The candidates were not-so-subtly pitted against one another, and the Vegas staging—the lights, the applause, the set—was like a 1970s game show. And now here’s your host, Mi-i-i-it Romney! I wondered if this was CNN’s sly spoof of the Republican Party, or just someone’s idea of good TV in the age of “Dancing With the Stars.” The candidates’ arguments, which occasionally descended into bickering, yielded a soundbite festival for future Democratic ads: “You hired illegals in your home!”
But in the end, Tuesday night’s debate was a real plus for the GOP. All the Republican debates have been, because they’ve made the Republicans look like the alive party. There’s been jousting and predictable disagreement, but there has also been substance. Often this is thanks to Ron Paul, who had the wit and depth the other night to score Herman Cain for not seeing that the unemployed are the victims of bad policy, not the perpetrators.
Ratings have been strong for the eight debates so far: Thursday’s delivered 5.5 million viewers to CNN, and Fox News’s two weeks before drew 6.1 million. Most of those viewers are politically engaged; most will be voters.
I’ve never seen TV debates play such a prominent role in a nominating process. The reasons people are watching are obvious: They’re deeply concerned about America’s future. They’re shopping for a new president, and TV is an easy way to judge the merchandise. It’s live, so that if something dramatic happens—some flub, some breakthrough—it won’t be removed in the editing. And the debates have developed an internal arc of their own. Because they’ve been held so regularly, five in the past six weeks, people can see particular candidates rise and fall, they can see their dramas play out. This one impresses you against your will (that would be Newt Gingrich), that one consistently fails to gain his footing (Rick Perry.) And so the debates have gained a reputation as decisive: They did in Pawlenty, made Cain, solidified Romney.
This week Mr. Romney got jarred and did fine. Mr. Perry drew blood, but that only proved Mr. Romney can bleed, like a normal person. A big Romney virtue is the calm at his core. The word unflappable has been used, correctly, and that puts him in contrast to the incumbent, who often seems not so much calm as insensate. Sorry to do archetypes, but a nation in trouble probably wants a fatherly, or motherly, figure at the top. What America has right now is a bright, lost older brother. It misses Dad. Mr. Romney’s added value is his persona. He’s a little like the father in one of those 1950s or ‘60s sitcoms that terrorized and comforted a generation of children from non-functioning families: Somewhere there was a functioning one, and it was nice enough to visit you on Wednesday at 8. He’s like Robert Young in “Father Knows Best,” or Fred MacMurray in “My Three Sons: You’d quake at telling him about the fender-bender, but after the lecture on safety and personal responsibility, he’d buck you up and throw you the keys.
Mr. Romney’s past flip-flopping continues as the challenge that does not go away. A problem for him is that when you go to YouTube and see his old statements, and then watch more recent ones, he always looks the same. When he says in 1994 or 2002 that he’s pro-choice on abortion, and when he says in 2008 or today that he’s pro-life, he seems to be the same person: an earnest, dark-haired man whose views are serious, well-grounded and equally sincere. Which is disorienting. It’s not the flip-flopping itself. People are allowed to change their minds. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the first California law legalizing abortion in 1967. By the late 1970s he had changed his mind, partly because of the influence and arguments of the Catholics around him, such as Bill Wilson and Judge William Clark. But he was allowed to change his mind, because you believed he changed his mind. Not his stand, his mind.
Herman Cain continues to rise in the polls, in large part because people like his bold tax-reform plan, and also because they like him. To many of his supporters, his lack of experience in government seems not an impediment to but an argument for his candidacy. People are desperate for leadership; they look at what Washington has given us and think: The establishment got us into this, maybe it will take a gifted amateur to get us out. It didn’t start with Mr. Cain. The longing for the gifted outsider helped fuel the rise of Barack Obama. He was the furthest thing possible from George W. Bush, and he was uncorrupted by experience.
But I also suspect some Republicans tell pollsters they like Mr. Cain as a way of keeping Mr. Romney in line—to keep him from daydreaming about who’ll be in his cabinet, to keep him scared and make him humble.
The Republican Party is going to make Mitt Romney work for it. They’re going to make him earn it. They’re going to make him suffer. Because that’s what Republicans do.
As for Mr. Perry, he freely admits that he is not at his best in debate, and he’s not. He doesn’t know how to do it, and so it’s all jugular with him, no finesse, no calibration in the uses of aggression.
We turn briefly to Occupy Wall Street, because people, including the president, continue to compare it to the tea party. It is not the tea party. The tea party was a middle-class uprising that was only too happy to funnel its energy into the democratic process. They took their central concerns—spending, taxes and regulation—and followed the prescription of Joe Hill: Don’t mourn, organize. They did. They entered politics and helped win elections. They did the Republicans a big favor by not going third-party but working within the GOP—at least for now.
Occupy Wall Street is completely different. They mean to gain power and sway by going outside the political system. They are a critique of the political system. They went to the streets and stayed there. They are not funneling their energy into the democratic process because there is no market for what they are selling: Capitalism should be overturned, I am angry that my college loan bills are so big, the government is bad, and the answer is more government. You can’t win elections in America with that kind of message. So they will stay in the streets, where they can have an impact by stopping traffic, inconveniencing people going to and coming from work, and appearing to be an amorphous force that must be bowed to.
The difference between the occupiers and the tea party is the difference between acting out and taking part.
Where is Mr. Obama in all this? He has made sympathetic sounds about Occupy Wall Street, probably seeing it as ultimately part of his base. Beyond that, he’s out campaigning. Sometimes he is snarky about Congress: He’s giving them “another chance” at voting on his jobs bill. Sometimes he is self-justifying. He told ABC’s Jake Tapper that “all the choices we’ve made have been the right ones.” Sometimes he lectures America. But he doesn’t buck it up, and he must know in his heart that it’s coming for the keys.