After all these debates, what’s the point of another one? One word: Iowa.
Last night’s ABC News debate didn’t yield anything new in terms of policy. Nobody said anything they haven’t said before (for a mostly policy-oriented review of each debate leading up to last night’s, please see my Political Snark category). What last’s night debate did was usher in the latest phase of the campaign – the sort of Third Week of Political Advent: the run-up to the Iowa caucus, closely followed by the New Hampshire primary.
Jon Huntsman wasn’t at the debate. He’d been invited, but turned it down because he’s spending all his time and money on New Hampshire. With Herman Cain now out of the race, the stage was set for six: Santorum, Perry, Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Bachmann. ABC’s production of the debate was surprisingly unpolished; there were audio issues throughout and hiccups with “Rewind” portions that played in commercial breaks to re-show moments we’d just seen. And if Diane Sawyer was concerned about running out of time as she repeatedly stated, she should have considered taking less time to ask a question.
The moments that may have mattered, that stood out from other debates, were the awkward ones. I’m going to run with two of them: the $10,000 bet, and the Cheater Question.
As has happened in at least three debates before last night, Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on whether he’s in favor of individual mandates for health insurance coverage. Once again, he attempted to quote Romney’s book. Once again, Romney laughed (he gets quite artificially, pompously amused when he finds someone’s statements about him to be particularly offensive) and then leveled a cold gaze while saying what Perry stated was simply wrong. And then… he held out a hand… and offered a $10,000 bet.
Perry, wisely, didn’t take it. After two beats during which everybody tried to figure out what the hell just happened, Gov. Perry simply said, “Well, I’m not in the betting business–” and Romney went on to make his own point, to Perry’s relief since he isn’t the quickest-witted and might have struggled to finish the moment.
What’s the big deal about the offered bet? It’s not such a shocking thing that someone says, “Wanna bet?” What’s a little shocking is when someone who’s known to be wealthy offers to bet someone ten thousand smackers. Specifically.
“Wanna bet? What do you want to bet me?” Fine. “Ten thousand dollars?” What the hell, dude?
It’s not just that it’s tone-deaf to the fact that so many Americans are struggling to bet anybody ten bucks on anything, let alone ten thousand. It’s also that he left it dangling without ever explaining his reason.
The Romney campaign today says the bet was a rhetorical moment – a claim to which I call shenanigans, because Romney waited for Perry to accept or refuse the offer, and if it were rhetorical he would have just plowed on. Romney’s people also say that only Democrats are focusing on that moment of the event, and that proves that the Democrats are “obsessed” with Romney, and that proves he’s going to win the nomination.
Which doesn’t even really make sense.
If I’m Romney’s people, here’s what I say:
“The governor was prepared to seal the deal on his bet with Gov. Perry. What he unfortunately didn’t get a chance to say was that he would donate that money to a charity of the governor’s choice – though not the Perry campaign.”
— or —
“Ten thousand dollars is the maximum amount an individual is allowed to gift to someone without a tax imposed. In a time when so many people are hurting, wouldn’t it be better if the federal government didn’t try to take money away from those who need it most?”
I prefer the first one, frankly. Of course, they’re both complete bs and not at all what Romney intended, but nobody can prove it. Either way, they do something to backpedal a bit from making the guy look like a clueless rich man.
The other very uncomfortable moment in the debate was when ABC’s Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos – a former advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton – asked the candidates if marital fidelity should be considered in choosing a president.
Oh no they di-ihn!
Herman Cain’s campaign folded because of sexual harassment and marital infidelity allegations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is an admitted philanderer. And he’s standing. Right. There.
I don’t remember who answered the question first. I think it was Rick Perry, who very firmly stated that if one cheats on one’s spouse, there’s no reason they wouldn’t cheat their business partner or the American people. He bolstered his statement by saying that when he married his wife, he didn’t just promise her he’d be faithful; he promised God.
Then he said something dumb about how that’s stronger than a handshake in Texas and I yelled at him that he’s not Dan Rather.
Rick Santorum, perhaps the most religiously unflagging candidate and a very proud Catholic, was gentler. He said that a candidate’s personal and professional life are both fair game and up for consideration as matters of character in a political campaign. But he said he doesn’t think infidelity disqualifies someone. “I believe people make mistakes,” he said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann said fidelity is unquestionably important but didn’t convict cheaters of being bad people. Ron Paul made a similar point.
Newt Gingrich was the last person to get the question.
I think ABC did this for two reasons: 1. to give him time to figure out how to respond; and 2. to build the anticipation since everybody knows he’s cheated on two wives.
But Gingrich handled it beautifully and humbly, without even a hint of indignation, saying he had admitted that he has cheated, that he’s gone to God for forgiveness, that he’s tried to make amends, and that people absolutely do have the right to judge an unfaithful person and make their decision about how important that is to them in choosing a president.
After the lead-up, after the candidates somewhat uncomfortably, but still, to their credit, with conviction, answered the question, the guy the question was aimed at hit a home run, placing a bet of his own: that an honest cheat is better than a lying cheat.
You know, I can’t really argue with that.