The first Florida debate: Romney vs. Gingrich on lobbying and taxes


NBC News tapped Brian Williams to moderate their GOP presidential debate in Tampa, Florida on Monday night, and Williams brought the kind of energy you can normally only achieve with a pipe and slippers.  Constrained by the need to avoid mentioning our current President, because at this point mentioning him at all makes him look bad, Williams provided soporific moderation.  His questions were mostly rooted in events of the GOP primary, and many of them were questions we’ve heard several times during previous debates.  He spent a lot of time asking the candidates about their “electability.”  We even got a question, from one of NBC’s guest panelists, about the Teri Schiavo case from 2005.  That’s not exactly an issue burning in the minds of 2012 Republican voters.

It didn’t help that the audience was expressly forbidden to cheer or applaud.  You don’t realize how much that adds to the energy level of a debate until the Cone of Silence descends over the candidates.  NBC could at least have permitted the crowd to give “up twinkles,” and slipped in a few reaction shots when their fingers were really wiggling.

The main event was an early skirmish between Romney and Gingrich, in which Romney repeatedly accused the former Speaker of “influence peddling” for his employer Freddie Mac, making good use of Gingrich’s recently released contract, which showed he was working for Freddie Mac’s chief lobbyist.  Freddie Mac is not a name that rests lightly in the ears of Floridians, given the dire housing market.

Romney also did a good job of jackhammering the phrase “resigned in disgrace” into the minds of viewers, as the epitaph for Gingrich’s term as Speaker of the House.  The Pelosi-infested couch that populates the nightmares of Newt Gingrich was mentioned, along with the “erratic,” self-destructing Newt Gingrich who populates the nightmares of Republican primary voters.

Interestingly, when reminded that he used to decry negative campaigning and encourage all of the candidates to focus their fire on Obama, Romney said he learned a hard lesson in South Carolina.  Newt Gingrich said the same thing about Iowa.  It seems like every candidate who enters the race with high-minded promises to avoid a negative campaign ends up reading from the same script, sooner or later.

Gingrich responded by accusing Romney of spreading “misinformation,” citing “at least four things that were false” in his rival’s first broadside, although he said he didn’t feel like spending the whole evening chasing them down.  He characterized the blizzard of ethics charges filed against him by Democrats in the 90s as bitter partisan revenge.  He can’t really afford to leave that “resigned in disgrace” label unchallenged, but Gingrich’s attempts to manage the story of his rise and fall as Speaker have a certain lipstick-on-a-pig feeling to them.  His historic achievements while rising don’t make his fall any less painful to remember.

As for Freddie Mac, he explained that only a small portion of the money, about $35,000 per year, went to him personally, with the rest going to his firm.  Romney did an excellent job of pretending not to understand this point.  It probably won’t help Gingrich much in the grand scheme of things, since the objections to his work for Freddie Mac are not entirely predicated on the amount of money he deposited in his bank account.

Noteworthy was the complete absence of questions about Gingrich’s marital history.  It looks like the Marianne Gingrich story has run its course.

Rick Santorum and Ron Paul should have been given cookie baskets for their patience in waiting for all of this to play out.

There weren’t any big, spectacular moments from Gingrich during the debate, which might have been because he wasn’t feeling well.  He usually comes to these things with a couple of barn-burning monologues ready to go, and waits for the right moment to let them rip.  He was more exasperated than combative when he came under fire from Romney, and he never got around to beating up Brian Williams, perhaps fearful of unleashing a cloud of dust over the audience.  He did call the moderator “inflammatory” at one point, but he didn’t seem terribly inflamed.

Gingrich was most animated when encouraging the repeal of the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, which he characterized as “crushing small banks,” and when he spoke of the need to preserve the freedom of the seas by responding to a possible Iranian blockade of the Straits of Hormuz.  He served up his best shot of wry humor by noting that Fidel Castro wasn’t likely to “meet his maker” after he died, as he would be going to “the other place.”

Gingrich polished his policy-wonk credentials when quizzed about sugar subsidies by ruminating on the difficulty of reforming entrenched agricultural interests, and remarking that in the particular case of Florida sugar, the way “cane sugar hides behind beet sugar” was “an amazing story about how interest groups operate.”  Only Newt Gingrich says stuff like that.  When Barack Obama visits Disney World, he shuts down Main Street, USA.  You’d never be able to drag Newt out of Epcot.

It was interesting to observe how friendly Gingrich was to Rick Santorum and Ron Paul… or, more to the point, how he was friendly to their supporters.  He certainly knows how to tally up those non-Romney votes.  Romney hasn’t been making reciprocal efforts to bring Santorum and Paul voters aboard his bandwagon.  That might prove to be a mistake in the long run.

Mitt Romney continued to riddle the stage with a hail of bullet points, including a semi-automatic burst of seven things we should do to get the economy moving again.  He’s clearly mastered the important political art of being vague and specific at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with being a carefully organized thinker, but Romney’s verbal Power Point presentations make his responses feel stiff and artificial, like something he memorized, rather than embracing.

Romney gave a telling response to the question of what he has done to advance the cause of conservatism.  Once again, numbered points were ticked off.  Number One was “I’ve raised a family,” while Number Two was “I’ve worked in the private sector.”  You can see the effect Romney is going for here, but it seemed like a deliberate misreading of the question to deliver some focus-grouped boilerplate.  Voters who wonder about Romney’s contributions to conservatism might not be reassured that his top two contributions to the conservative movement were things many voters have done themselves.

The topic of Romney’s tax returns came up, and he made a good effort to turn it around to his advantage, saying that the real issue is the tax returns filed by the American people, while stressing the importance of lowering taxes to stimulate investment and job creation.  He once again declared that he would not apologize for being successful, pointing out that his wealth was earned, not an inheritance.

Rick Santorum was putting in more effort than anyone else on stage, seeking to distinguish himself from Romney and Gingrich, particularly on the issue of ObamaCare and the individual mandate.  He didn’t get a lot of stage time, but he used it to continue his steady campaign as a low-drama principled conservative alternative to the Gingrich-Romney high-wire swordfight.  When he remarked of his rivals that “it’s easy to bail out and compromise your principles,” Santorum captured the fears of conservative voters who have been left at the altar far too often.

Since this was a Florida debate, there was considerable discussion of Cuba.  Santorum warned about the dangers of jihadists working with the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, an aspect of border security the other candidates didn’t discuss.  He accused Romney and Gingrich of favoring bailouts which thwarted the proper workings of “destructive capitalism,” which he believes could have averted the long housing slump in Florida, by clearing out dead weight from the financial industry.

Ron Paul was largely invisible during this debate, although he did weigh in with a good diagnosis of the subprime mortgage crisis, and offered the Iranian perspective on shutting down the Straits of Hormuz – something they would be forced to do, because America is effectively “blockading” them.  Paul also wondered why we can’t abandon “threats and intimidation” and just “talk to the Cuban people.”  Answer: because Castro won’t let them talk back. 

This debate didn’t feel like it contained any game-changers.  Gingrich missed an opportunity to hit some grand slams and capitalize on his momentum out of South Carolina, but he’ll have another chance in the second Florida debate.  Given his combative reputation, he might suffer a bit for letting Romney land some punches on him, but none of them were knockouts.  If Santorum can’t get any mileage out of voter disdain for Gingrich and Romney wrestling over their records, then he doesn’t have any gas left in his tank.