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GOP Debate Analysis: Questions, Answers No Longer Important

Tom Dotan |
February 23, 2012 | 12:41 a.m. PST


Screen Shot of CNN Debate
Screen Shot of CNN Debate
We are reminded time and again, that debates, in spite of their pre-scripted, tempest-in-a-teapot outrage, really do matter. Yet, after sitting through a few dozen of them, all the players--media, audience, politicians--have perhaps all become a bit too familiar. And when Mitt Romney, after being pressed by CNN's debate moderator John King to actually answer his directed question, responds with "you ask the questions you want, I'll answer what I want," and King apologizes, the remaining semblance of honest discussion finally crumbled.

So, with the moderators and questions deemed irrelevant, it was lucky, then, that this was last debate before the Arizona and Michigan primaries next week, followed by Super Tuesday on March 6. 

There's just no living with them all now--Mitt especially, who has retreated ever rightward and further up his own nose.  If severity is what Republicans are looking for in a candidate, search no further than the man who proudly wrests it into his title.

He dinged Santorum for supporting then-President Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, for endorsing a pro-choice Arlen Specter, and for partaking in liberal helpings of pork.

It's posturing and posing of course; Mitt might not be a conservative, but he's happy to play one on TV. Severely.

If Karl Rove made famous the tactic to make your opponent's strength his biggest weakness, the Romney version is to make your own weakness someone else's problem. 

Santorum, who perhaps since his birth had not been forced to reexamine his allegiance with conservative values, was out of sorts. His biggest flub in  a wholly ineffective night came when he was forced into long, explainatory slogs through Congressional procedural muck. He gave a spirited, though dull, defense of why some federal spending is good and it was the kind of nuanced argument that goes over like a brick during the red meat primaries.

Worse, it inflames an element to Santorum's character that doesn't get much play: he's a legislator through and through. Many of the decisions he made in the Senate that were brought up for ridicule by Mitt and Ron Paul, were pragmatic Republican decisions to the benefit of the party and a Republican president. His answer, that he was a "team player" no doubt sufficed for the whips, but to a blindly dogmatic tea party voter it was deadly.

There was an odd moment when King asked a question about the candidates' stances on birth control. The audience that over the course of 20 debates has declared itself an expert media critic, booed loudly. Their angst reflects a GOP fear that a culture war narrative will benefit the Democrats in November. This media badgering is what Gingrich gets out of bed for--he looked very well rested, on a side note--and began to lecture the moderator for throwing in a distracting morality question. 

But Santorum sunk his teeth in gladly and parleyed the topic into his hell-on-earth worldview: an era of out-of-wedlock children, contraception, and horror-core music.

The debates have reached a point where no new material has been breached, although it was interesting to note that current unemployment numbers, which have steadily improved the past two months, got few mentions Wednesday night. This shift away from economic questions would seem to benefit Santorum's family values platform, but his meek presence prevented the runaway showing he needed to clamp down on Michigan.

Instead the debate generator puttered along for one last lap as the runners lurched toward the finish line. As has now been openly stated, the questions no longer matter and the answers we've heard time and time before.

If the drudgery of the primary has infused a pervading sense of existential ennui in the proceedings, there is some ironic justice. Should things go badly for most of the fellows on stage in the next two weeks, their campaign chances may soon exist only in their minds.


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