On ill-considered impulse, I decided to subject myself to the CNN Republican debate Thursday night. Pretty appalling, all around. Even the joy of watching Republicans form a good old-fashioned Democratic circular firing squad couldn’t making up for the dreariness of living – even for only two hours – in the dim-witted, ignorant, insular, fact-free, hate-filled universe that all four candidates seem to imagine that their voters’ minds inhabit.

The high point was Romney’s denying any knowledge of an ad accusing Gingrich of calling Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” That turned out to be Romney’s own campaign ad, ending with his voice saying, “Soy Mitt Romney … apruebo este mensaje.”

Amazingly, the moderator called him on it. Romney then turned to Gingrich and asked whether the accusation in the ad was true, and Gingrich replied weakly that the comment attributed to him had been taken out of context.

What a missed opportunity! L’esprit de l’escalier is always 20-20, but what if Gingrich had turned to Romney and said:

“Is it true?” “Is … it … true?” You put up an ad accusing me of insulting tens of millions of Americans, and said you approved of it, and now you’re asking me whether it’s true? You didn’t bother to find out first?

Tell you what, Mitt. I’ll bet you a million dollars I have never used “Spanish” and “language of the ghetto” in the same sentence. Do we have a bet?

Gingrich’s problem was that the Romney ad was only mostly a lie. What Gingrich had in fact said was “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English, so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”

That’s not a foolish thing to say. And in the original sense of the term “ghetto” – an ethnic enclave in a city – it’s not even an insult.

It’s only because Kenneth Clark’s use of “dark ghetto” to refer to segregated African-American neighborhoods, and the subsequent deterioration of life in those places, has given “ghetto” the connotation “violent slum,” that Gingrich’s comment, applied to the Spanish language, implied that all those in this country whose primary language is Spanish are slum dwellers, speaking a gutter argot.

But of course Gingrich, speaking to the DAR-ish National Federation of Republican Women, more or less intended the ethnic insult, as he more or less intends all the subtly-racist crap he’s been spewing this year. He just intended it to apply to Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles and Puerto Ricans in New York, rather than Cuban-American Republicans in Miami.

Too bad. If Gingrich had been as calmly unconcerned with the truth as Romney always is, he could have truly rattled Romney, rather than merely rattling his cage.

As the cheese-eating welfare-state surrender monkeys say, L’audace! Toujours l’audace!

Footnote Santorum was the one who nailed Romney, and nailed him good, on “Obamneycare.” But I’m not sure anyone was listening, and Santorum’s attack applied to Gingrich as well. Somehow it seems unfair that Santorum gets no benefit of really believing, or at least having consistently pretended to believe, all of the nonsense (the individual mandate is unconstitutional, global warming is a hoax) they’re all now spouting in unison. If I could only find the World’s Smallest Violin….

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.