandates upon America.

Before checking in to see how Gingrich handled this onslaught, it should be observed that the evening wasn’t all about him.  The very first question, a lovely pitch right over home plate about the alternatives to Obamanomics, revealed some weaknesses among the field.  Mitt Romney ticked off a seven-point plan, making several fine points about regulatory overreach and the need for growth-oriented tax reform, but delivering a laundry list instead of a vision.  He also sort of breezed over the recently dropped NLRB lawsuit against Boeing in South Carolina, which he correctly noted is a major outrage against the very rule of law… but it was just Point Four in a verbal Power Point display, instead of a launching pad for inspiring statesmanship.  Romney smiled throughout, like a car salesman giving you all the reasons for buying a high-end hybrid sedan.  If he isn’t visibly upset about the Obama Administration trampling over the rule of law to benefit its Big Labor allies, why should his audience feel any passion?

Gingrich, by contrast, hit the same major points about tax and regulatory relief, coupled with putting an end to Obama’s war on energy, but he kept it much shorter, and threw in the interesting promise that his Administration would “feel more positive about the people who create jobs.”  This is something Gingrich does well: mixing rousing conservative philosophy into policy discussions.  The traditional silly closing question for the debate was about what each candidate has learned from one of his rivals.  They should all learn how to combine policy and philosophy into a narrative, the way Gingrich does at his best.  This is no time to be bloodless, gentleman and lady.

Rick Perry had a very good night, and his answer to that first question set the tone.  His balanced budget and flat tax proposals were front and center (I was just wondering the other day what had become of those!) and he did a great job of making the essential point that Washington is the key player in all the Wall Street corruption everyone is so incensed about these days.  Nothing puzzles me more than people who complain about briefcases full of corruption circulating through Big Business without focusing on who supplied those briefcases.

Michele Bachmann is also trying to master the art of keeping her campaign focused and exciting, apparently by making a careful study of Herman Cain and the way he promoted his 999 Plan.  (Bachmann was very critical of that plan when Cain’s candidacy still walked the Earth, but analyzing his methods does not require agreeing with the proposal itself.)  She was machine-gunning viral phrases into the public consciousness on Saturday night, including “Win-Win-Win,” and the aforementioned “Newt Romney.”  She came off as the most aggressive foe of ObamaCare, and had the courage to mention the 47% of Americans who currently pay no income taxes, a relevant point when the “fair share” parrots of the Left emit their deafening squeals.

Rick Santorum is a bit too focused at times.  His platform’s simplicity can be a virtue, but everyone who doesn’t work for a manufacturing concern can be forgiven for getting the impression that President Santorum wouldn’t have much for them, beyond chopping away some of the Obama regulatory kudzu.  Repatriating manufacturing capital through targeted tax breaks is one of Santorum’s biggest ideas, and he is clearly passionate about it.  Personally, I’m a bit weary of the government “targeting” groups for penalties and benefits. 

Santorum has an odd habit of looking wistful and throwing up his hands when he speaks, as if to say, “I can’t believe I’m stuck at 2% in the polls when my resume is so great.”  When he talks about his congressional career, he sounds like an aging high-school football star recalling a 20-year-old championship season.  He doesn’t sound as rushed and flustered as he used to, though.

Rick Perry adopted the collegial leadership style Gingrich has previously displayed, and perhaps due to the volume of fire directed at Gingrich, did a better job of exemplifying it.  He threw some hard punches too, as when he picked up the “individual mandate” issue and played it quite well against Romney.  Perry posed it as a question about whether born-again conversions into individual-mandate opposition can be believed.  Romney looked fairly shaken (and actually kind of… sweaty) after Perry hit him with that.

And then, God help us, it was back to another argument about Romney’s book, which is so three months ago.  It culminated in Romney offering to make a $10,000 bet with Perry about whether any edition of said book endorsed imposing RomneyCare on the entire nation.  It was another moment in which Romney came off looking petty instead of Presidential, and it highlights a continuing weakness in his candidacy: passing up on his chance to repudiate the RomneyCare disaster and become ObamaCare’s great enemy, back when the Democrats were ramming that corrupt and half-written legislation down our throats, is an error in judgment he’ll never really be able to get past.  When he tries, he sounds like he’s testifying at a parole hearing.

