The Big Oops
How Rick Perry killed what was left of his campaign at the Republican presidential debate in Michigan.
“You know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues,” said Bartiromo. “Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?”
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” said Cain.
He was drowned out by applause. It didn’t even matter that Cain had conflated “unfounded accusations” with the facts of his case—a $35,000 harassment settlement, a $45,000 harassment settlement, two accusers who’ve allowed the media to report their names.
Meanwhile, wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of economic debate going on? There sure was. With one exception, those exchanges were even less insightful than the tabloid answers.
They were at least fair. No candidate was singled out for a grilling on economics. Everyone got the same sorts of specific questions and answered with the same formula:
1) The problem was caused by someone else.
2) It can be fixed.
3) Oh, did you want me to say how?
Cain, the evening’s big escapee, was also its master of meaningless answers. He dodged a question on whether the United States should bail out Italy until he was finally pushed toward a “no” answer. “There's not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now,” he said, “because they have—they're really way beyond the point of return that we—we as the United States can save them.” He would expand on that philosophy: “You don't start solving a problem right in the middle of it.”
This was Cain being Cain, but it was a popular sort of answer. Newt Gingrich, who has re-won his reputation as the candidate of ideas by speaking clearly and saying nonsensical things (like “firing” Ben Bernanke, who has his job until his term is up), rejected the premise of most questions. He preferred to build a little diorama in which conservative ideas would have been tried first, and obviously worked. Tax cuts work because there were “lower taxes” during his speakership. (Taxes were actually higher then than they are now.) There is no war between the 1 percent and 99 percent, because, once upon a time “Bill Gates drops out of college to found Microsoft.” (Gates was the prep-schooled son of wealthy parents.) Gingrich’s points didn’t actually hold up, but he enunciated them, and he stayed close to laissez faire doctrine. He survived.
Romney survived for the same reason. As he’s done in the last few debates, he positioned himself just far enough from the rest of the field to avoid adopting some heartless policy for the general election. He would save Medicare, because it’s a program “for the poor.” He wouldn’t flatten taxes, because the middle class has been “hurt the most.” Lots there for conservatives to dislike, but Romney cut the damage by endorsing their views of why America was in decline. The solution to the crisis was doing “the opposite” of Barack Obama.
“The reason we have the housing crises we have is that the federal government played too heavy a role in our markets,” he said. “The federal government came in with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd told banks they had to give loans to people who couldn't afford to pay them back.”
That was his pocket history of the financial crisis—caused by liberals, maybe sort of fixable. But he didn’t slip up when he said it. As the anti-Romney faction of the party buries another would-be-hero, that’s how the Massachusetts heretic survives.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.