Frank Rich on the National Circus: The GOP’s Season Finale Bombs

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Who won the debate?
Barack Obama, obviously, or he would have if the debate hadn’t been so tedious that it likely shed viewers faster than an episode of Smash. Why did CNN serve up John King as a moderator instead of “Blitz,” as Herman Cain so memorably re-branded Wolf? Why was everyone sitting down? How did Arlen Specter become a left-wing bogeyman comparable to Bill Ayres? When Romney tried to “humanize” himself early on by dropping a George Costanza reference, it should have been a tip-off that this was going to be the worst final episode of a TV series since Seinfeld. This time it was the audience that ended up in jail. Even Twitter wisecracks seemed to flatline as the show wore on.

The overnight consensus has it that Santorum was too defensive, and Romney didn’t shoot himself in the foot, and so Romney is going to squeak out his must-win in Michigan on Tuesday.
Maybe so, but again, over the long run, it looks like Obama has Michigan in the bag. Crazy as it sounds to the GOP base and presidential field, most voters in that state actually like the idea that the auto industry did not go bankrupt. And if Romney didn’t melt down last night, he nonetheless had an incredible Mitt moment where he refused to answer a softball question and instead asserted his droit du seigneur by reprimanding King, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers I want.” Romney remains severely patrician, a gift that will keep on giving to the Democrats if he pulls this out.  

What was going on with that Ron Paul–Mitt Romney team-up against Santorum?
The best-case scenario is they and their wives genuinely like each other, as has been widely reported. The worst-case scenario is that Paul could be rewarded with an administration job for his good service to Mitt. Then again, so could Donald Trump, who is actually making robo-calls for Romney in Michigan – a gesture that the Romney campaign, in its infinite wisdom, actually regards as a plus. If Paul gets Defense, at least that will slow up the rush to war with Iran, and if Trump is vice-president, there's at least some chance we'll never hear from him again.

Why did no one ask Santorum to talk about Satan?
That was another reason why the night was so dull — not enough saber-rattling about the social issues. But we did get that wonderful Paul soliloquy about birth-control pills, in which he strongly asserted that “the pills can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society.” I know Paul has his fans, especially among young men and the blogotariat. But I find it impossible to look at the guy without wondering, "Who are the women who would actually choose him as a gynecologist?"

Which Republican politician scares you the most?
That would be Callista Gingrich. Seeing her in the audience last night, sitting stone-faced next to that once-formidable, now-deflated clown Rick Perry, you realized she's the only one in the entire race who has come through this carnival completely unscathed.

Is there a role left for Newt to play in all of this?
He seems to be settling into his default mode as the world’s self-proclaimed foremost historian. At the debate, he sonorously lectured the assembled that it was “the 280th anniversary of George Washington’s birth.” Granted, that was a non sequitur of no conceivable relevance, historical or otherwise, but who else in America so consistently and ponderously says stuff like that?

What will you miss most about the debates?
“9-9-9” – what else?