The Arizona GOP Debate

The Arizona GOP debate on Wednesday night, which might well prove to be the final debate of the Republican primary season, was rough on Rick Santorum.  Some have been worried his campaign was getting derailed by an excessive focus on social issues, but as it turned out, the real quagmire was Arlen Specter.

Presidential primaries include much speculation about the ideal background for a candidate.  It has often been suggested that running from the House or Senate is tough, and Santorum’s battering at the hands of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul illustrates why. 

Santorum tried to explain that voting on huge multi-billion dollar appropriations bills naturally involved supporting some things he didn’t like.  The best he could do was insert funding for programs like abstinence-based sex education, to offset the bad stuff.  Party loyalty sometimes required him to “take one for the team” and vote for legislation he held serious reservations about. 

That’s an unfortunate slogan to acquire at a crucial moment during a hotly contested nomination process: “RICK SANTORUM: He Took One For the Team.”  At a moment when the Republican electorate is looking for bold leadership, Santorum’s description of his grapples with Senate procedures and party leadership fell flat, earning a few derisive hoots from the audience.  Ron Paul very effectively drove home the point that it took a lot of “team playing” to build that $16 trillion national debt.  Santorum would be in much better shape if he’d only taken one for the team.

Of course, the current President ran for office from the Senate, but the two parties present dramatically different environments for staging such a campaign.  When a big-spending liberal votes for overstuffed appropriations bills, he doesn’t have to worry about taking a lot of heat from Democrat voters.

Romney landed a devastating blow when he brought up Santorum’s support for “moderate Republican” Arlen Specter, who ended up switching parties, over conservative Pat Toomey, who eventually did make his way into the Senate.  Santorum said he supported Specter because he played a crucial role in providing moderate cover for conservative judicial nominees, while Romney hammered him for putting Specter in place to vote for ObamaCare.  No matter what you think of Mitt Romney’s campaign, you’ve got to chalk it up as a win when he makes someone else look more responsible for ObamaCare.

It’s a measure of just how quickly Santorum rose to the top of the Republican field that no one brought up Arlen Specter until the eleventh-hour final debate.  Short of using hypnosis, there was just no way Santorum could have made voting for Specter look good to the Republican electorate of 2012.

Romney has also been building an image of himself as a Washington outsider, stressing his private-sector experience and placing an emphasis on the devolution of power from Washington to the states.  Santorum spent much of the evening speaking from very deep inside Washington.  That’s a contrast the Romney campaign must be very pleased with.

Santorum also came out of the earmarks debate looking more than a little bruised, even though the exchange basically involved everyone agreeing that earmarks used to be both good and bad, but now they’re mostly awful and should be done away with.  It was a bit odd to watch the candidates appear to vehemently disagree with each other, while essentially saying the same thing. 

On the plus side for Santorum, his discussion of the social devastation wrought by an epidemic of illegitimate children was powerful and focused.  Referring to the contraception controversy, and the attempt to gin up suspicion that Santorum’s presidency would be a Trojan horse to ban our Trojans, he had a great line: “The difference between me and the Left is that just because I’m talking about something doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.” 

This topic, by the way, was prompted by a CNN viewer asking which candidates “believed in birth control,” which is a silly way to frame the question.  It would be more pertinent to ask which candidates believe in forcing you to fund birth control.  Only one candidate in the 2012 election believes in that, but he wasn’t on the stage Wednesday night. 

For those of you wondering, of course there weren’t any questions about Fast and Furious, Obama’s green energy boondoggles, or the Administration’s repeated defiance of subpoenas.  CNN doesn’t ask questions like that. 

It was left to the candidates, particularly Newt Gingrich, to bring up the incumbent and his record.  During the contraception exchange, Gingrich acidly observed that “nobody in the media during the 2008 campaign asked why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide.”  He described the General Motors bailout as boiling down to Obama looting shareholders to reward the very unions whose demands had driven GM to bankruptcy.  He continued his ongoing critique of wasteful and inefficient government with dark comedy about the ludicrous difficulty encountered during construction of the border fence, saying bluntly, “It is utterly stupid to say the United States government cannot control its border.”

When the candidates were asked to supply a word describing themselves, Gingrich chose “cheerful.”  (Disappointingly, Romney said “resolute” instead of “severe,” although earlier he clarified that when he described himself as a “severe conservative” at CPAC, he meant “strict.”  Whew!  Glad he cleared that up!)

