Mitt Romney may have abandoned most of the positions he ran on in Massachusetts, but evidently he’s sticking with one of his favorite rhetorical tricks.
Late in last night's debate, Mr. Romney fielded an odd question from moderator Chris Matthews about whether it would be good to have Bill Clinton back in the White House and turned it into a red-meat attack on some of the right’s favorite Democratic villains. “The only thing worse than that I can think of,” the former one-term Massachusetts Governor remarked, “would be to have the gang of three running the war in Iraq— Pelosi, Reid and Hillary Clinton.”
Late in last night's debate, Mr. Romney fielded an odd question from moderator Chris Matthews about whether it would be good to have Bill Clinton back in the White House and turned it into a red-meat attack on some of the right’s favorite Democratic villains.
“The only thing worse than that I can think of,” the former one-term Massachusetts Governor remarked, “would be to have the gang of three running the war in Iraq— Pelosi, Reid and Hillary Clinton.”
Never mind the Chinese Cultural Revolution connotations; it was a direct re-use of the line of attack that saved his political career five years ago, when he turned his floundering bid for Governor into a referendum on a “gang of three” Democrats who, he contended, ran his state from the backrooms.
Maybe this was just Mr. Romney‘s subtle effort to one-up his foes in paying homage to Ronald Reagan, who regularly tried to pass off his old movie lines as original thoughts during his political career.
No matter, the moment epitomized why tonight’s crowded, cluttered, and difficult-to-follow Republican debate was actually a success for Mr. Romney, who confidently and forcefully asserted himself as the kind of candidate conservatives dream about.
Where one of his chief rivals, Rudy Giuliani, was defensive and outright evasive when questioned about his abortion views, Mr. Romney ignored his past apostasies and addressed the issue with the fervor of a lifelong Operation Rescue volunteer.
He said that overturning Roe v. Wade would “absolutely” be a glorious day for the country, and later forcefully ticked off a list of other pro-life actions a President can take, besides appointing “strict constructionists” to the high court, the course prescribed by Mr. Giuliani.
“You can fight, for instance, to make sure that partial-birth abortion is made illegal,” Mr. Romney said. “You can fight to have information given to women who are thinking about having an abortion. You can fight to make sure that there's opportunities for people to express their views on this topic openly and near abortion clinics.”
Then, in the next sentence, he managed to turn this into a dig at his other chief foe, John McCain, and what is perhaps the most prominent sore spot in Mr. McCain’s relationship with the base, his past advocacy of campaign-finance reform.
“You can,” Mr. Romney said, “fight for the opportunity to go out and campaign for the rights of those who care about this issue to be heard before Election Day, and the McCain-Feingold law prevents that from happening.”
And earlier in the evening, Mr. Romney also skillfully closed the gaping opening he’d give Mr. McCain last week by suggesting that capturing Osama bin Laden would not be the be all and end all of the “war on terror.”
The topic was raised by a moderator — before Mr. McCain, who had clearly been prepped by his team to exploit it, had a chance to address it. That freed Mr. Romney to defuse the matter by expanding the discussion to include any number of other overseas threats to the United States which, he said, would survive bin Laden’s demise. But, rather jarringly, he ended this soliloquy with a brusque assurance that “he will die.” Mr. McCain was then called on for a response, but the contrast he’d been hoping to create was lost.
And while Mr. Romney was sharp and seemed to be playing offense with all of his responses — even when he was somewhat gently prodded by moderator John Harris about his seemingly expedient conversion to the right wing of the Republican Party — it took Mr. McCain, who charmed the country with his wit and good humor in 2000, some time to warm up.
He looked and sounded all of his 70 years on the night’s second question as he gruffly stuttered and blinked his way through the familiar White House talking points on the Iraq War — throwing around words like “defeat” and “surrender” to describe Congressional Democrats’ approach and bringing up the old standby that “If we withdraw…they will follow us here.”
If he seemed uncomfortable, some might suggest, it’s because the rhetoric was such a departure from the kind of frank, unscripted candor that made Mr. McCain such a rock star in his last bid. More to the point it’s unclear his stridency will even help him much with the G.O.P. base, which continues to support — in somewhat modest numbers — the President’s Iraq policy. Those numbers may reflect a deep-seated belief in the cause, but they can probably be more attributed to the Republican base’s knee-jerk defense of their leader in the face of withering attacks from their political enemies. In that case, even they may shun Mr. McCain next year, calculating that his views would be a general election liability.
Eventually the old McCain did rear his head, especially when the topic turned to pork-barrel spending and his smiling promise to expose earmark-happy Congressmen and to make them “famous” as President. Mr. McCain seemed to redeem himself with his performance in the second half of the debate, but on the whole his presentation was not as consistent as Mr. Romney’s.
But a far bigger disappointment was Mr. Giuliani, whose campaign is rooted in his supposedly heroic and larger-than-life 9/11 heroism. He seemed almost hesitant last night, unwilling to grab command—as Mr. Romney did—when the questions weren’t to his liking.
This was particularly noticeable on the several abortion questions he received. First, Mr. Giuliani sheepishly announced that it would be “OK” if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Then he clarified by saying he simply believed states should make the choice. Then, under some intense questioning, he admitted to supporting public funding in New York and to believing that women should have the right to choose. It was a cringe-worthy performance, as the former mayor squirmed to avoid alienating the Iowa and South Carolina Christian conservatives who are enamored of him.
What he failed to do—and what one imagines Mr. Romney might have done if he’d been in a similar bind—was to aggressively shift the discussion to his strength: his unmatched potential to flip over blue states in the fall and preserve the White House for his party.
The debate was held in California, the jackpot state of the Electoral College and one Republicans haven’t seriously contested since 1988. Surely Mr. Giuliani could have artfully connected the discussion of divisive social issues to his ability to swing the Golden State to the GOP—just as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, another pro-choice Republican who sat in the audience, has done twice now.
Outside of the three main candidates, most of the others were essentially indistinguishable from one another—with the exception of Congressman Ron Paul and his pointed assertions that the Iraq War represents an abandonment of 20th Century Republican foreign policy consensus.
While Mr. Romney’s presentation was undeniably powerful, it still remains to be seen whether conservatives, at some point in the next 10 months, will stop and wonder whether it’s a little suspicious that Mr. Romney seems to always say exactly what they want to hear — just as he always said exactly what Massachusetts voters wanted to hear in his 1994 and 2002 campaigns there.
Still, tonight was about introductions, and Mr. Romney’s was the most effective.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.