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January 08, 2012 8:00 AM The gloves stay on

By Steve Benen

Before every recent debate for the Republican presidential candidates, I think to myself, “OK, this will finally be the one in which the GOP field goes after Mitt Romney.” And after every debate, I think to myself, “Do these guys not understand how this game works?”

Last night’s gathering in New Hampshire was supposed to provide all kinds of fireworks. With time running out, and opportunities dwindling, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman would have no choice but to make the case why Romney is the wrong man for the job.

Except they did have a choice — they could just throw a few mild jabs and let the Romney coronation continue.

Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — who battled Romney to a virtual draw in last week’s Iowa caucuses — offered relatively tepid criticisms of Romney about three quarters of the way through the debate, but had otherwise held off heavy criticism of Romney.

“I do think there’s a difference between a bold Reagan conservative model and a more establishment model that is a little more cautious about taking the kind of changes we need,” Gingrich said in comparing his jobs plan against the former Massachusetts governor’s.

“I don’t think Governor Romney’s plan is particularly bold, or is particularly focused on where the problems are in this country,” Santorum said.

Hmm. Gingrich spent the week breathing fire whenever Romney’s name came up, but when offered an opportunity to contrast his vision with the former governor, the disgraced former House Speaker came up with “a little more cautious.” Santorum, eager to make this a two-person race, threw the “not particularly bold” punch.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

John Dickerson’s reaction was spot-on.

The Romney campaign has the best voodoo operation in American campaign history. This is the only conclusion I can draw after yet another debate in which the front-runner went unscathed. Before the Saturday night debate in Manchester, N.H., Romney’s opponents promised they were going to attack him. They had an opportunity, and they didn’t take it. This has happened repeatedly throughout the GOP primary season. In some room at the Radisson, aides in Romney fleeces and headdresses must have been controlling things with little dolls.

I’m at a loss in trying to explain this. It’s not as if there’s nothing to criticize Romney over. The guy used to support abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and combating climate change. He distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and helped create the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. He supported taxpayer-funded abortions and taxpayer-financed medical care for undocumented immigrants.

Do these non-Romney candidates not realize they’re losing? Are they reluctant to go after him because they want to be his running mate?

At this point, I’m tempted to think the GOP field is just going through the motions, after having decided a long time ago to just let Romney win the nomination.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Hedda Peraz on January 08, 2012 8:07 AM:

    Reagan's 11th Commandment still applies.

  • hells littlest angel on January 08, 2012 8:09 AM:

    It was a pretty crappy debate, but don't forget the misfeasance of the moderators. Particularly egregious was Stephanopoulos' bizarre goading of Paul, twice daring him to repeat criticisms of Gingrich and Santorum to their faces, like some sort of jerkoff schoolyard instigator.

    I expect it will get a little hotter this morning because the candidates will have read the universally bad reviews. Unless David Gregory somehow fucks things up.

  • Danp on January 08, 2012 8:10 AM:

    Enough debates already. The only question left to ask is which of you can make Romney the richest.

  • Anon on January 08, 2012 8:22 AM:

    Maybe none of them wants to play too rough and jeopardize a possible VP slot.

  • lou on January 08, 2012 8:23 AM:

    The whole GOP electoral debacle has been a charade from the get go. The big money system would default to the big money guy no matter his weaknesses or his infidelities to the conservative cause. It makes no sense but what does in America these days? Too surreal.

  • c u n d gulag on January 08, 2012 8:23 AM:

    The "fix is in," and has been for awhile.

    The money people have been trying to reassert the control they lost with the arrival of their, now red-headed stepchildren, the Teabaggers - and their hands-down choice - IS MITT!

    All the rest were allowed their moments in the sun to whine and "shine," to put on their sad clown parade, and make this charade seem like a real competition.

    From "As You Like It:"
    "All the world's a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages:"
    Mitt - the 1% Candidate.

    Santorum - The K-Street Torquemada, for those who like their economic and sexual extremism less 'Mormony.'

    Paul - a dope on everything except dope and war.

    Bachmann - A lady for the crazies.

    Cain - A drop of chocolate in a sea of vanilla.

    Gingrich - A 1-hit wonder blast from the rancid past.

    Huntsman - Who's he, and what's he doing here?

    Or, you can sum-up this whole sorry sociopathic lot with quote from "Macbeth:"

    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    That last sentence says it all.

    Unless one any of these idiots, full of sound and fury, and some other less complimentary things, actually becomes our President.

    And then we will all be poorer players, hungrier shadows, doing a hell of a lot more fretting, while these assholes strut upon their stage, as America begins to really signify nothing.

  • DAY on January 08, 2012 8:47 AM:

    The "Best of Morning Joe" is when Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski drops in to teach a class on International Reality, and the nuances and intrigues of same. One morning he schooled Joe as being "Stupefyingly Simplistic."

    "Stupefyingly Simplistic" has been the meme of these debates. But, then, they are dumbed down for Flyover Country, where the earth is flat, and God is Daddy.

    Hedda's right; they are saving their vitriol for the Obamination.

  • theAmericanist on January 08, 2012 8:48 AM:

    It's the old wisdom -- if you are going to stab the king, be sure you kill him. The time isn't ripe yet -- but it's coming. My prediction is that it will be the Sadie Hawkins Day Massacre.

    Nobody can be sure yet that they can actually take Romney out and either be nominated themselves, or get someone else the nomination (for which they will presumably be grateful). You're confused about the dynamics.

    That's because -- as is typical of kibitizers -- you guys haven't looked at the DELEGATES, which is how somebody gets nominated.

    The first part of the GOP campaign are caucuses and primaries where every candidate who gets a few votes gets delegates. So Romney's 'victories' where he gets even a substantial plurality, like a possible 40% of the vote in New Hampshire, still mean that he will be well short of a majority of the delegates chosen, right up until Super Tuesday.

    As other candidates drop out, like Bachman has already done, we cannot know if the not-Mitt vote will go to a single alternative. But we do know that the not-Mitt vote will have fewer places to go. As it becomes a three candidate race -- Romney, Paul and a player to be named later -- if Romney isn't scoring a majority of the TOTAL vote, not simply a plurality in a multiple candidate race, for all his front-runner inevitability, he won't have a majority of the delegates chosen up to that point. Most likely he will have something more than a third and perhaps as much as 40% of a 5th of the total at the convention.

    THAT is the moment -- Arizona and Michigan on 2/28 -- when either Ron Paul (unlikely) or some Republican heavyweight who is not a candidate (very likely) will make the effort to take Romney down and have the ultimate not-Mitt candidate replace him as the nominee.

    So figure the end of February at the latest. If Romney hasn't gotten more than 50% of the total vote in any primary by then (Michigan will probably make or break him, cuz of his Dad's connection), somebody will make the first (and last) truly serious effort to knock him off so Rs can fall in line behind another nominee. Remember, though, that although the metaphor is making sure that when you stab the king, you have to kill him, thank God this isn't a real political assassination, which typically results in a chaotic aftermath. The GOP literally can NOT have chaos, because they have to nominate SOMEBODY in Florida at the end of August -- and "not-Mitt" won't work.

    But the nomination isn't so much Romney's to lose, as it is there for someone else to take. If he doesn't get 50% in Michigan or Arizona, and somebody else gets 33% while he and Paul split the rest....

  • dervin on January 08, 2012 8:54 AM:

    I think this has to do with Romney's known floor and ceiling, than any sort of voodoo. If Ron Paul/Rick Perry/Rick Santorum/Newt Gingrich drops out of the race there's no way those votes are going to Romney.

    The greatest gift given to Romney is today's republicans are so petty and spiteful, they would rather have a white version of Obama carry the mantle of Reagan than swallow a little pride and drop out of the race to support the best anti-Mitt.

  • Montana on January 08, 2012 9:02 AM:

    I wish there were a grand GOP puppet maker in the sky but I fear these guys are lone guns, working for themselves, not the GOP. And they each have their own paymasters to answer to.

    The problem with not-Mitts (and Mitt for that matter) is that they aren't very bright. Even so-called Dr. College Professor could hardly get a word in edgewise last night. At least Michele Bachmann would interrupt so that she could be heard.

    Their only sign off as of last night is well, guess I'll go down to the shootin' range. What else is there?

  • Danp on January 08, 2012 9:10 AM:

    if you are going to stab the king, be sure you kill him. the Americanist

    But then how do you explain all the stabs outside the debate setting?

  • SW on January 08, 2012 9:16 AM:

    Wing nut welfare. Don't want to fuck that up.

  • hells littlest angel on January 08, 2012 9:27 AM:

    Hmm, I wonder if Steve has lost internet service once again.

    Kudos to David Gregory for chumming the water real good!

  • RalfW on January 08, 2012 9:38 AM:

    “Do these guys not understand how this game works?”

    Oh, they do. They most certainly do.

    Most of them are on the make for a plum think tank job with a side of lobbying and a few corporate board appointments to fund their bloated retirement goals.

    So be nice to the Mitt-machine.

    Huntsman might, possibly, be thinking about 2016 so he didn't want to be too harsh towards Mitt as a potential ATM for Huntsman's next shot.

    As the saying goes, follow the money. It points to the GOP field being not country first but greased palm first.

  • Anonymous on January 08, 2012 9:50 AM:

    But then how do you explain all the stabs outside the debate setting?

    To some extent it's the in-person-ness of the debates.

    It's easy to be nasty at a distance. Hence Santorum and his ilk can demonize Teh Gays at his leisure. Or how they all go after those blakity-black people on welfare.

    And why they can (via the hand-sanitizing PACs) make really mean attack ads.

    But in person, these guys are still (ummmm) human. When you are 3 or 10 feet from another living, breathing person (or Mitt-bot) it is harder to go in close with the knife.

    It's just not that easy to attack when you can look 'em in the eye.

  • chi res on January 08, 2012 9:58 AM:

    "Stupefyingly Simplistic" has been the meme of these debates. But, then, they are dumbed down for Flyover Country

    I always figured they were dumbed down for the grown-up valley girls and beach boys in Fall-Off Country.

  • bleh on January 08, 2012 10:31 AM:

    Are they reluctant to go after him because they want to be his running mate?

    Ya think?

    They're all more nuts than he is, and being professional politicians they understand perfectly well that he's better positioned to win the general. The fight has always been over the silver, not the gold, and that's why they mostly attack each other. Attacks on Romney are always done outside his presence and in less formal settings, to excite THEIR base, and even then they're mild.

    Plus he's got way more money and organization than any of them, with the possible exception of Perry, who I think is the front-runner for the VP right now.

    And as observed above, they don't want to spoil the payday, which is what most of them are mainly after anyway.

    The whole thing is nauseating. The only upside is, it's shown the broader public what a bunch of loons the Republicans have become.

  • theAmericanist on January 08, 2012 10:56 AM:

    That debates are up close and personal is part of it, but the difficulty of doing it right is more to the point. "Stop lying about my record" did not make Bob Dole President.

    In his prime, Reagan was really good at this -- "There you go again" was devastating to Carter. He wasn't always that good at it. When he was governor in California, he used to make clangingly divisive statements all the time. But he also had a sense of humor, generally directed at himself, e.g., when he decided to flip flop on raising California's taxes. He opposed a tax hike during a budget fight by saying "my feet are set in concrete". Then when he got what he wanted, he started a press conference by scratching the microphone: "The sound you hear is the concrete breaking around my feet."

    The real problem the Rs have isn't so much that Romney can't win the nomination, as that somebody else has to win it if he doesn't. Romney's ceiling may be 25% or so, so far, but all his rivals have failed to consistently score even that high, and all of them are less popular (with good reason) with the voters as a whole.

    People forget that Reagan got beat the first time he seriously challenged for the nomination in 1976, mostly because Jim Baker (Ford's consigliere) rained Federal money on wavering delegates. He was the obvious next choice in 1980, but there was a moment when he had to prove himself. Phil Crane challenged Reagan's conservative credentials and called him a fake. So Reagan looked him in the eye in an early debate, cited his 11th Commandment, and said: "Would you really want Ted Kennedy to be President, instead of me?"

    Who among these guys can be that deft?

    Romney himself? Paul? Santorum? Gingrich? Huntsman, who thought saying 他 不 太 了解 was a smart way to respond to an attack on Chinese trade policy?

  • Meanie-meanie, tickle a person on January 08, 2012 11:25 AM:

    I'm at a loss in trying to explain this.

    No yer not:
    At this point, I'm tempted to think the GOP field is just going through the motions, after having decided a long time ago to just let Romney win the nomination.

    At this point they're just in it for the ego and whatever portion of the campaign contributions they get to keep. Concerning which, as someone once said "there oughtta be a law"...

  • rea on January 08, 2012 11:42 AM:

    It's strange to see the Republicans, for the second election cycle in a row, in the process of nominating someone they really don't want, for lack of a plausible alternative.

  • Bj smith on January 08, 2012 4:08 PM:

    Seems like the word has come down from the republican machine, whoever that is. Rove, Rush, Fox?, take your pick. Is there trouble in River city? All of it seems surreal.

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