It was Ron Paul’s best evening in a while, with the eye-rolling delusional outbursts of isolationist foreign policy kept to a minimum.  He made an interesting point about “the destruction of the middle class” that he should have followed up on, beyond complaining about currency manipulation, which was nearly his singular focus in the area of domestic policy.  As with Santorum’s emphasis on manufacturing-sector tax cuts, it’s a decent topic, and a matter in which Paul has great expertise, but he needs more to convince voters he has a comprehensive alternative to Obamanomics.  He was particularly good when describing the dangers of “asking the government to protect you from yourself,” and critiquing Obama’s abuses of power.

So, how did Gingrich weather those attacks?  Fairly well, I’d say, although not only because of his brainy, and occasionally crabby, defenses.  The other candidates were sloppy.  After getting past the lunar mining issue, Romney went on to lambaste Gingrich for wanting to “remove capital gains for people at the very highest level of income,” which is the kind of tedious class-war claptrap we get enough of from Obama.  (What Romney’s trying to say is that his own capital gains tax cut proposal is means-tested… which is the kind of tedious class-war claptrap we get enough of from Obama.) 

Responding to Romney’s attack on his Washington-insider status, Gingrich devastatingly observed that “the only reason you didn’t become a career politician is that you lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994.”  If you’re puzzled by Gingrich’s rise to the top of the GOP field, despite the many valid criticisms that can be made of his political record and blizzard of unusual ideas, it’s because Republican primary voters can’t wait to see him come off the top ropes and pound Barack Obama into the mat like that.  Hell, even Romney cracked up.

Beating up on Gingrich as a Washington insider has somewhat limited utility.  For one thing, he left Congress a long time ago.  Also, the same intellectual Tasty Bake oven of periodically undercooked ideas which opens him up to criticism also insulates him from the image of tired, idea-free Beltway bot that heartland voters dislike.  Further, I have a suspicion that the fate of certain other “outsider” candidates in this election cycle makes a degree of Washington experience into a net plus for primary voters worried about another campaign implosion, not to mention those who worry about electing an enthusiastic President who can’t get anything done because he doesn’t know how to work with Congress.  Gingrich is very good at portraying his Congressional experience as this type of asset.

Likewise, Michele Bachmann went a bit overboard accusing Gingrich of being a lobbyist, opening herself up for a little lecture about the importance of factual accuracy in her attacks.  As for the other points raised in that exchange, it’s well-known that Gingrich once favored the “individual mandate” concept, but says he’s now prepared to repealing ObamaCare.  In fact, he’s said he would repeal it, along with the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank financial reforms, on Inauguration Day. 

Cap-and-trade is a bit trickier, as Gingrich was vocally in favor of it at one point, saying in 2007, “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good. And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.”  However, by 2009 he was testifying against it before a House committee, and his campaign says he is “absolutely opposed” to cap-and-trade.

Bachmann didn’t bring any of that up, so Gingrich didn’t take a lot of lumps during the confrontation.  He suffered a bit more during the questions about illegal immigration, and personal values.  On the latter subject, his humble admission of errors in his life, and plea to look at the man he is today, is the best defense he could have offered… but it won’t insulate him from questions about how his personal life reflects upon his judgment. 

A big row over Gingrich’s recent characterization of the Palestinians as an “invented” people probably won’t change many viewers’ minds about Gingrich, or the Palestinians.  We’re a couple thousand Gaza rocket launches past anyone getting really steamed at Newt Gingrich for speaking bluntly about the crazed murderers who fired them.  “This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage,” Gingrich declared, bringing up Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech… and once again sounding like he knows a lot more about the issue than his critics do.

Overall, it was a good night for Gingrich, who weathered a storm of criticism fairly well, and will probably hang on to his lead, with the campaign clock running out.  (He might suffer more during the inevitable week of post-debate spin than he did on the stage.)  Perry turned in a great performance, very late in the game, projecting confidence and command when he spoke.  I thought it was a terrible night for Romney, who is rapidly losing that “electable front-runner” aura.  Never mind the weird bet he made with Perry; he’s betting even more heavily that Gingrich will self-destruct, and he can play it safe and coast to the nomination after voters decide there isn’t enough time to settle on another non-Romney. 

It’s a bet he might yet win… and Obama’s people will be studying footage of Saturday night’s debate in Des Moines to learn how Romney can be shaken, rattled, and rolled.  If they can provoke Romney into bullying Obama with ten thousand dollar wagers during a debate, they might just be able to get the worst President in modern history re-elected after all.