Posted on | February 23, 2012 | 38 Comments
This morning, I woke up and switched on Fox & Friends and watched them bring on Mitt Romney’s proxy Chris Christie to lead the 8 a.m. hour. Steve Doocy’s first question to Christie — this is from memory, but close enough to an exact quote that I’ll put it inside quotation marks — was: “All the conservative blogs say Mitt Romney won and Rick Santorum had a bad night.”
Really? Of course I’m prejudiced by my pro-Santorum sentiments, but this seemed an odd way to start the morning’s schedule at Fox News, as if they were delivering the Official Message.
My general impression of last night’s debate was that Newt Gingrich had the best performance, and that Santorum escaped without any major harm. That was important, because this was the debate where Santorum could expect to be required to answer for everything “controversial” he has ever said, and he never really got cornered.
But if you watched CNN before the debate, you noticed that some of their commentators — particularly Ari Fleischer — were trying to raise expectations: Santorum needed to clearly win the debate, or else he would be judged the loser. And when it was over, Fleischer and others on CNN (including Erick Erickson, who hates Rick Santorum with the heat of ten thousand suns) were declaring Romney the winner on the basis of such calculations. (For some reason, CNN didn’t book Dana Loesch as a commentator on the Arizona debate.)
In general, it seemed to me that coverage of last night’s debate was over-hyped, that political junkies were underestimating the degree to which regular people have become jaded after 20 debates. Here’s the lead of the New York Times article:
Mitt Romney challenged Rick Santorum’s credentials as a fiscal conservative in a fiercely combative debate on Wednesday, trying to redefine Mr. Santorum as part of the problem in Washington and regain his footing in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.
With the Arizona and Michigan primaries only six days away, followed quickly by a dozen more contests, Mr. Romney arrived here at a critical moment of his candidacy armed with a detailed indictment of Mr. Santorum’s record in Congress. Mr. Romney sought to dismantle his rival’s claim to be the authentic conservative in the race. . . .
“Fiercely combative“? Were they watching the same debate I saw? And does this description of Romney’s political goal in the lead suggest that the reporters were in Romney’s corner?
Trying to avoid such spin can be difficult, and sometimes the spin becomes a story unto itself. At any rate, here’s my own take on it:
The debate was into the second hour, and Mitt Romney had just played the Arlen Specter card against Rick Santorum, blaming Santorum’s 2004 endorsement of his fellow Pennsylvanian for the passage of Obamacare in 2010. Santorum responded by playing the Dukakis card against Romney.
“Yes governor, you balanced the budget for four years,” Santorum told Romney during the Arizona debate televised by CNN. “You have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget for four years. No great shakes. I’m all for — I’d like to see it federally. But don’t go around bragging about something you have to do. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don’t think so.”
As highlights go, it wasn’t spectacular, but Wednesday’s debate — the 20th nationally televised meeting of Republican candidates during this long campaign — was generally lacking in highlights. There were no dramatic gaffes or stumbles, and few memorable zingers. While the commentators on CNN afterwards offered their own “what did it mean” analyses, it is unlikely that the debate changed many minds. . . .
UPDATE: Just now watched Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard being interviewed on Fox News, discussing among other things another media-generated meme, the “brokered convention” scenario. Ironically, it was a Weekly Standard article in defense of Santorum’s record on fiscal issues that got a big shout-out from Santorum last night. Yet Hayes goes on Fox peddling the “Santorum under fire” meme?
Meanwhile, here is pro-Gingrich blogger William Jacobson’s takeaway from the Arizona debate:
No question Newt won, but no single huge moment that is likely to shift the polls dramatically (or fundamentally). Just a consistent strong performance, that’s the pretty uniform assessment from relatively neutral people I’m following on Twitter. Really bad night for Santorum, off message, harsh, just strange performance, a missed opportunity. Good night for Romney, no gaffes, mostly strong. Ron Paul was Ron Paul.
Permit me to suggest that Jacobson’s pro-Newt sentiments color his perceptions in much the way that my pro-Santorum sentiments color my own. Was Santorum “harsh”? I didn’t see that. What I saw (and anyone may check the video on this) was that Santorum smiled a lot.
It was Santorum’s wife Karen who gave him that bit of “debate coaching,” by the way. Rick’s got a nice smile and, a few months ago, his wife told him he needs to smile more often. So the idea that the smiling Santorum came off as “harsh” in last night’s debate is something I doubt the average voter perceived. But we’ll only have to wait until next Tuesday — or Super Tuesday, a week after that — to find out what average voters think.
UPDATE II: Beyond the question of who actually “won” the debate, or who wins next Tuesday’s primaries, or even who ultimately wins the GOP nomination, I am intrigued by the way such perceptions are shaped. Look at this headline:
Romney and Paul successfully call
Santorum’s conservatism into question
Is that some right-wing blogger? No, it’s Aaron Blake of the Washington Post. Who deputized Blake to determine whether the attacks on Santorum’s conservatism were successful? By what standard does a liberal journalist judge these things?
The way in which Blake speaks with the journalistic authority of a powerful media institution makes the difference between, “Let me tell you what I think,” and “Let me tell you what to think.”
Perhaps you don’t care. Perhaps you say, “Well, I hate Santorum anyway, so I don’t care if MSM reporters are promoting prejudicial opinions against him.” But as a phenomenon unto itself — the media exercising influence as “deciders” in a Republican primary — this is fascinating to watch, from the “meta” point of view.