The Dither in Des Moines


Okay, okay. So it was a completely lame debate: Another inexplicable decision to
take meaty topics off the table. Very few questions designed to elicit
confrontation.  Extremely confining time limits. And all of this
humorlessly enforced by a controlling, schoolmarmish moderator. Oh, and
there was also the ludicrous presence of Alan Keyes, who managed to
make the cut even though Dennis Kucinich has been barred from today’s
Democratic installment.

Having said that, the debate did do one thing: It nicely illuminated
the central divide among the GOP front-runners. On the one hand, you
had Mitt Romney--wonk, empiricist, manager, PowerPoint aficionado.
On the other, Mike Huckabee--sympathetic little guy, preternatural
charmer, a man blessed with near-perfect thematic pitch. Now that both
men, thanks to their various contortions, occupy the same territory on
a range of key issues, voters are mostly left weighing stylistic
merits. And, in that respect, Huckabee and Romney couldn’t be more

What Romney was selling yesterday was a very literal version of
can-do optimism--his faith that he could bring about a rosier tomorrow
by working through a long, national to-do list. Romney’s very first
answer cautioned that, “this is not a time for us to wring our hands
and think that the future is bleak.” “In fact,” he said, “the future is
bright.” He went on to enumerate the various future-brightening chores
he would perform as president: Bringing about good jobs, health care, a
strong economy; lowering our dependence on foreign oil; cutting

Romney revisited his to-do-list again and again. If anything, he
only added items as the debate went on, as if to imply that the mere
volume of tasks would exhaust a lesser being. On a question about the
tradeoff between manufacturing jobs and open markets, Romney said 25
years in the private sector had taught him how to create a job or two:
“That’s by investing in education, technology, innovation, getting
ourselves off foreign oil, and making sure the playing field is level
[with respect to trade agreements]. It's not right now.” He concluded,
ever-optimistically, that “America can compete anywhere in the world.”

When Romney was asked what he would accomplish during his first year
as president—as direct an invitation for a laundry list as you'll ever
hear--I half expected him to throw back his head and cackle with
delight. “I want to establish a strategy to help us overwhelm global
jihad and keep the world safe,” he said. “I want to end illegal
immigration … the expanded growth of entitlements--rein 'em in … reduce
our tax burden on middle-income families … get us on a track to become
energy independent, get our schools on track to become competitive
globally.” (That all, governor?) He delivered these lines with
something I’d never heard from him before--an optimistic, Clinton-esque
rasp. Whether this was conscious or just some mild campaign-trail
hoarseness, I couldn’t tell. But it somehow made me more inclined to
believe him.

And yet… Each time Romney went on one of his goal-mongering
rampages, it seemed like Huckabee was there to one-up him--to see
Romney’s technocratic optimism and raise him to some new thematic
height. Never was this more apparent than after Romney’s romp
through his first year in office. “Well, I like the laundry list that
everybody's had,” Huckabee said. “The reality is none of that's going
to happen until we bring the country back together.” At this point he
reached for an Obama-like flourish: “I think the first priority is to
be a president of all the United States. … We've got to quit fighting
amongst ourselves and start putting the better interests of this nation
[first]. If that doesn't happen, we'll get none of these things done.”
I later heard some cynics in the press corps sneer at this sentiment.
But a Huckabee aide told me the staff collectively swooned when he
uttered the line (which, she said, was completely spontaneous), and I
suspect Iowans will follow suit.

Huckabee had another nice pivot after a perfectly solid Romney
response on education, in which Romney bragged about his students’
best-in-the-nation performance on standardized English and math exams.
“We have 6,000 kids every day drop out in this country. They drop out
because they're bored to death. They're in a 19th century education
system in a 21st century world,” Huckabee said, going big-bore all over
again. “If we really are serious, first of all, we make sure we build
the curriculum around their interests rather than push them into
something they don't care about.” Then he closed with a vintage
Huckabee-ism: A call to “unleash weapons of mass instruction.” The
press section groaned all over again. But I guarantee Iowans will be
seeing this line over and over in their local news accounts. And, more
often than not, they’ll probably chuckle.

Huckabee did finally stumble a bit when pressed for details. Asked
to provide two specific examples of how faith might influence policy,
Huckabee never quite descended from his 50,000-foot perch. Instead he
laid out two principles (treat everyone as you’d like to be treated,
assume you’ll be judged by how you treat the worst off—which actually
sounded more like one principle stated two ways) and said they’d guide
him on health care and education. He demurred when the moderator
suggested these weren’t exactly ten-point plans, at which point you
could practically see Romney fight the urge to dip into his mental
binder of white papers.

But by that point Huckabee had long since done what he’d set out to
do. Any debate that doesn’t hit foreign policy or immigration, the two
subjects more or less ruled off limits yesterday, is probably going
to yield a Huckabee win. But this wasn’t a victory by default. Romney
brought his A-game. Huckabee was just a little better.

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