Thursday night’s debate was defined by two questions, by the two current leading contenders, each of whom was attempting to define an uncomfortable line of inquiry as off limits. Newt Gingrich crushed his answer. Mitt Romney flubbed his.
Predictably, Gingrich's first question concerned his second wife’s claim that he had asked her permission to openly conduct affairs, and Newt replied with a categorical denial combined with a scolding of the media for stooping to the gutter. It was probably a lie, almost certainly misleading, and without question flagrantly hypocritical. (You can make a decent case that we should ignore politicians’ private behavior, but this is a man who led the impeachment of a president over an affair.) But it worked perfectly, because Gingrich simply took a firm line and refused to waver, and attacked a the GOP's common enemy (the media).
It offered a sharp contrast with Romney’s key moment, later in the debate, when he wavered over the release of his taxes.
Romney, who had been talking tough all night about his plans to fight back against Class Warfare (“I’m not gonna apologize for being successful”) essentially cited this anticipated attack as a reason to postpone releasing his tax returns. Romney never committed to any defined set of time to release the information. At one point during his rambling evasions, the audience actually booed him.
It was, really, just one moment of weakness for Romney, as he uncertainly agonized at the water’s edge. On virtually every other answer, he has fully immersed himself into the worldview of his party’s base. Romney asserted that President Obama had imposed “crony capitalism.” He began by citing Solyndra, which could be a valid example of this, though hardly the first time an industry has received a government subsidy. But then he proceeded through a fantasy world in which Obama had turned General Motors over to the United Auto Workers and stacked the National Labor Relations Board with “union stooges,” and turned down the Keystone pipeline. (A move that, of course, pitted Obama against the “union stooges” who would like to build the pipeline.)
Romney assailed the Affordable Care Act as having added “a trillion dollars in debt.” His dishonesty here merits closer examination. The Congressional Budget Office scores the law as reducing the deficit. Romney arrives at his figure by counting only the new costs in the bill — spending money to cover the uninsured — and ignoring all the savings. But when asked to differentiate his Massachusetts health care plan from Obama’s, Romney constantly (including tonight) cites the fact that it raised taxes and cut half a trillion dollars from Medicare. This is true. Romney paid for the Massachusetts health care plan by securing a special federal grant, while Obama paid for his own otherwise nearly identical program by raising taxes and cutting spending. Romney demagogically cites Obama’s fiscal responsibility as the thing that makes his plan so evil and socialistic, and then turns around and pretends those savings don’t exist.
As in every election he has ever run, Romney has studied the impulses of the electorate to which he is appealing and molded himself to it. He has nearly mastered the technique of turning every question into an answer about how Obama has destroyed America. At one point, Time’s Michael Crowley tweeted, “You could accuse Mitt Romney of murdering a drifter in Laredo and he'd respond with an attack on Obama.” Moments later, asked to name his biggest mistake of the campaign, Romney answered that he wished he talked more about Obama, because of the socialism.
Romney is so good at identifying and mirroring the electorate that his rivals, outflanked by an opponent offers everything the voters want in a taller, more handsome package, invariably attack him for not really believing what he says. He replied to a question about his abortion reversal, which coincided with his decision to run for president rather than governor of Massachusetts, by sniffing, “I'm not questioned on integrity or character very often." It’s just weird. If you define a question about the sincerity of his issue conversion as an attack on his character — which is precisely how Romney defined it here — he has been attacked on that repeatedly in every campaign he’s ever run.
He will probably outlast his under-financed, poorly organized opponents. But the discomfort Romney engenders has not diminished, even a bit.