We got more tussle, as my Examiner colleague Philip Klein points out, and a whole bunch of dumb questions in the Meet the Press/NBC/Facebook/Union Leader/Channel 7 debate (are these things improved by having more sponsors? No) this morning.
Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney for his allegedly moderate and timid record as governor of Massachusetts, which gave Romney an opportunity to describe that record in favorable terms. Rick Santorum and Gingrich raked Romney over the coals for saying that he was not interested in a political career when in fact he spent his last year as governor preparing to launch his 2008 presidential campaign; Gingrich said it was “pious baloney” to say he was not interested in political advancement. I thought they scored some points here, although Romney seemed to have a practiced answer with some interesting nuggets (can he back up his claim he told his Bain partners he’d be back in six months after the 1994 Senate campaign?) and some anti-politician proposals (term limits for members of Congress). Gingrich also got in a plug for his superPAC's 27-minute video about Romney's career at Bain & Company, but surely lost some points with many conservatives when he cited in support of its or his own criticisms the New York Times and the Washington Post. Jon Huntsman took on Romney for his criticism of Huntsman for accepting Barack Obama’s appointment as ambassador to China. Huntsman got some applause—he seemed to have a lot of fans in the hall—for his defense of this as public service. This was probably Huntsman’s strongest moment—though he came across as angry and scolding, not the best vote-winning persona except for those who basically don’t like Republicans.
"Asking candidates to provide sound bites for the other side is crossing the line into partisan advocacy."
Rick Santorum went after Ron Paul for not accomplishing anything on domestic policy and for advocating a dangerous foreign policy; he made the serious point that as president Paul could do a lot of harm in foreign policy but would not be able to achieve conservatives’ goals on domestic policy. Pretty deft in 60 seconds. Santorum also very effectively and efficiently made a point he’s been making at much greater length out on the stump, that a president can reasonably advocate for behaviors—graduating from high school, working at a job, marrying—that taken together result in just about everyone rising above the poverty line. He was solid in arguing that it was especially dangerous for Iran’s theocrats to have a nuclear weapon, just as Gingrich was solid in describing the malfunctioning of the Environmental Protection Agency and Huntsman was in denouncing Obama for throwing “in the waste-basket” the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles commission. Rick Perry was aiming his comments straight at South Carolina Democrats and was not afraid to call Obama a “socialist.”
From John DiStaso of the Union Leader we got a question on the low-income heating program and right-to-work laws (one is being advanced in the New Hampshire legislature right now). Andy Hiller asked Mitt Romney when he had last stood up for gay rights. Romney, who had just given an answer calling for respect for everyone and non-discrimination against gays responded with two words: “Right now.”
David Gregory’s invitation to the Republicans to name three areas in which voters will feel pain from their proposals shows his mindset: Republican policies hurt people, Democratic policies help them. Would he ask an equivalent question of Democratic candidates? Dubious. Asking candidates to provide sound bites for the other side is crossing the line into partisan advocacy. And then he framed a question on tax rates should be raised as a question of whether Warren Buffett or Grover Norquist knows more about economic policy. Pure partisan hype. Then he asked how these guys would like to face an opposition party leader who said he wanted them to be a one-term president—as if that was committing some kind of treason. Gingrich very effectively punctured this by saying that all congressional party leaders want to defeat first-term presidents of the other party in the next election: it’s not treason, it’s a predictable part of our two-party system. Only in the circles in which David Gregory lives is it seen, in the case of Barack Obama, as some kind of monstrous hatred.
Many conservatives—and some of the candidates this morning—are complaining about liberal media questioners, and with good cause. But there is something to be said for having hostile questioners: it sharpens Republican candidates, makes them figure out how to turn questions around and answer them in ways that frame the issue their way. Democratic candidates tend not to get this kind of practice and can go into general election contests less prepared to make their case.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI