I watched the GOP presidential candidates’ debate in Jacksonville. The debate was broadcast on CNN — CNN has posted the full transcript of the debate — and moderated by Wolf Blitzer, who proved to be a formidable antagonist for Newt. When Newt came at Blitzer on a question that put Newt on the defensive, Blitzer held his ground and shot back. It may have been the defining moment of the debate. I thought Newt lost last night from the git-go, but finished himself on that exchange. Jonathan Tobin summarized it this way in his live blog of the debate:
Gingrich tries to deflect Blitzer question about his attacks on Romney by blaming moderator. Blitzer doesn’t let him get away with it this time. Romney then says it would be nice if people wouldn’t make attacks they won’t defend at a debate. Romney then demolishes the attack again. Another great moment for Romney. Newt’s not looking like the Lincoln-Douglas guy tonight.
The Lincoln-Douglas guy last night was Santorum, who took the question on the role of faith to recapitulate the founding principles of the United States. Santorum had a great night. As long as we’re recycling non-Romneys, it would be nice if his number came around again to contest Mitt.
Romney got off to a good start, but I thought he only fitfully impersonated a human being during the debate. He has many strengths as a candidate, including his business background. In the debates I am especially impressed by his appearance and demeanor. Like Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the United States, he looks the part.
What he lacks, in my opinion, is the political art of connecting the audience’s passions and interests to his cause. Speaking of Lincoln, consider his advice:
It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.
Romney’s repeated defense of Romneycare reminds us of his weaknesses as a candidate. Last night was a rerun in that respect, with a twist. His admonition to Santorum not to get so bent out of shape about it — “First of all, it’s not worth getting angry about” — was a sort of Star Trek moment. I was most struck by Romney’s deficiencies in his response to the predictable question about the space program. Here was the exchange:
QUESTION: Good evening. My name is Matthew Bathel [ph]. My question is, what would your plan be for the future of manned space flight and the future of NASA?
BLITZER: All right, let me go to Governor Romney on this one. An important issue, especially here in Florida where a lot of people have lost their jobs as a result of the decline of the space program. Yesterday Speaker Gingrich outlined a — a pretty long plan on what to do about it and he said that by the end of his second term, if he were elected president, there would be a permanent base on the moon. Good idea?
ROMNEY: That’s an enormous expense. And right now I want to be spending money here. Of course the space coast has been badly hurt and I believe in a very vibrant and strong space program. To define the mission for our space program, I’d like to bring in the — the top professors that relate to space areas and physics, the top people from industry. Because I want to make sure what we’re doing in space translates into commercial products. I want to bring in our top military experts on space needs.
And — and finally of course, the — the people from — the administration if I had an administration. I’d like to come together and talk about different options and the cost. I’d like corporate America as well as the defense network and others that could come together in a — in a part — in, if you will, a partnership basis to create a plan that will keep our space program thriving and growing. I — I believe in a manned space program. I’d like to see whether they believe in the same thing.
I’m not — I’m not looking for a — a colony on the moon. I think the cost of that would be in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions. I’d rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S.
How to say it? “Right now I want to be spending money here” and “I’d rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S.” are statements that are out of joint with the times if you are a conservative or if you are trying to appeal to conservative voters (“the home crowd,” as Romney referred to us in a recent interview).
“I’d rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S.” is not just out of joint with the times, it’s vintage liberalism — Vintage 1965.
For the record, here was Santorum’s answer to the question about how his faith influences his politics:
SANTORUM: Faith is a very, very important part of my life, but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country — everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual.
The “why” of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That’s what makes America different than every other country in the world. No other country in the world has its rights — rights based in God-given rights, not government-given rights.
And so when you say, well, faith has nothing to do with it, faith has everything to do with it. If rights come…
If our president believes that rights come to us from the state, everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away.
And so the answer to that question is, I believe in faith and reason and approaching the problems of this country but understand where those rights come from, who we are as Americans and the foundational principles by which we have changed the world
In my opinion, Romney beat Gingrich last night, but Romney wasn’t impressive last night. Santorum was.
UPDATE: After writing this, I went to Jay Nordlinger’s observations on the debate — great, as usual. They supplement and modify my own. At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson reviews the Romney-Santorum exchange on Romneycare, while Michael Barone takes a more comprehensive look at the debate.