GOP Debate: Newt Goes Nuclear

Newt Gingrich loses his luster to Rick Santorum
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Newt Gingrich showed in the GOP Debate how to fight: they bring a bazooka, you bring a nuke. CNN’s John King couldn’t even take shelter before Newt turned him into radioactive dust. Thus Newt gave his audience just a taste of how he would treat The Man Now Holding Office As President in a debate.

GOP Debate Highlight and Lowlight

The Chicago Sun-Times has a complete transcript. The highlight of the GOP debate followed the lowlight. Moderator John King opened with a question about Newt’s second wife telling ABC News that Newt wanted an “open marriage.” Then he asked Newt whether he would like to take time to answer that. Newt’s answer:

No. But I will.

That was as much warning as Newt gave. Then it began:

I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.

That wasn’t all. Gingrich, to loud cheers and hand-clapping, told King how much he despised him for taking up valuable debate time with the question. King then protested that the interview would run on a different network. Gingrich was having none of that:

John, John, it was repeated by your network.

Then, stabbing an accusing finger at King, he went on:

You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with that.

And even that wasn’t the nuclear event. That came when Newt said that the open-marriage story was—false! And worse, ABC knew it was false. Thus Newt reminded the country of something that the CNN and ABC executives forgot: this is classic he said/she said hearsay, with no physical evidence, and hence no foundation.

King then tried to call for allies. Gingrich’s rivals were having none of that. Mitt Romney said it best:

John, let’s get on to the real issues, is all I’ve got to say.

The last judgment on the GOP debate, as against ABC’s Nightline program featuring the second Mrs. Newt, will have to come from A. C. Nielsen.

GOP Debate Awards

The Shovel Award

Mitt Romney, contender in the GOP debate

Former Governor Mitt Romney at a townhall in Sun Lakes, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License

Mitt Romney recovered his shovel, but barely. As ever, he won it by default. His tax return is still his most vulnerable point. John King nearly scored against him by remind him that Mitt’s father George released twelve years of tax returns in 1968. The elder Romney said that one year would be a fluke, but twelve would set a reliable pattern. Mitt replied that he would release his tax information once, so that the media wouldn’t pick on him about it over several weeks of releases. The problem: Gingrich had already released his income-tax returns an hour earlier.

But Romney did turn his problem into an opportunity:

I’m going to be able to talk to President Obama in a way no one else can that’s in this race right now, about how the free economy works, what it takes to put Americans back to work, and make sure he understands that this divisiveness and dividing Americans between 99 and 1 is dangerous. We are one nation under God.

And later:

I’m someone who believes in free enterprise. I think Adam Smith was right, and I’m going to stand and defend capitalism across this country, throughout this campaign. I know we’re going to hit it hard from President Obama, but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.

The Bucket Award

Newt Gingrich showed that he could not only catch it but throw it back, and hard enough to hurt as well as smell. Moderator King got the worst of it. But Rick Santorum risked it himself when he said that Newt tended to be “grandiose” in his dreams. Newt replied:

You’re right: I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things, and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.

The Bullet Dodge

Ron Paul, contender in the GOP debate

Representative Ron Paul (R-TX-14). Photo: US House of Representatives

This award goes to Ron Paul. A GOP debate that began with gossip (and possibly lying gossip, at that) did not touch on foreign policy at all. So Ron Paul found no traps to fall into this time.

Instead, Moderator King tried to ignore him at one point. But Ron Paul proved that his supporters can show up at a GOP debate and heckle the moderator when they need to, in addition to knocking on doors. King asked Romney to discuss his position on abortion (“the life issue”). That led to a lengthy back-and-forth between Romney and Gingrich, with Santorum often weighing in. King then tried to move on to the next question, and Ron Paul’s supporters shouted at him to recognize Paul. And Paul said:

John, once again, it’s a medical subject, and I’m a doctor, you know!

Paul made two points:

  1. Trying to deny funding for abortions is useless, because “funds are fungible.” That is, if you pay for one activity, you pay for all.
  2. Abortion should be a State matter, not federal, because States have jurisdiction over crimes and other acts of violence.

Rick Santorum disputed Paul on that point, but never laid a proper foundation. In fact, Ron Paul is correct. The federal government never prosecutes a murder, apart from special circumstances like “on a government reservation” or “on the high seas” or “an act of terrorism.” The District Court in Washington, DC hears simple criminal cases, but the Constitution gives clear authority for that:

The Congress shall have the power…to exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over [the] District [that is] the seat of government.

The Decision

Newt Gingrich at CPAC Florida. Winner of the Jan 19 GOP debate.

Newt Gingrich at the CPAC conference in Orlando, FL, September, 2011

This GOP debate had no obvious knock-outs, unless one counts Moderator John King. Rick Santorum had several chances to shine, but didn’t. Ron Paul made no big mistakes, but no one led him to. (He did make some well-placed remarks about gold-standard banking, but no one beyond his own supporters noticed.)

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were the top contenders in the GOP debate, as they are in the GOP race. Mitt wisely avoided the issue of Newt’s background (though none of Newt’s remaining rivals have had more than one wife). But he still sounded defensive on the tax-return issue, though he should have no reason to. (Or at least, none that anyone knows about for certain.)

Newt Gingrich had all the good comeback lines, against the moderator at first, and then against The Man Now Holding Office As President. This riddle is the prize example:

Why is President Obama for young people [staying] on their parents’ insurance until 26? Because he can’t get any jobs for them to go out and buy their own insurance.

In other words: never consider one policy in a vacuum. One cannot script a riddle like that. And that Barack H. Obama, who cannot speak in public without a TelePrompTer, could compose such a line on-the-fly, is nearly unimaginable.

For these reasons, the decision in the January 19 GOP debate goes to Newt Gingrich. Now South Carolina’s Republican voters will decide whether this is enough.