ABC News hosted the latest Republican debate on Saturday night (the candidates seem to like trying to get on the air just before Saturday Night Live airs, thwarting SNL writers from making up-to-the-minute jabs). The two hours saw the front-runners-of-this-milisecond, Mitt Romney and Newt Gringrich, engage in a few head-to-head confrontations. Gingrich uttered the sound-bite of the night when he defended himself against the charge of being a career politician by sneering at Romney, “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.” Romney, as he does frequently when confronted with an ad lib, looked flustered in response.
Michele Bachmann advanced the most adventurous rhetorical strategy, attempting to equate – and therefore neutralize – the two front-runners by referring to them repeatedly as one, spliced-together politician, whom she dubbed “Newt Romney.” She must have said “Newt Romney” a half-dozen times; it was like watching Carrot Top repeat a punchline over and over until it got a laugh.
Certainly the most awkward moment of the debate, was a question that ABC said came from a viewer, about whether fidelity to one’s spouse was an important issue in deciding whom to vote for. The point was designed to embarrass Gingrich, a thrice-married Catholic who had an affair with the future Wife Number Three while married to Wife Number Two. Rick Perry seized on this question as though biting into a well-done steak: “If you will cheat on your spouse, you’ll cheat on your business partner,” he said, taking a bite of Newt. And by “business partner” we had to assume Perry meant “America.” Or maybe he just meant Mitt Romney, who spent a lot of time saying he wasn’t a politician, he was a businessman, a man who worked in “the private sector,” and therefore knows what it’s like to run the country, or some specious logic like that.
Gingrich, however, is unembarrassable. “It is a real issue,” he said. “People have to look at the person to whom they are going to loan the presidency; they have to have a feeling that this is a person they can trust.” (By the way, Ron Paul had the only sensible response to this question: “It shouldn’t be asked,” he said.)
George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer ran through questions – well, I shouldn’t say “ran”: Sawyer has the disconcerting habit of phrasing questions with a build-up of molasses. Here’s how she tried to arrive at a query about immigration: “People talk about this in their living rooms and around their dinner tables… ” Don’t forget, in their showers and in their Victory Gardens as well, Diane!
Once again, TV framed the debate in a not-so-subtle way to fixate on those whose stock seems to be the highest at the moment of broadcast. It’s by no means a sure thing that Gingrich will remain as high in the polls as he is at the moment, yet on Saturday night, it was pretty much all-Newt, all the time.