Again the Republicans debated, this time in Las Vegas, and again the dynamic of their presidential race remained static — a disappointing outcome for all of the candidates except Mitt Romney, who once more dominated his would-be competitors. Blitzed repeatedly on issues from health care to immigration, the former Massachusetts governor not only held his own but asserted his domination, pushing back only as hard as he heeded to, and leaving the rest of the field to bicker, snicker, and posture impotently.
Continuing his stiff march toward the nomination, Romney demonstrated why he is the most formidable figure amid a decidedly unimpressive group, a candidate with confidence and intellect that complement his personal wealth, fundraising prowess, and organizational skill. He is a supple debater.
Politely but capably he put down Herman Cain, yet another version of non-Romney, for scheming to raise the taxes of middle-class Americans with that grossly regressive “9-9-9” tax plan. (With luck we’ve heard the last of this scheme, which is just as indigestible as Cain’s cardboard pizza.) Forcefully but calmly, he cut through Rick Perry’s furious assaults on him for hiring illegal immigrants, with the Texas governor still sporting a phony grin even as his severed head hit the ground. Wisely and slyly, he changed the subject when the questioning turned to “Occupy Wall Street” — and the responsibility of investment banks for the national economic disaster. Mr. Bain Capital knows what he doesn’t want to talk about, too.
The shrewd, persistent, dogged Romney slapped down every missile aimed at him, insisting on his time and overpowering even the belligerent Perry, who displayed considerably more animation than in his last lifeless performance. Saying that Romney had “lost all standing” for lying to the American people, the Texan sneered: “You hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year,” accusing Romney of scaling “the height of hypocrisy.” But like the exhausted scuffling over health care reform in Massachusetts, this charge too was recycled from four years ago, when the Boston Globe uncovered two alleged instances of undocumented laborers employed at Romney’s home. He replied now as he did then that he hadn’t known about their status, and nobody — or at least not Perry — is prepared to prove that he did.
It is hardly worth discussing any other candidates — the peevish Santorum, who polished his political credentials by disremembering his catastrophic defeat in 2006; the preening Gingrich, who was exposed in dissembling about his own previous position on health care; the excitable Bachmann, whose costume and demeanor were so reminiscent of Evita; and the avuncular Paul, whose radical views on foreign policy and defense are still far outside his party’s mainstream.
Cain seemed to be having a moment in the polls, but that is likely to deflate as his 9-9-9 plan’s flaws become obvious even to the most gullible segment of voters. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, it would raise taxes for 84 percent of taxpayers, with the worst impact felt by poor families earning under $30,000 annually, while reducing taxes on the wealthiest elite. If that doesn’t sweep Cain off the stage, he will surely be diminished by his remark suggesting that he would trade all the Guantanamo prisoners to Al Qaeda for a single US soldier — a gaffe he first tried to amend and later withdrew, saying he had “misspoken” or perhaps “misunderstood the question.”
Only Romney proved ready for prime time, as each of his vaunted rivals falls short. It is true that he consciously (and unconscionably) panders to the far right, as when he said that America should stop distributing humanitarian foreign aid around the world, and leave that to the Chinese. That was a stupid answer, and he knows it. It is also true, however, that he can muster a certain gravity, as he did when he dismissed the bigotry of his fundamentalist critics as an insult to the founders and the Constitution. Although he is vulnerable on many levels, from his wooden insincerity to his business profile, none of the Republicans possesses the wit or the boldness to exploit his weaknesses.
“The cake is baked,” crowed Michele Bachmann, playing cheerleader to the angry audience that dreams of defeating Obama. But that cliché more aptly describes her own fate — and the state of the Republican primary — unless Romney stumbles very badly, very soon.