One of the most memorable lines to emerge from the last Republican presidential debate was Rick Santorum explaining why he had to “take one for the team,” because politics is a “team sport.” He was talking about voting for No Child Left Behind, President George Bush’s very expensive educational program, which turned out to be one of those slogans that curls up in the wallets of taxpayers and incubates in a cocoon of dollars, while providing highly debatable “benefits.” Santorum explained that he felt No Child Left Behind was “against the principles I believed in,” but he supported it out of loyalty to the Republican Party and President Bush.
Mitt Romney and Ron Paul worked Santorum over for this comment, and other votes from his Senate career. After the debate, Romney made much of that No Child Left Behind vote, saying Santorum “talked of taking one for the team,” but “I wonder which team he was taking it for… My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington, and I’ll fight for the people of America, not special interests.”
Which sounds pretty tough, until you remember that Mitt Romney also supported No Child Left Behind. In fact, President Bush specifically thanked him for it while endorsing Romney for governor of Massachusetts. Romney even mentioned his continuing support for the program during the very same debate where he was pummeling Santorum for his “team sport” theory of politics.
The Romney campaign justified this by saying Romney wasn’t so much criticizing Santorum’s support of NCLB, as his admitted violation of principle to do so. Santorum’s support was, therefore, a Bad Thing because it was insincere, while Romney’s sincere support of the same program is a Good Thing.
This is, coincidentally, precisely the same reasoning used by the Santorum campaign to defend a robocall being made to Democrat crossover voters in Michigan, in which Romney is castigated for opposing the very same auto bailouts that Santorum also opposed. As a Santorum spokesman explained, “Romney supported the financial industry bailout while opposing the auto bailout, while Santorum opposed both, suggesting the issue is consistency.”
I really wish they’d all stop doing this. The issue is not “consistency.” The issue is rescuing this country from Barack Obama’s consistent efforts to “transform” it.
If No Child Left Behind is a beautiful thing, Romney should be ready to explain why he continues to support it, not score little gotcha points against someone who supported it for the “wrong reasons.” If No Child Left Behind is bad, Santorum should be ready to explain why. These things must be done reflexively, because the window of opportunity for turning criticism into advantage is very narrow.
This is the source of an enduring conservative reservation about Romney and ObamaCare. The fear that Romney’s health-care program in Massachusetts takes ObamaCare “off the table” during the campaign over-simplifies the problem. It’ll still be on the table, and Romney will bring it up. He keeps saying he’s dedicated to ObamaCare repeal. The problem is that he won’t be able to comprehensively attack ObamaCare, because he won’t level criticisms that could be applied equally to the Massachusetts program he continues to support. He’ll stick largely to the assertion that ObamaCare is unconstitutional, which is undeniably true (although a few Supreme Court justices might be ready to deny it) but also a thin and bloodless argument, in the ears of a population conditioned to think that ancient rules scribbled out with feather pens should not stand in the way of awesome 21st-century Big Government benevolence.
Romney has a tendency to settle for deflecting inbound criticism, instead of defeating it. He’s going to find deflection much more difficult against the big-money Obama 2012 campaign, and the vast legion of the mainstream press and pop culture deployed behind it.
For example, look at the way Romney has been handling class-warfare arguments. He tends to be at his best when he almost unintentionally backs into a powerful and principled position, refusing to apologize for his success, and the vast amount of charity he finances. That is a powerful, principled argument to make, on the broadest scale. The charity of a prosperous nation is worth far more than the hollow promises of stagnant socialism.
Instead of making that argument in a powerful, inspiring way, Romney tends to look for a quick defense against class envy. In the course of a well-received appearance at the Daytona 500 this week, for example, Romney was asked about the depth of his devotion to the blue-collar sport of auto racing. He allowed that he doesn’t follow it “as closely as some of the most ardent fans,” but “I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”
Twitter was immediately filled with jokes about how Romney doesn’t know much about various middle-class items, but has friends who own the companies that produce them. This sort of thing will happen to him consistently if he keeps walking into it. He should be defeating class warfare arguments by talking about the America of opportunity and success. Achieving Romney’s level of success should be admirable, but instead America is allowing itself to be programmed for serfdom by treating it as inherently contemptible – outside of certain politically favored big-bucks occupations, such as professional athlete, movie actor, and of course, liberal politician.
All of the candidates need to stop trying to score little technical points against each other. It’s time to fight, and bring your “A game” to every single appearance and debate. Every one of the Republican candidates has some problematic moments in his history… but none of them have anything nearly as “problematic” as the last three years of Barack Obama. This is an hour for victory, not smooth deflections.