Jonathan Cohn

Debate Reaction: Newt's Night

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Another day, another Republican debate. But this one was more fun to watch than usual. Gingrich attacked Romney. Santorum attacked Gingrich. Gingrich attacked King.

No, not Martin Luther. (Even Republicans don’t do that.) I mean John, the CNN moderator. King’s very first question was to Gingrich, about the interview in which Gingrich’s ex-wife suggested he wanted an “open marriage.” Gingrich said he was appalled that King began with that question, with so many weighty issues facing the nation.

I happen to agree. The issue isn’t totally irrelevant: If nothing else, Gingrich has frequently made pronouncements about the sanctity of the family and the morality of public officials. That makes his personal morals fair game. But the very first question? And to stick with it, as King did, with a follow-up? There are more important things to debate.

Of course, the exchange probably worked to Gingrich’s advantage. The liberal media appears to be even less popular among South Carolina Republicans than President Obama. They frequently greeted King’s questions with lusty boos, prompting my friend Jon Chait to tweet, “John King will never make it out of this room alive.”

As you’ve probably heard by now, Gingrich’s poll numbers are going up. The latest show him leading Romney. I don’t have great insights into the thinking of South Carolina Repubican voters. (I’m hoping Alec can fill us in on that shortly.) And Santorum’s subsequent attacks on Gingrich’s fealty to conservative social causes were substantively correct. 

But my guess (only a guess!) is that nothing in tonight’s debate slowed Gingrich’s momentum, which means he could very well win on Saturday.

Three other quick notes, two of them on issues close to my heart:

1) Substantively, the debate covered mostly familiar ground. To King’s credit, he asked some good policy questions, too – among other things, he wanted to know what the Republican candidates would do after repealing the Affordable Care Act? Remember, the law will allow an additional 30 million people to get health insurance, set basic standards for everybody’s coverage, and, according to official projections, reduce federal deficits while starting to get overall health care costs under control.

The question went to Romney and the discussion afterwards turned quickly to which candidate was most committed to repeal in the first place. But Romney did outline his plan, which appears very similar to the familiar conservative initiatives that John McCain proposed in 2008. Projections suggested that McCain’s plan either would have covered very few people or covered many but only at an exorbitant price. In other words, the alternative to the Affordable Care Act is to offer people far less help getting insurance and paying for medical care. Yes, I’ll have more to say on this soon.

2) Romney also took another jab at the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. Romney’s position on this issue has been a bit hard to track. Sometimes he calls it a “bailout,” condemning it. Sometimes he notes that the government’s treated the auto industry the same way that Bain treated some of its takeover targets, which sounds a lot like he’s defending it. Tonight he was back in condemning mode: It was an example of “crony capitalism,” Romney said, because Obama handed the company over to his friends in the United Auto Workers.

This argument has two problems with it. Romney seems to be suggesting that the UAW got a sweetheart deal. That’s debatable, at best. Every one of the industry’s stakeholders took a hit: For the unions, that meant, among other things, accepting vastly lower compensation for new workers and further concessions on contracts, although many of those were in the works already. Other stakeholders fared worse, for sure: Some investors took big losses. But I would argue workers deserve a little more protection than investors, particularly those who bought cheap junk bonds and hoped to make a quick buck.

The other problem with the argument is that the auto industry happens to be one of the administration’s most unambiguous success stories. The companies are profitable again, selling cars and hiring workers. That’s a big reason that the economy in the Midwest, although still weak overall, is getting stronger: As I wrote earlier today, unemployment in Michigan just fell to its lowest level since 2008.

There's legitimate grounds for debating just how far the companies have come, and whether, in the long term, such success can continue. But the primary purpose of the rescue was to prevent an employment catastrophe in the Midwest, where the domestic manufacturers and their vast supply chain account for literally millions of jobs. And in that respect, at least, the plan seems to have worked.

3) What is in Mitt Romney’s tax returns? I have no idea, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s even more damning than speculation has suggested. Romney’s answers on the tax questions were rambling and unclear, which is remarkable for a candidate who is so intellectually sharp, who prides himself on careful preparation, and who had to know the question was coming. This issue has rattled him, obviously, and I’m eager to find out why.

follow me on @CitizenCohn

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