If Wednesday’s debate in Arizona was the last 2012 Republican presidential debate, it resembled many of the previous ones.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won by default because none of his challengers forcefully or effectively cut him down. In nearly every debate, the presidential candidates have failed to realize that to be the chief anti-Romney candidate, they must give voters reasons not to vote for Romney in addition to reasons to vote for them.
President Barack Obama again was a winner as the mainstream media failed to asked about the crony capitalistic disasters of the Obama administration such as Solyndra. CNN neglected to address the Operation Fast and Furious scandal even though the debate was in Arizona. And they failed to address how Obama killed jobs and made the country more dependent on foreign sources of energy by rejecting the Keystone Pipeline. The mainstream media coddles and have protected Obama during the debates, and they did so again.
Lastly, primary voters were again reminded about how dissatisfying the field of candidates is.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came into the debate in the strongest position he had been in to date. Santorum has made Michigan and Arizona competitive and is leading in national tracking polls. But he did not do anything at the debate to increase his momentum or hurt Romney in those two critical states, both of which have primaries on February 28.
The debate format — the candidates were seated at tables instead of standing at podiums, which makes it more difficult to forcefully attack each other — made it more difficult for candidates to mount fierce attacks. But Santorum not only failed to deliver a knockout blow against Romney, he also instead reminded conservative primary voters everything they disliked about the Republican Party the last decade and what they are fighting against during this election cycle — Republicans who put the interests of the Republican Party over conservative principles.
When asked about his support of No Child Left Behind, which increased federal involvement in education under the Bush administration, Santorum gave a shockingly “Washington” answer.
“I supported No Child Left Behind,” Santorum said. “I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, … when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake.”
After getting booed from the audience, Santorum piled on himself.
“You know, politics is a team sport,” Santorum said.
Later, Ron Paul said that Santorum conceded that he had to “go along to get along and that’s the way the team plays.”
“But that’s what the problem is with Washington,” Paul said. “ That’s what’s been going on for so long.”
Added Paul: “But I think the obligation of all of us should be the oath of office … and it shouldn’t be the oath to the party. I’m sorry about that, but it isn’t the oath to the party, it’s the oath to our office.”
This exchange encapsulated the frustrations conservatives have had with those in Washington who have for too long put on the Republican jersey over the conservative jersey.
The Tea Party began in part in response to these Republicans and this mentality and the absence of a candidate who conservatives can believe is a conservative before a Republican is the reason why so many conservative primary voters are frustrated at the field of candidates left standing.
Santorum got himself into more trouble when discussing earmarks.
“Congress has a role to play when it comes to appropriating money, and sometimes the president and the administration doesn’t get it right,” Santorum said. “What happened was an abuse of the process. When that abuse occurred, I stepped forward, as Jim DeMint did, who, by the way, was an earmarker, as almost everybody else in Congress was. Why? Because Congress has a role of allocating resources when they think the administration has it wrong.
“I defended that at the time. I’m proud I defended it at the time, because I think they did make mistakes. I do believe there was abuse, and I said we should stop it, and as president I would oppose earmarks.”
Romney immediately responded by saying, “I didn’t follow all of that.”
Neither did anyone else who was watching the debate did.
Perhaps more troubling than his past support of earmarks was Santorum speaking in inside-the-beltway gibberish and talking about Washington minutiae that average voters do not care about.
If that was not enough for Santorum, Romney hung Arlen Specter, whom Santorum supported over Pat Toomey in 2004, around Santorum’s neck when Santorum tried to indict Romney for spawning ObamaCare.
“The reason we have ObamaCare is because the Senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter … voted for ObamaCare,” Romney said. “If you had not supported him … we would not have Obama Care. So don’t look at me. Take a look in the mirror.”
Santorum has said repeatedly that he stands firmly on his convictions. When it comes to social issues, this has been so. But many social conservatives did not similarly stand on their convictions when it came to limiting the size and scope of the federal government and reducing the country’s debt when Republicans were in power the last decade.
Conservatives are not sure that Messrs. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich will not revert to being “team players,” and this the root of much of their dissatisfaction with the current field.
And while Paul has been right on fiscal issues and has stood firm on his anti-interventionist foreign policy, conservatives have not come on board because Paul is more libertarian than conservative.
Conservative voters know what they are against this election cycle. But they are having a hard time finding a candidate they can be for.
Tuesday’s debate in Arizona did not seem to change this dynamic.
And so the only question left is since Romney also did nothing to get conservatives excited about him, will Newt Gingrich get a third chance to emerge as the anti-Romney alternative going forward?