The first thing that happened tonight was that Herman Cain’s pseudo-candidacy died — or, rather, was exposed for what it is, a Republican feel-good statement. The death came swiftly, when every candidate ganged up on Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. What made the gang-up so deadly was its kindness and condescension. The message was, “We like you, your heart is in the right place, but — c’mon.” The coup de grace was administered by Newt Gingrich, who condescends to everybody. Gingrich congratulated Cain for coming up with a big idea, and the audience clapped sympathetically. Now you go backstage to collect your prize, Herman Cain. It’s a lucrative talk show on FOX NEWS!
Mitt Romney remains vastly better than his antagonists, but the gap has shrunk. Rick Perry has reduced his brain freezes in both number and duration. Romney took the first real damage of the debate season tonight, as Rick Santorum truthfully explained that Romney’s health care plan adopted essentially the same approach as President Obama’s. Romney kept evading the question, and explaining that the people of Massachusetts approve of his plan. I’m not sure that will help. Later in the debate, Santorum described Romney as having run as a liberal in 1994 and then as a moderate in 2002. Romney did not rebut either of these descriptions, instead falling back on his pat self-portrayal of having come from the private sector. It was uncharacteristic that Romney would let such a disqualifying charge stand. He still came off as the smartest, most competent, and most presidential candidate, but Romney’s rivals finally managed to sow real doubts about his ideological convictions.
Fortunately for Romney, this debate took place on friendly turf in Nevada, a state with a huge Mormon population. The crowd booed lustily when moderator Anderson Cooper quoted an anti-Mormon pastor, and cheered Romney’s eloquent defense of treating religious minorities as equals. It’s unlikely Romney would have gotten that kind of friendly reaction elsewhere. It aided him greatly when Rick Perry attacked him repeatedly — the booing crowd painted Perry as the meanie. But Perry showed real life. His ignorance in previous debates was a forgivable sin, but his passivity was not. He corrected the latter.
Romney necessarily spends most of his debates playing a character type only loosely related to the actual Romney. He had one delicious, authentic moment when Perry assailed him for employing illegal immigrants. Romney claimed that he had fired them, and described his thinking at the time like so: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals!” I am totally convinced this was what Romney was really thinking. With everything else he says, you’re always peeling away the layers of the onion to figure out what the true Romney thinks. Perry, characteristically, was too dim to notice this, but his handlers will probably train him to quote it at the next debate, by which point Romney will have a slick response that leaves Perry flustered.
Strangely, one of the commercial breaks featured the trailer for J. Edgar. It included the tagline, HE BELIEVED IN AMERICA. HE DECEIVED EVERYONE. I could not help but think of Romney’s slogan: