The South Carolina Debate: Blunt Assessments of the GOP Field

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Four candidates, all flawed. The least charming, Rick Santorum, helped himself the most. And the biggest loser? Newt Gingrich, if substance counts.

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On Thursday, four Republicans mounted a debate stage in South Carolina, site of the next GOP primary, and faced off before a Tea Party crowd, each knowing that he isn't the right candidate to emerge as its champion. The forum was among the more exciting of this primary season: each man had a chance to win the night, because all are flawed enough to be legitimately savaged.

To understand what happened next it's necessary to know the players.

THE CANDIDATES THAT REMAIN

Mitt Romney is a pragmatic businessman enamored of his own competence and averse to ideology; having internalized the idea that succeeding in politics requires one to pander and flip-flop, he does so shamelessly; but he lacks the ideological zeal to be a good Tea Party standard-bearer. He is nevertheless the default candidate of many Republicans, due to his apparent discipline, impressive success in the private sector, and the fact that deep down many in the rank-and-file - loathe as they are to admit it - worry that the more ideological choices might turn out to be batshit crazy. Republicans rich enough that they've got something to lose, but not so rich that they can afford for the country to go to hell, are Mitt Romney's core of support.
 
Newt Gingrich is a grandiloquent career politician with an irrepressible weakness for utopian scheming. He is a member of the conservative tribe, adept at enthusiastically smearing its war paint on his body and howling its war cries in political combat; and so enamored are some members of his tribe with the loyalty he signals that they miss the truth: neither his character nor his temperament are conservative, and his voting record is as dubious and heretical as that of George W. Bush, a leader so shameful to the tribe that it is now taboo to utter his name in debates. 

Rick Santorum is a social conservative who'd gladly expand the size and reach of the federal government to impose his moral code. He justifies this transgression against liberty by invoking deeply flawed accounts of the American founding and political philosophy generally, and is as ignorant about foreign affairs, combining hubristic, hawkish positions with wildly unrealistic predictions about what they'd accomplish. He is intent on privileging and subsidizing working and middle class families, so long as they're composed of two heterosexual parents; and he voted for many of the Bush-era spending initiatives that Tea Partiers hate.

There is, finally, Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman, principled champion of limited government, and onetime purveyor of bigoted newsletters. In the race to serve as a messenger for ideas that would otherwise be ignored, he is the only one uttering quixotic endorsements of the gold standard - and vital defenses of civil liberties and a non-interventionist foreign policy. His critique makes him anathema to the jingoistic GOP establishment, and divides the rank-and-file according to how jaded they are by the war in Iraq.

WHAT THE DEBATE REMINDED US ABOUT THEM

Mitt Romney's strongest pitch, interjected as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich fought about their time in Congress, was that he is in fact the Republican best able to contrast himself with President Obama in the general election - "despite Romneycare" is implicit here - because he's spent the bulk of his career as a businessman, whereas his opponents are lifelong politicians. If one treats Ron Paul as a viable candidate, this argument fails, for he'd have no trouble contrasting himself with Obama, but measured against Santorum and Gingrich, Romney is right.

It might not be so if any of the three had a voting record like Ron Paul, but in fact none of them are principled advocates of limited government or consistent champions of liberty. To be sure, they're each to Barack Obama's right; but they've also internalized the notion that, afforded an opportunity to direct the machinery of the state as they see fit, they'd fix things -- Romney as America's CEO, Gingrich as its ideas man of destiny, Santorum as its arbiter of moral rightness. It is happenstance, more than divergent beliefs, that determined which among them implemented a health care bill with an individual mandate, urged subsidies for first time buyers, backed No Child Left Behind, and supported Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. Put in one another's positions they'd often as not have done the same opportunistic things.

Since it's easy to imagine any of them having compromised in any of these ways -- because they're all pledging to do substantially the same things in the future, and it's completely unclear who'd have the most success -- Romney is right to stress his executive experience, and the fact that as the nominee he can tout his lengthy time in the private sector. Gingrich has seemingly been disabused of the notion that he can tout his time selling out to Freddie Mac as "private sector experience," so Romney really is the only one of the three making the claim.

Newt Gingrich reminded us, as the debate began, that his capacity for pious baloney is unsurpassed. The man who did as much as anyone to savage Bill Clinton over his unseemly affairs proceeded to insist, as sanctimoniously as possible, that the media had no business prying into his indiscretions -- and while attacking the MSM may have won over the partisan audience in South Carolina, the hypocrisy it exposed is an Obama friendly SuperPac ad waiting to be cut.

Then there is Gingrich's proposal to constitute local citizen boards, modeled after the draft boards of the World War II era, to decide whether illegal immigrants should be deported or permitted to stay in the country. So basically, he wants to create a new bureaucracy, the composition of which would be a subject of never-ending controversy, wherein there'd be  obvious incentives for bribery, fraud, and favoritism, the likelihood of class and racial prejudice, as happened in WWII, and either inadequate oversight or an expensive system of monitors and appeals. This is vintage Gingrich. An idea needn't be workable to appeal to him, it need only be obscure enough that he can take credit for it and have some superficially appealing quality -- in this case, the rhetorical opportunity to harken vaguely back to the World War II era.

That brings us to Rick Santorum, who thrived in this debate, partly by articulating as devastating a critique of Gingrich as you'll hear from a GOP candidate. It's in two parts, and here is part one:

Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. And that's really one of the issues here, folks. I mean, a month ago, he was saying, oh, it's inevitable that I'm going to win the election, I'm destined to do it. I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and worrying about what he's going to say next. And that's what I think we're seeing here. For him to suggest that someone who was tied for first, and eventually won, the Iowa caucuses and finished with twice as many votes as he did; and finished ahead of him in New Hampshire in spite of the fact that he spent an enormous amount more money in both those places...and I should get out of the race? These are not cogent thoughts.

...Newt's a friend, I love him, but at times you just got to -- you know, sort of that, you know, worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee. I'm not the most flamboyant and I don't get the biggest applause lines here, but I'm steady. I'm solid. I'm not going to go out and do things that you're going to worry about. I'm going to be out there and I'm going to make Barack Obama the issue in this campaign.
In his response, Gingrich concluded by saying, "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."

And Santorum replied:

I will give Newt Gingrich his due on grandiose ideas and grandiose projects. I will not give him his due on executing those projects, which is exactly what the president of the United States is supposed to do. Four years into his speakership, he was thrown out by the conservatives. There was a coup against him in '03. I served with him. I was there. I knew what the problems were going on in the House of Representatives, and Newt Gingrich was leading there. It was an idea a minute -- no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together. I understand you're taking credit for the 1994 election, and you did have a lot plans. As you know, I worked with you on those, and we had meetings early in the morning on many -- many a week. And so we worked together on that.

But you also have to admit that this freshman congressman who wasn't supposed to win a race, came and did something you never did, which is blew the lid off the biggest scandal to hit the Congress in 50 years. You knew about it for -- for 10 or 15 years because you told me you knew about it. And you did nothing, because you didn't have the courage to stand up to your own leadership, the Democratic speaker of the House, take to the floor of the Senate, demand the releasing of the checks that were being kited by members of Congress, risk your political career, risk your promotion within the ranks and do what was right for America -- and that had more or as much to do with the 1994 win as any plan that you put together.
As I remarked on Twitter, Santorum adeptly made his own boring-ness and lack of charisma an advantage. He also knows where the bodies are buried in Congress, and he isn't holding  back anymore. If he's willing to keep savaging Gingrich on his dubious leadership in the House, and the press begins focusing on what happened back then, it can only hurt Gingrich's chances.

And Ron Paul?

It wasn't his strongest debate. He's at his best critiquing the most blinkered foreign policy assertions of his opponents, but John King, the moderator, never really touched on those issues, and ignored Paul for long stretches. When Paul isn't directly tangling with other candidates, he isn't as engaging to watch. We all know his positions by now. He neither lost nor gained supporters Thursday night.

Still hungry for more?

The full debate transcript is here.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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