The Other McCain

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Have the Deciders Decided? Examining the Post-Debate Examinations

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. . . .

Please read the whole thing at The American Spectator.

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.


  • Thomas L. Knapp

    “Were they watching the same debate I saw?”

    Apparently not.

    In the debate I saw, Romney came out a lot worse for wear on a night when he needed a big win, while Santorum did okay and maybe even gained a little ground.

    Of course, all of them except Paul came off as gibbering psychotic whackjobs on foreign policy, but that’s sort of a given with the GOP lately.

  • Evi L. Bloggerlady
  • richard mcenroe

    Did anyone really expect MNN (The Mitt News Network, formerly known as Fox) to think he did badly?

  • robertstacymccain

    I deeply appreciate your Neutral Objective judgment, Tom.

  • Finrod Felagund

    Santorum does deserve criticism for dropping out of the Georgia debate, though.

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  • Thomas L. Knapp


    Was Rick supposed to look like he was having fun? He’s the frontrunner, and the target is on his back.

    But … he came off as serious and mature under attack. I think that’s an important thing for him, to the extent that “religious right” types are often vulnerable to dismissal as lightweight flakes.

  • Thomas L. Knapp


    Well, obviously not neutral — I’m about as far as it is possible to get from Santorum politically, and have previously been disinclined to like him personally either.

    I’d say that if I think Santorum did well, he did pretty damn well.

  • ThePaganTemple

    Oh so that smiling crap was his wife’s idea, huh? The next time you have a horrible pain, I want you to smile, and look at yourself in the mirror doing it.

    I hope Mitt Romney and Ron Paul aren’t that well endowed, because that wasn’t a debate, that was an ass-rape.

  • PhillyCon

    Yeah, I don’t get that either … how is Santorum “not having fun” some kind of diss on him when he’s getting attacked … (that’s how Jacobsen ends his blog post).

  • PhillyCon

    So, let me get this straight: last week Santorum was a right wing mullah talking about Satan, now he’s a RINO squish who was instrumental in getting Obamacare passed.

  • Pathfinder’s wife

    These guys are not only shooting down all the not Romneys, by their very ham handed and obvious shilling they are also destroying Romney’s chances (seriously, I’m starting to really dislike Romney personally thanks to these bozos — it isn’t easy to steer clear of sentiments like that after listening to them either) — and might I add: going after a guy’s religious views, which are pretty mainstream, opens the door for you know who to really have some fun with your guy, and sorry, but the magic underwear et al. are going to look kinda weird to most voters.  It’s nasty bigotry, but it’s the truth.

    And in the case of people like Chris Christie, they are making it look like the GOP as a body is willing to play dirty to get their boy Romney in…this won’t help the down ticket.

    Way to go guys.

    **and Gingrich probably won the debates, Paul had some good moments, Santorum did ok (would have been better if he’d done better, they can and will go after him for his performance last night).  
    **and the rude sign: not classy, not classy at all

  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Thomas:  Fun is not the right word.  And I agree with you, Rick did overall fine.  They had him looking defensive and as a result Mitt managed to get a few blows in that normally Rick probably would have fended off.  Redstate made an observation on how Rick Santorum dealt with contraception (in a good way) that is a good point.

  • Pathfinder’s wife

    Here’s my tinfoil hat bet:
    Romney gets the nomination; Paul is in on the goodies supporting his “movement”; Tea Party movement also gets represented somehow (Rubio?); establishment is happy….of course some very divisive cracks have been made in the process by the smear campaign which has bled over into swipes not at the canidates but their beliefs, which of course affect other people.

    Obama’s going to steamroller Romney through the “hey, those Mormons are really creepy huh?” — he’s going to deliver the knock out blow to everybody on the right for the price of one swing.

    I’m placing money on this happening if that’s  how it goes down.

  • Evi L. Bloggerlady
  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Yeah, that was the Romney-Paul goal.  

  • AnonymousDrivel

    Doesn’t Christie have a state to run or something? Is he a governor, a campaign manager, or a pundit wannabe?

  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    I missed the rude sign.  What was that?   I think your comments are generally spot on.  

  • Finrod Felagund

    Yeah, Erickson hates Santorum so much that he posted this:

    I think the conventional wisdom is wrong about Santorum. While I think he did not perform as well as he should have and, in fact, hurt himself, on the social values issues I think Santorum helped himself more than the media would believe.

  • AnonymousDrivel

    The longer this drags on, the more I’m inclined to vote FOR the guy the MFM and the Progressives (BIRM) go after hardest, which is to say Santorum is becoming my default choice.

    Now, what does it say when back-benchers posing as analysts from the Right join in on the attacks and spin? I can judge my enemies by the company they keep even as they might deny the marginal association.

  • AnonymousDrivel

    RSM: “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.”

    The essence of media. It has been this way since I was born. They show everyone their a**hole opinion and presume to tell us it smells like roses and that we should behold its beauty.

    Bah. Hot air derived from fetid swamps.

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  • Adjoran

    The best Santorum can hope for is some sympathy from that performance.  I guess “the deciders” put itching powder in his shorts or something?

  • ThePaganTemple

     If he can’t do any better than that debating Obama he’s toast even if he does get the nomination.

  • Tennwriter

    I’m watching Fox, and after discussing the debate, who’s the first guy they trot out….noted Santorum supporter and sweater vest wearer Karl ‘You bleep, bleep Conservatives better shet it! NOW!’ Rove.

    I’m sure glad Fox decided to get a neutral objective person like Rove, but they could have instead just asked Barney Frank what he thought of the debate. 

    Now I have to go buy a new TV as I ripped that one off the wall and threw it through the plate glass window overlooking the tennis courts at stately Tennwriter Manor.

  • Tennwriter

    The whispering womyn (of the supposed male gender) don’t have enough guts to do that.

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  • Pathfinder’s wife

    somebody had a “Frothy” sign — it was kinda classless

  • Quartermaster

    …formerly stately Tennwriter manor.”

    There, I fixed it for you.

  • Adjoran

    Fox has had Rove, who engineered the GOP election successes of 2000, 2002, and 2004, under contract as a paid analyst for over three years now.  Should they not use the guy they are paying because you don’t like what he says?

    As with Stacy, when the list of people nefariously conspiring against you gets too long to carry around, maybe the problem isn’t them.

  • Bob Belvedere

    I believe Willard dropped out first.

  • Finrod Felagund

    Yes, Mitt dropped out first, but that does not absolve Rick of blame.  IMHO they’re both cowards.

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