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Romney Won the Debate...In a Way That Inspired No Confidence

This wasn’t the most exciting debate of the campaign. But it was the debate that best illustrated the underlying dynamic: Romney’s going to win, but he’ll be one of the most flawed candidates either party has nominated in recent memory. 

To see this, look no further than last night’s installment of the recurring Freddie Mac dustup. Gingrich opened by lazily accusing Romney of investing in Freddie; Romney effortlessly parried the charge, explaining that he’d only invested in a mutual fund that bought shares in the company. Romney then demonstrated the vast superiority of his opposition-research, pointing out that Gingrich himself had invested in Fannie and Freddie. He concluded by emptying a few rounds of Freddie-related fodder into Gingrich’s rear end while the former Speaker scoped out the nearest hole to crawl into. There’s no way a candidate this well-armed and on-message is going to lose someone so sloppy and erratic. 

And yet the same exchange exposed huge chinks in Romney’s armor. By my count, he referred to either his “blind trust” or his “trustee” at least six times during that single back-and-forth. He went on at length about the pride he takes in his own success. He explained away his Swiss bank account as a commonsense act of diversification (undertaken by his trustee, no less). It’s like he was trying to come off as a Trump-like parody of a rich guy. If Romney can’t come up with a less grating way of talking about his wealth—or, better yet,not talking about it—he’s going to get murdered in the general. 

The same story played itself out when the conversation turned to space exploration. Gingrich looked positively daffy when asked to explain how he’d grant statehood to a future lunar colony. Romney cut him to pieces by highlighting the outrageous cost of settling the moon, and Gingrich’s habit of pandering to each state by seizing on the local budget-busting project du jour. With impressive detail, Romney ticked off the variety of boondoggles Gingrich had blessed in New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

But, here too, Romney couldn’t resist self-parody. “I spent 25 years in business,” he said. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they needed to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say you’re fired.” Romney seems to be firing people on the campaign trail faster than Obama’s economy can hire them—which, come to think of it, may be part of the plan. 

And then there’s health care, the issue Romney has clearly spent the most time rehearsing. The challenge for Romney is to somehow defend his health care deeds in Massachusetts while decrying the Obama health care bill, for which they plainly served as a model. For the life of me, I still can’t identify the substantive difference between the two laws—and I’d wager that most Americans won’t be able to either. Certainly it wasn’t apparent to Rick Santorum, who dwelled on how both were instances of “top-down government run health care.” I’m normally not impressed by the argument that a candidate who blurs too many distinctions with his opponent is destined to lose. But, aside from unemployment, health care should be one of the most promising issues for the Republican nominee in the general. The fact that it will be off-limits to Romney is an enormous disadvantage.

The irony is the the GOP establishment will surely be reassured by tonight’s performance. Romney was generally crisp and in command. He looked like someone consolidating his lead in Florida and taking control of the nomination contest. (At least until rank and file Republicans revolt against his inevitability all over again). But if I were one of the guys in control of the secret Risk board at RNC headquarters, I wouldn’t exactly be celebrating tonight. 

follow me on twitter @noamscheiber