Barring extraordinary developments, it’s pretty difficult to win or lose a presidential campaign on a Monday night in June, more than seven months before Iowans weigh in. So what’s the point of the debates like the one we saw last night? As Nate Silver noted, the events serve “mostly to influence elite opinion — including partisan strategists, the news media, local party leaders, major donors and bundlers and the candidates and their staffs.”
And as the dust settles on the New Hampshire gathering, elite opinion appears to have reevaluated the conventional wisdom a bit and reached some new conclusions.
First among them, Tim Pawlenty needs to get ready for prime time, because he’s clearly not there yet.
CNN’s John King brought up the fact that, just a day earlier, Pawlenty went on the offensive against Mitt Romney on health care policy, calling the Affordable Care Act “Obamneycare.” The moderator pressed Pawlenty to explain the criticism, asking, “[W]hy ‘Obamneycare’?”
PAWLENTY: Yeah, so we — this is another example of [President Obama] breaking his promise, and he has to be held accountable. And in order to prosecute the case against President Obama, you have to be able to show that you’ve got a better plan and a different plan. We took a different approach in Minnesota. We didn’t use top-down government mandates and individual requirements from government. We created market alternatives and empowered consumers. I think that’s the way to fix health care in the United States of America.
KING: And you don’t want to address why you called Governor Romney’s Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two? And I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.
KING: But you chose — you say you were asked a question, which is fair enough, but you chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those — choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on “Fox News Sunday,” why isn’t it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
Pawlenty couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t, answer. King put the ball on a tee, handed Pawlenty a bat, and encouraged him to swing, but Pawlenty just didn’t want to.
It was arguably the most newsworthy moment of the two-hour debate. Pawlenty may not realize this, but when a top-tier challenger is trailing the frontrunner by double digits, it’s important to draw contrasts and exploit the frontrunner’s vulnerabilities. Instead, given an opportunity, Pawlenty blinked.
If this race is supposed to be a two-person contest between Romney and Pawlenty, it appears only one of the two is ready to compete in the big leagues.
In fairness, Pawlenty wasn’t the only one pulling punches. Rick Santorum was offered a similar opportunity, asked about the fact that Romney used to be pro-choice. Santorum didn’t take the bait, either.
It’s possible that the candidates have made a conscious decision not to go on the offensive, working under the assumption that there will be time to be aggressive later, when more voters are engaged. But (a) narratives are established at this phase that tend to stick; (b) candidates who aren’t the frontrunner need to impress party leaders and influential voices to generate some momentum; and (c) keeping the gloves on makes for a very dull two-hour event for the poor souls stuck watching it.
The other key bit of news last night was Michele Bachmann.
The right-wing Minnesota congresswoman kicked off her campaign during the debate, which necessarily made it newsworthy, and then proceeded to surprise a lot of people with a strong performance. Dana Milbank made the case that she “stole the show” last night.
Based on Monday night alone, Bachmann was the one who emerged as the anti-Romney from the otherwise drab field. That is supposed to delight Romney’s advisers, who see her as less viable than the more accomplished Pawlenty. But while Pawlenty on Monday was canned and meek … Bachmann displayed a powerful appeal to the Tea-Party types who dominate Republican primaries.
She served Tea Partyers all their favorites: “I want to announce tonight President Obama is a one-term president…. I will not rest until I repeal Obamacare…. There is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of America…. I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP.”
Is Bachmann stark raving mad? Of course she is. But last night, she was also confident and prepared, positioning herself as the candidate ready to carry the banner for the crazy wing of the Republican Party. As a consequence, she’ll likely get a boost out of this, earning media interest and getting major party fundraisers to give her a second look.
As for the rest of the stage, Ron Paul did what Ron Paul always does; Newt Gingrich spent two hours looking fairly annoyed; and Rick Santorum struggled to stand out.
And what of Herman Cain, who dazzled Republicans with his debate performance last month in South Carolina? He quickly fizzled, struggling with a question about federal food-safety inspections, and explaining that he would only discriminate as president against Muslims who are “trying to kill us.”
Two other quick general observations. First, it was hard not to notice that foreign policy and national security played almost no role whatsoever in the debate. It stands in stark contrast to four years ago.
And finally, watching the stage last night, I was reminded that if these candidates are the very best national leaders the Republican Party has to offer Americans, it’s a sad state of affairs for the GOP.