Gingrich was indeed of good cheer during most of the evening, dispensing a mixture of specific policy ideas and Big Picture thinking.  He was particularly good when discussing the national security implications of American energy independence, saying “we have enough energy in the U.S. to become the largest producer of oil in the world by the end of this decade,” an achievement that would dramatically improve our political situation in the Middle East.

Ron Paul served up his standard-issue foreign policy, sympathizing with an Iran that only wants nuclear weapons because America and Israel frighten them so badly, and making the remarkable assertion that “the Iranians can’t possibly attack anyone,” which will come as a surprise to veterans of the Iran-Iraq War.  Also, although Paul doubts the Iranians are anywhere near nuclear capability, it wouldn’t be a big deal if they had a few bombs, because Soviet Russia had 30,000 of them, and that worked out okay.  Then he said we should worry less about Iranian nukes than missing Russian nukes, so maybe it didn’t really work out okay after all.

Paul was very effective at pounding Santorum over his years of making legislative sausage in the Senate, although it would be well to remember that Paul’s stance on earmarks is to stuff bills with huge amounts of them, then cast pointless “no” votes on the bills themselves, which pass over his nominal objections.  Thus is the scourge of earmarks surrounded by piles of earmarked money.  It doesn’t destroy his arguments against Big Government spending – he’s far from the only member of Congress to offer intellectually valid critiques of a system he wants to change, but meanwhile feels obliged to take advantage of – but when it comes to their legislative histories, a good deal of the difference between Congressman Paul and Senator Santorum is that Paul is a congressman and Santorum was a senator.

Paul deserves praise for a terrific explanation of why the government should be protecting private contracts, not modifying and voiding them, in accordance with political desires.  He briefly skirted an interesting discussion with Santorum over whether government policies degenerate public morality, saying of widely available contraceptives, “The Pill doesn’t create immorality; immorality creates demand for The Pill.”  It would be genuinely enlightening to hear Paul and Santorum debate the matter at length.

And on the subject of foreign policy, Paul’s (curiously dramatic) plea to secure congressional authorization before launching a war was on the money.  The guns of America should never go off half-cocked.

Which leaves us with Mitt Romney.  That’s pretty much the storyline of this primary season: you’re always left with Mitt Romney.  He entered the race as the presumptive front-runner, after carefully assembling a campaign organization and mapping out a full strategy for winning the nomination.  Whatever one thinks of Romney’s record, policies, or chances against Obama, it would a mistake to fault him for his preparations over the past few years.  He did those things correctly.  It got him to the final debate in a strong position, after a long season in which no one has ever sustained a position as his chief rival.  Perhaps the only candidate with the assets to match Romney on a strategic level was Rick Perry, and he was sitting in the audience on Wednesday night.

As Gingrich noted during the debate, Romney has been adjusting his platform in a supply-side direction, a smart move to address complaints that his presidential goals were not ambitious enough.  He came to the Arizona debate well-prepared.  (Granted, the Arlen Specter bomb was not difficult to arm.)  Romney wasn’t really swinging for the fences, and didn’t have to – his mission for the evening was to give Santorum a flat tire, and that mission was accomplished.

Romney nevertheless acquitted himself well in discussing the difference between the Wall Street and General Motors bailouts, and spoke well in the defense of freedom.  He served up some boilerplate when it came time to sum up his campaign in the final round – he was supposed to discuss a popular misconception about him, but apparently no one has any misconceptions about Mitt Romney.  But he didn’t make any big mistakes, and he seems to have a firm grasp of what his supporters like about him.

Political junkies are always looking for the wheels turning within wheels, examining campaign strategies and seeking the hidden power sources of successful campaigns.  With so many challengers already fading into memory, it would be well to remember that a lot of people support Romney not because they have been bamboozled or manipulated by campaign machinery, but because they’re looking at a bankrupt Washington filled with disasters that would be funny if they weren’t so expensive, and thinking somebody really needs to go all Bain Capital on the joint.

Santorum made the canny observation that voters should be looking for someone who can “do a lot with a little” in the race against Obama, because no one will have a spending advantage against him.  We have one last debate to use as evidence when deciding which candidate is best suited to wage the political guerrilla war ahead.