You’ve got to hand it to this year’s GOP candidates. Saturday night for nearly two hours starting at 9:00, they debated. Sunday morning at 9:00, there they were, different town, different channel, doing it all over again.
Some have observed that certain candidates – Romney is most often cited – are becoming better as a result of so many face-to-face events. Broadly, that’s true. But to me it is more than this or that candidate has sharpened his game.
In well functioning markets, there is something like a continual process of improvement that reaches all the players and works very fast. For example, first there was the cell phone, a very expensive brick. Soon someone made it smaller, someone else, smaller still, until it became tiny and free. Blackberry gave us a different kind of communications device, which Steve Jobs merged with cell phones into the iPhone, the first of the smart phones. Then someone added a camera. Someone else added an MP3 player. Anyway, we’ve all seen this process in every market from PCs to automobiles to air travel.
And now we are seeing it in presidential politics.
Yes, at the start of the season, Mitt Romney was an eager but not particularly graceful or able candidate. Now he handles himself with aplomb in the give and take of the debate stage and in the turning around of left wing gotcha questions from the (with the exception of the more intelligent and probing Fox questioners) sanctimonious panels.
But the same can be said of Gingrich and Santorum, both of whom have played off one another and Romney and he off them to hone increasingly stronger messages.
At the beginning of the process, Romney had a story about himself but not about the country, where it is and where it needs to go, something other than boilerplate.
In contrast, Gingrich was all about the American character and an agenda in keeping with it, not opposed to it, as is the administration’s. That sense of vision was Gingrich’s great differentiator.
Then at Saturday night’s debate, Romney tied the nature of the American people to the drivers of economic growth in a far more coherent and compelling way than he had before, as if he had learned from Gingrich, which you can be sure he had. Romney talked about the long familiar theme of entrepreneurship, but he put it in a broader context of national vision and national purpose. And he was right.
Then at Sunday morning’s debate, Santorum gave his best statement to date about the impact of family on economic wellbeing and growth – and the best statement of its kind from any national presidential stage in any election cycle. He noted that if you finish high school and put off having children until you marry, your chances of living in poverty are two percent. Your chances of earning more the national median income are seventy percent. He then challenged the notion of an American middle “class.” We have middle incomes in the United States, he said, but not a middle class or any classes, as such. He cautioned that the GOP should not buy into the left’s class warfare lexicon.
In effect Santorum upped the ante on Gingrich and Romney, tying social and economic issues together and making a profound and hitherto ignored point about the character of the nation. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this sensibility creeps into both his opponents’ presentations in the weeks ahead.
If Romney, Gingrich and Santorum appear to be learning from one another, the others don’t. Perry has become a much better debater, but he is still the traditional set-piece-battle candidate. He’s got his message, and he’s sticking to it, which would be effective if he hadn’t stumbled so badly in his initial hike with the troop.
Perry and Huntsman are going there own ways. Huntsman had one particularly off-putting moment in the Sunday morning faceoff. He referred to the mean statements that others had made from the stage about gay rights and unions. But none had made mean statements about either. As so many times before, Huntsman seemed to be confusing the media with the electorate, the exact opposite of Gingrich, who over the months has proven particularly effective in calling out the leftwing biases of debate moderators.
In this year of continuous improvement, Gingrich has absorbed Ronald Reagan’s rule –- which Reagan learned in Hollywood and applied to politics. Huntsman should learn it, too. Never confuse reviews with box office.