Newt Evades and Mitt Stops Making Sense

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Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich take part in The Republican Presidential Debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, January 23, 2012. Florida will hold its Republican primary on January 31, 2012.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/2012 AFP

This was a boring debate. Perhaps it was the atmospherics. Under strict instructions from the moderators, the crowd abstained from applause, boos, or the helps of a gathering lynch mob on display in South Carolina. The quiet room made every line land softly. As a result the participants came off more like a sober think-tank panel than a pack of crazed, fearmongering gladiators performing before a crowd baying for the blood of President Obama, immigrants, and gay people. I find the latter impression more accurate.

Rick Santorum finally failed to complain about his lack of camera time, perhaps in the understanding that it doesn’t matter if you get camera time when your plan is to be the cockroach who crawls out into the light after everybody else has destroyed each other. He also invoked “theocracy,” but meant it pejoratively, because the context was Iran. Ron Paul seems to have graduated from merely too-big sport coats to the comically oversize suits favored by David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense.”

Mitt Romney savagely, and effectively, tore into Newt Gingrich’s history as what he accurately called "an influence peddler." Gingrich squired through a lengthy back-and-forth, not quite cracking but never getting off the defensive. Romney was completely sensible and persuasive in dismantling Gingrich’s hilarious evasions, which included, at one point, citing the fact that he took instructions on what constituted lobbying. Newt passed this off as evidence that he wasn’t a real influence peddler, when, of course, this is exactly what you do when you want to peddle influence without fulfilling the legal definition of lobbying.

After that, however, Romney stopped making sense. He blew off a question about sugar subsidies to launch into his general-election spiel, insisting that President Obama’s stimulus plan had literally created no jobs. He denied having ever supported an individual mandate for health insurance at the federal level, which was flatly untrue, though nobody called him out on it. He again cited having forced Ted Kennedy to take out a mortgage on his home as the metric of success for his failed 1994 Senate campaign. Was this ever an important conservative goal?

When asked what he had done to advance conservatism, Romney cited three things. The first two were start a family and work in the private sector. My God, I’m advancing conservatism, too! Can I have the nomination?