The second Florida debate: Santorum's big night

It’s only natural that the front-running candidates would receive extra attention, especially when they go after each other as vigorously as Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney did during the second Florida debate, hosted by CNN.  Somewhere in the melee of accusations about each others’ finances, campaign advertising, hunger to deport elderly illegal aliens, and reverence for Ronald Regan, a winner emerged: Rick Santorum.

The outcome in Florida between Romney and Gingrich wasn’t really in doubt, due to Gingrich’s spectacularly ill-advised radio ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant.”  This brought the previously neutral Senator Marco Rubio into the contest, to Romney’s defense.  Romney’s anger at Gingrich’s continuing insistence on calling him “the most anti-immigrant of the four candidates” was genuine – one of the most genuine moments a stiff Romney had on the stage that night – and it made Gingrich look scurrilous.  Gingrich didn’t help himself with paranoid mutterings that all the stories appearing about his complex relationship with Ronald Reagan were the handiwork of the Romney attack machine.  (I think Gingrich has the better of the Reagan debate in general, but he’s not going to get anywhere portraying Romney as puppetmaster of the conservative press.)

For some reason, Gingrich was convinced that accusing Romney of a desire to deport illegal alien grandmothers and grandfathers was a trump card, and he kept trying to play it.  Romney pointed out that his strategy involved, not roundups and deportation, but cracking down on those who employ illegals until the lack of jobs prompts them to “self-deport” – a strategy President Obama has actually proved can be quite effective, although his method of implementing it leaves much to be desired, since it involved destroying everyone’s ability to work. 

When Romney said our illegal immigration problem doesn’t involve 11 million grandmothers, Gingrich found himself holding a thoroughly deflated talking point.  Judging by the crowd reaction, Gingrich’s odd plan to help those illegal septuagenarians live out their days on American soil with board-issued “residency” permits still isn’t selling very well.

It also wasn’t much fun watching Gingrich pretend he doesn’t know what a blind trust is, or watching Romney ignore a belated, but well stated, plea from Gingrich to save the campaign-ad nitpicking for other venues and use debate time for the discussion of important issues.  It turns out both Romney and Gingrich, through trusts and mutual funds, own pieces of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The stage grew thick with stagnant pools of disclosure.

Most of Gingrich’s best moments – such as saying that we should be cutting government spending down to match income instead of taxing people to meet government spending demands, or calling for the repeal of disastrous financial regulations – came from his back catalogue of greatest hits.  His claim to have presided over four balanced budgets was punctured by Ron Paul, so effortlessly that Gingrich ended up agreeing with him.  His attempt to recapture a bit of Rubio magic, by saying he had the young Senator in mind for “a more dignified and central role” than a Cabinet post, spawned a thousand instantaneous Twitter jokes that he obviously wasn’t thinking about Rubio for Vice President.

Maybe Gingrich has Rubio in mind for moonbase commander.  The proposal Gingrich has been taking the most heat over, his desire to establish a lunar colony as a gateway to manned exploration of Mars, he actually defended quite ably.  He talked about the importance of having big, inspirational ideas, and said his plans for reviving space exploration involved offering “prizes” to private citizens and companies, not big government spending programs.  This is an intriguing concept he’s been talking up for a long time, in many areas besides space exploration.

Gingrich said he envisions a “90 percent privatized” space program, with the goal of routine commercial launches from our spaceports.  Nevertheless, everyone else agreed space exploration is a luxury America cannot afford right now, with our titanic budget deficit and economic problems.  How sad a commentary on our exhausted, indebted, crumbling leftist government that is!  Our parents went to the Moon in tin cans guided by pocket calculators.  Barack Obama blew the Moon and Mars on a handful of useless “green energy” junk that generated nothing except bankruptcies.

Romney gave a lot of vague answers, including a Cuba policy involved sticking to the Helms-Burton Act and hoping something better waits for that island dungeon after the Castro boys shuffle off.  It tasted like the kind of platitude-flavored cotton candy nobody is supposed to remember eating after the election is over.  “If I’m President,” Romney vowed, “I’ll use every resource we have to help the people of Cuba enjoy freedom after Castro leaves this planet.”  Maybe he should work with Gingrich on that.  Romney can help the people of Cuba, while Gingrich helps Castro leave this planet.

Romney was at his best when defending entrepreneurial success, declaring that he was proud to be in a free enterprise system making investments that create jobs, as well as paying his huge tax bill and making even larger charitable donations.  “Success should be seen as an asset that can help America,” he said with conviction.

