Debating Mitt on Libya

Since Barack Obama committed the United States to action in Libya back in March, Republican presidential candidates have engaged in what seems to be an endless round of debates. You might think that during these debates, front-runner Mitt Romney might have been pinned down to explain and defend his position on the action. After all, several candidates had strong positions for intervention (Santorum) and against (Bachmann, Paul) or both (Gingrich). And in crowded primary fields, one of the key ways to advance is to differentiate oneself from the other candidates; especially once they had declared a position, it was in each candidate’s interest (to the extent they were trying to get nominated) to make any differences with Romney clear.

I therefore went back and compiled a full and complete list of all statements and comments made by Mitt Romney about Libya during the seven debates he has participated in so far:

Goose egg. Zip. Nada.

The issue was raised in four of the seven debates (keeping in mind that one of the others was dedicated to the economy, so make it four of six if you like). Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum seemed eager to talk about it; a few of the others chimed in. But Romney? Nothing.

(OK, the disclaimer. I searched each transcript for “Libya”, so that’s my starting point. I also read down until the next topic change every time it was raised, to see if perhaps Romney entered the conversation late and used only pronouns, or something like that. Nothing. It’s possible that he did refer to it in some other way during another part of a debate in which the nation wasn’t named at all, but I think it’s unlikely).

Lessons:

1. Romney, as frontrunners will be, has been very slick on this one. I did a quick look around, and didn’t find much. When the government fell in August, his main reaction was to demand that the new government extradite the Lockerbie bomber. Back in April, a few weeks after the US action began, he wrote a two paragraph piece for National Review supporting the action in principle but criticizing Obama’s methods (including a supportive link to what is probably an embarrassingly wrong John Bolton column that the Boston Herald wants you to pay for, so I don’t know). There’s a bit more, but not much, in a Hugh Hewitt interview in March. There could be more…I won’t claim my search was comprehensive, but I think I caught the big stuff. Basically, he’s avoided saying anything that could come back at him; he was well positioned whether things went well or badly. That’s good candidate skills.

2. Debates usually don’t work very well, if you think the goal is to produce information about candidate views on matters of public policy currently in the news.

3. It’s fairly astonishing how little Romney is being pressed by the other candidates. Of course, this is mostly because most of the others either are “business plan” candidates who have little interest in knocking down a guy who might be the nominee, but it also sure seems to me that the lot of them just don’t have very impressive debating skills. Of course, the main failures here have been by Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry, who clearly were running against Romney, but just don’t know how to debate at this level.

At any rate, it’s pretty amazing that Romney got away with this.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.