The problem is that many of Romney’s other answers, while often logical, were not memorable.  People are likely to come away thinking he got the better of Gingrich in their conflict, but they’ll soon forget what it was about, and might not remember much else that Romney said during the evening.  When his Massachusetts health care plan came under intense criticism, he began his response with, “First of all, it’s not worth getting angry about.”  It might someday be remembered as the epitaph of his campaign.

Romney also found himself on the wrong end of an embarrassing flap over a campaign ad that was profoundly unfair to Gingrich.  Romney claimed he didn’t know anything about the ad, and it was probably from one of the nefarious Super PACs, but CNN checked it out in real time and found it was a bona fide campaign production, complete with “I’m Mitt Romney, and I approved this ad” at the end.  The comical lengths Romney exeted to express ignorance left no one laughing.  If he really is that clueless about his campaign’s activities, it’s even worse, because that would do a lot of damage to his image as a highly skilled professional manager of complex operations.

Ron Paul had a good night, staying focused on his themes of individual liberty, sound money, and disengaging from military deployments overseas.  The collapse of the housing bubble is a big issue in Florida, and Paul gave a sharp and concise diagnosis of excessive credit, interest rates held artificially low for too long, and public money poured into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  His criticism of the Federal Reserve, and the “rip off” of fiat money, was as energetic as ever.

Paul’s faith in the power of free trade to reform dictatorships is rather inflated, and his belief that ending the welfare state and military deployments would save enough money to enable the complete repeal of income taxes is absurd, no matter how tantalizing the repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment might be to small-government enthusiasts.  On the subject of spending reduction, he made a good point when he noted that his debate opponents weren’t talking about a lot of specific cuts, while he’s got a trillion dollars’ worth of them ready to go.

This was really Rick Santorum’s night to shine… right from the start, when he gave an introduction filled with lovable enthusiasm and a shout-out to his 93-year-old mother in the audience, instead of political boilerplate.  He concluded with his assessment of the 2012 election as America’s decision between being “a country built from the bottom up or top down,” and an appeal to the Reagan Democrats so thoroughly abandoned by Barack Obama.

While confessing that his tax reform ideas aren’t as dramatic as the others’, Santorum demonstrated a good understanding of the way high tax rates crush investment.  He was compelling in his criticism of Democrats for their “abysmal” treatment of South America, where they have sided with the likes of Chavez and Castro, and against the people of Honduras during their constitutional crisis, while a largely ignored jihadist menace festers.  (He did, unfortunately, feel compelled to use the European Union as a positive example of disparate nations coming together in economic harmony.  Maybe he’s been so busy campaigning that he hasn’t found time to keep up with the news from Europe.)

When it came time to move the debate along from the Romney / Gingrich squabble over petty campaign issues, Santorum was commanding.  He vowed that his Administration would spend less every year until it reached a balanced budget at the end of his first term, which is a bold agenda, but not impossible.  He was adept at criticizing the incumbent President, doing an especially good job of trashing his delusional State of the Union speech from this week… but he was particularly good at hammering Mitt Romney (and to a lesser extent Gingrich) over health care reform.

Calling health care a “foundational” issue that Republicans can’t give away in this election, he leveled a blistering indictment of RomneyCare, and quite simply defeated Romney on the issue of mandates and fines.  He said Romney’s system amounts to forcing people to either buy insurance or pay a fine, and many of them are paying the fine because it’s cheaper than obeying the insurance mandate, just as we’ve seen happening with ObamaCare. 

Santorum invoked the fear that has plagued many who don’t support Romney, that he’ll end up getting killed in the general election when Obama pats him on the head and thanks him for the swell health care reform ideas.  While Romney was able to highlight some important differences between the two programs, including ObamaCare’s tax increases and Medicare raid, he also found himself claiming that his Massachusetts program would be working better if he were still in office to manage it. 

In responding to a question about the role of religious faith in the Presidency, which sounded a bit like a mousetrap designed to make the GOP candidates look eccentric, Santorum had one of his best moments, expounding on the Constitution as the “how” of America, while the Declaration of Independence is the “why.”  He talked about the uniqueness of our Constitutional defense of God-given rights, for “if our President believes that rights come from the State, then everything government gives you can be taken away.”

Santorum was doubtless helped by being able to stay out of the mudslinging exchange between Romney and Gingrich.  Far too much of his charisma drains away when he gets angry, but at his best he seemed warmer and more authentic than the others.  He had much more to offer than incoherent anger at the incumbent President.  It might not be enough to totally upend the presidential race at this point, but if this debate has any impact, Santorum will have a shot at finishing second in Florida. 

Maybe that will give him enough gas to stay in the race.  At a minimum, it will increase his appeal as candidate for a dignified and central role in the next Republican administration, such as moonbase commander.